Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Harvest trophies

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

1941.9.3 Corn dolly in situ at the Pitt Rivers museum

1941.9.3 Corn dolly in situ at the Pitt Rivers museum

1941.9.4 Corn dolly lower detail

1941.9.4 Corn dolly lower detail

1941.9.4 Corn dolly side detail

1941.9.4 Corn dolly side detail

Harvest trophies were symbolic or decorative figures which celebrated the harvest home, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, made from straw. They were known by a variety of names including corn dollies, 'kirn-babies' (also spelt kern), ivy girls, mell dolls etc. [Hutton, 1996:341] Roud suggests that the term 'corn dolly' was not coined until the 1940s 'by enthusiasts who developed straw work into a new and complex craft'. [2006: 280] He believes that kirn or kern babies or maidens was an older term for such straw figures. The earliest reference to these figures dates from around 1598 [2006: 280].

The wikipedia entry for corn dollies suggests that:

It was believed that the corn spirit lived amongst the crop, and the harvest made it effectively homeless. Therefore, hollow shapes were fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crop. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in their homes until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season.

According to Ellen Ettlinger, a folklorist who knew the Pitt Rivers Museum's collections well:

'The protective influence ... is attributed to the fertilization spirit which they are believed to embody. This is most obvious in the harvest-amulets (preserved in the Pitt Rivers Museum) made from the last handful of corn left standing on the field, in which the fertilization spirit, here called the corn-spirit, was believed to be present. With the cutting of this last handful of corn the spirit is caught and carried joyfully home. The corn-stalks of the last sheaf are plaited into different ornaments or formed into puppets and kept in the farmhouse from harvest to harvest. "The intention no doubt is, or rather originally was, by preserving the representative of the corn-spirit, to maintain the spirit itself in life and activity throughout the year in order that the corn may grow and the crops be good. Beyond it the corn-spirit is supposed to exert fertilizing influence over vegetation, cattle and even women. [Ettlinger, 1943: 238-9]

These views about harvest figures is based at least partially on the work on Sir James Frazer. He believed:

First that the the last sheaf of corn was often given a nickname personifying it as an animate being ... Secondly, that the reapers often displayed fear of it, cutting it by throwing sickles from a distance and wielding scythes blindfold, and celebrating its fall with a formal ceremony of acclamation and display. Thirdly, that even after its reaping it was treated as retaining a peculiar potency, being delivered to a rival as a token of bad luck, or fed to animals, or ploughed into a field as a bringer of good fortune, or made into a human figure and given a place of honour in the home.' [Hutton, 1996:336][see 1898.29.1-6 below]

The connection with corn gods is rejected by Roud [2006: 278] He describes them as:

The figure might be made from the last stalks cut or from the 'best' straw; sometimes the figure consisted of a few stalks twisted together, usually in a cross or a crude human form, and sometimes it was skilfully made up to represent a small human figure, decorated with ribbons and so on ... In some accounts, it seems to have been simply decorative, but in others it is definitely symbolic and was hung up in the barn, on the principle that some part of that year's luck should be kept until the next year. ... The straw figure could also be used in a protective way ...' [Roud, 2006: 280]

Hutton also argues against Frazer's views of corn figures. He points out that 'wherever [the ceremony of cutting] was recorded, the atmosphere of the contest was light-hearted, nobody seeming to have any awe of the tuft of cereal concerned.'[Hutton, 1996:339]

Today these corn dollies are some of the most collectable of all agricultural crafts, these days they are often made by hobbyists and handicrafters, for whom there are even specialist web pages (for example, The Guild of Straw Craftsmen). Peate remarks that:

... the corn ornaments of communal rural ceremonial are now being revived as country crafts and we hear of Cambridgeshire straw bells and straw umbrellas, Suffolk horseshoe and whip, Durham chandelier, Yorkshire candlesticks, etc. These could never have been plaited from a growing tuft, but there are now individual makers demonstrating their craft to Young Farmer's Clubs and Women's Institutes. The mechanisation of agriculture and machines such as the combine harvester have banished for ever the team of reapers with their hooks. I... old practices now obsolescent, if not completely obsolete, which are now being transmogrified into an attractive ornamental arm. [1971:184]

