The season's first cut straw was used to make the “corn dolly” or “kern baby”, in which the corn spirit was supposed to reside.
Traditionally, the dolly was kept in the house until the following Spring, then ploughed into the first furrow of the new season, on Plough Monday. The tradition of the kern baby continued into the 20th century in the village of Whalton in Northumberland.
In 1826, the first British mechanical reaping machine was made by the Rev. Patrick Bell of Auchterhouse in Angus. To avoid the grain being crushed, the machine was pushed on wheels ahead of two or more horses. It was fitted with a set of shears and a moving canvas belt to deliver the cut grain to the side to clear the way for the next cut.
An improved version of Bell’s machine, manufactured by Crosskill's of London, was shown at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and mechanical reaping machines were soon being made by companies throughout the country, such as Samuelson of Banbury and Brigham and Bickerton of Tweedmouth.
Despite increasing mechanisation, hand-reaping by bands of “shearers” using sickles and scythes continued throughout the 19th century.
As today, the weather played an essential part in deciding the quality of the harvest. For example, the particularly cold summer and autumn of 1845 led to a failure of the corn harvest, at the same time when the disastrous blight first hit the potato crop in Britain and Ireland. The summers of 1852 and 1872 were rainy, but the worst wet summer of the century was in 1879 which caused a widespread collapse of agriculture throughout Britain. Too little rain could be equally bad news for the farmer. In some years there were remarkably warm and dry periods including 1857, 1868 and 1893, when the parched conditions caused failures of the harvests. 1887 was the hottest year in the 19th century.