Harvesting and Storing Potatoes a Hundred Years ago

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Thursday, October 2, 1914:  Picked taters this afternoon.

Late Potato Varieties a Hundred Years Ago--Source: Vegetable Gardening (1914)
Late Potato Varieties -Source: Vegetable Gardening (1914)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma-

I guess it’s back to reality today. I hope that you’re at least thinking about all the fun you had yesterday at the Milton Fair while you’re stooping to gather potatoes. It sounds like tiring, back-breaking work.

—-

Here’s what a hundred-year-old book said about harvesting and storing potatoes:

There is a great difference in the keeping qualities of varieties; as a rule the early kinds are hard to keep from sprouting in the latter part of the winter, and the late kinds keep the best.

Early potatoes are generally dug as soon as they are big enough for cooking; for winter use it is very desirable to have the tubers well ripened; if not ripe the skin will peel off when handled, and they do not look good.

When potatoes are high in price it may pay to dig them by hand, for which purpose tined garden forks are desirable. When potatoes are cheap they can be plowed out; though when plowed out some tubers will get covered up; most of these may be brought to the surface by the use of a straight tooth harrow.

Early Potato Varieties
Early Potato Varieties

If the tubers are keeping well in the ground, it is a good plan to delay the digging until the cool weather of autumn, when they may be carried directly from the field to the cellar. If they are rotting in the ground or are “scabby,” they should be dug at once, and if the cellar is cool they may be put at once into it, otherwise it is a good plan to pit them in the field until cool weather comes.

Pitting in mild weather is done by putting the tubers into heaps and covering them with straw or hay and a few inches of loam. The straw should be allowed to stick out along the top of the heap for ventilation, so as to allow the moisture to pass off.

In the colder weather of late autumn, the covering, of course, should be heavier, and when potatoes have ceased to sweat there is no need of ventilation. In milder sections, potatoes are stored through the winter in such pits, but it is impracticable farther north.

If kept in the cellar the bins are improved by having slatted floors and sides, so that there may be some circulation of air through them to prevent heating at the bottom. The bins should not be large nor more than five feet deep.

Vegetable Gardening (1914) by Samuel B. Green

18 thoughts on “Harvesting and Storing Potatoes a Hundred Years ago

    1. There a company in the US that makes instant mashed potatoes called Idaho Spuds. When I hear the word spuds, I always think of that brand. it’s interesting to know that spuds is what all potatoes are typically called in Ireland.

  1. Makes perfect sense, Sheryl. I recall from my first days in the Navy, in the late 1950’s, that ships had screened bins topside for the ventilated storage of potatoes. Of course, that was before the days of modern processing and the dried, reconstituted version.

    1. The old book that I got the pictures for this post from also had a photo of a potato barn that looked very similar to what you describe. I thought about using it to illustrate the post, but had never seen a barn like it in Pennsylvania–and it looked like it would be for a larger scale potato operation than what I think the Muffly’s had–so ended up going with the potato varieties pictures instead. .

  2. Long ago, potatoes took 5-6 months to maturity, so no wonder that farmers worried about frosts cutting short the curing time of the storage potatoes… Nowadays, they seem to mature in 90-120 days…Kaythegardener

    1. Thanks for the information. It’s interesting how shorter season potato varieties have been developed (or at least become more predominant) across the years.

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