Hutton suggests that the perceived 'heathen' or 'pagan' nature of corn dollies (based upon a public perception of the work of people like Tylor and Frazer), draws people to make corn dollies today:

the dolls are now works of art requiring creative talent and technical expertise, but the attraction of making them would not be so great were it not for the feeling that they have an ancient numinous significance.' [1996:347]

So two different things are combined here, as they are in popular thinking, the modern strawcraft and the old harvest trophies. You can make your own mind up which of these two categories, each of the following entries are:

1898.29.1-6 are six 'neck' or harvest trophies of corn from Belstone near Oakhampton in Devon. They were donated by Frederick Thomas Elworthy (1830-1907), a well-known folklorist and antiquarian who lived in Wellington, Somerset. These trophies were made from the 1896 harvest, the stalks were tied together, some were plaited, forming outstanding loops at the side of the central bundle of the stalk. According to Elworthy they were known locally as 'neck'. Ettlinger [1943: 238-9] suggests that probably they were just kept as harbingers of good luck or as safeguards against witchcraft.'

Sir James Frazer, the famous 'armchair'-anthropologist, wrote about these figures, as a ceremony known as 'crying the neck':

An old man, or someone else well acquainted with the ceremonies used on the occasion (when the labourers are reaping the last field of wheat) goes round to the shocks and sheaves, and picks out a little bundle of all the best ears he can find; this bundle he ties up very neat and trim and plats [sic] and arranges the straws very tastefully. This is called 'the neck' of wheat, or wheaten ears. After the field is cut out, and the pitcher once more circulated, the reapers, binders and the women stand round in a circle. The person with 'the neck' stands in the centre, grasping it with both his hands. He first stoops and holds it near the ground, and all the men forming the ring take off their hats, stooping and holding them with both hands towards the ground. They then all begin at once in a very prolonged and harmonious tone to cry 'The Neck' at the same time slowly raising themselves upright, and elevating their arms and hats above their heads; the person with 'the neck' also raising it on high. This is done three times. They then change their cry to 'Way yen' ... One of them gets 'the neck' and runs as hard as he can down to the farmhouse, where the dairymaid or one of the young female domestics stands at the door with a pail of water. If he who holds 'the neck' can manage to get into the house, in any way unseen, or openly, by any other way than the door at which the girl stands with the pail of water, then he may lawfully kiss her; but if otherwise, he is regularly soused with the contents of the bucket. [Frazer, The Golden Bough 1929, p. 445, cited in Peate, 1971: 181-182]
Hutton also discusses this ceremony [1996:339].

1930.76.1 is a:

'pendant ornament made from green corn-stalks, an openwork spiral structure with ears of corn at the bottom. Overbury Worcestershire. These, possibly, are a survival from the custom of making figures from the last handful of corn reaped at harvest (cf. 'Kirn maiden' 'neck' etc)'

according to the Accession book entry. It was donated by C.J. Stanley who lived in Birmingham in 1930 but had been a farm-hand in Overbury. Interestingly, the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading also has a corn-dolly in its collections from Overbury [P DX274/42] This had been owned by the churchwardens of Overbury parish and had been displayed at the 'British Council Life through the Centuries' exhibition in 1937. Christina Hole discusses this object:

At Overbury in Worcestershire there is no attempt to imitate a human figure, but corn is twisted into the shape of a pyramid and hung in the church porch. It is not renewed each year but only when it is worn out. Here the villagers also make smaller pyramids for themselves and take them back to their homes. [1941-2: 85]

1934.78.1 is a 'maer', the last handful of corn reaped at the harvest by throwing sickles at it. The accession book states that the maer was 'made into a bundle with decoratively arranged plaited straws, and hung up in the farmhouse, with mistletoe and the sickles all wrapped in straw till next harvest. This is for luck and it must on no account be given away or sold.' The maer was made by George Jones, of Eaton Hennor, near Leominster, Herefordshire and donated by Mrs M.E. Francis in 1934. According to the label on the artefact,

The reaper who was successful in cutting the Maer sat opposite the farmer at the ensuing feast. The Maer was presented with "here's your luck", and might on no account be given away or sold. [See] Mrs. Leather's "Herefordshire Folklore".

These appear to be the same object that Peate [1971] calls 'harvest mare':

When the corn harvest was reaped one tuft was left uncut in the centre of the last field reaped. When all the reapers had gathered together, each with his sickle, the head-servant would kneel before the tuft, divide it into three parts and plait the parts skilfully together in the same way that he would plait a mare's tail securing the plaited tuft a few inches above ground level. The reapers, six, eight or more, would then stand at a distance of at least ten yards from the plaited tuft and, in turn, would hurl their sickles at it, the sickles travelling horizontally just above ground level. The intention was, of course, to cut off the plaited tuft. If this were not accomplished by one of the reapers, the head-servant would then himself cut the tuft. The harvest mare was taken by the person who cut it, to the farmhouse where it was hung in the living-room 'to show that all the corn had been reaped' and remained there until it was replaced at the next harvest... [Peate, 1971: 177-8]

1941.9.3 Straw harvest-trophy.

1941.9.3 Straw harvest-trophy.

1949.10.95 Beautifully made 'harvest queen' or 'corn-dolly', made of stalk of oats

1949.10.95 Beautifully made 'harvest queen' or 'corn-dolly', made of stalk of oats

Roud discusses similar objects:

Many harvesters made a particular game out of cutting the last of the standing corn. A few stalks were left standing and tied together. The men then took it in turn to throw their sickles (sometimes blindfolded or backwards to make the game more difficult) to see who could cut them down. ... A close examination of nineteenth and twentieth-century descriptions shows that at that time the sickle-throwing ... were simply games, and they may well have been nothing more than that. [2006: 278-9]

He suggests that if there is a deeper meaning it might relate to regulations laid down on medieval manors to regulate the behaviour of serfs in the harvest fields.

1937.47.2 and 1937.47.3 are two favours made of braided straw, made by a farm boy from Upton Scudamore, Wiltshire and donated by Dr Oliver Wild in 1936.

1941.9.3 is an elaborate corn-dolly made by L.G. Bishop of Conderton, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire and donated by Charles Green who worked at the Gloucester Public Museum. The straw used to make this dolly was gathered and used early in the harvest season before it got too dry and brittle. [Insert photo, Caption: Gloucestershire Corn Dolly 1941.9.3 Photographed by Liz Yardley with permission of the PRM.]

1949.10.95 is described by the accession book as:

Beautifully made "harvest queen" or "corn-dolly", made of stalk of oats, wheat & barley, survival of those which used to be made from the last stalks to be reaped, & hung in the house till the next harvest. Work of an old man, Charlie Style, who does not know how old he is. He calls them 'bandy-rolls" (probably = banderole - streamer, there are many French words in Kentish dialects). Made from 1949 harvest for donor. Single spiral, with loop at one end & tassel of heads of oats, wheat & barley at the other. Total length 2' 5". He says this one took him 8 hours to make, & they must be made at one sitting as they cannot be put down! He is proud of his skill & will not teach anybody, although there are young men in the village anxious to learn.

It was donated by Mrs T. (possibly Thea) Lloyd and was made in Harrietsham, Kent. Later Mrs Lloyd wrote to one of the Museum's curators of Mr Style, 'he says he does not know how old he is, or where he was born, so his name may not be quite authentic.' [insert photo. Caption: Harvest queen or corn dolly, Harrietsham, Kent 1949.10.95]

1953.11.13 A corn dolly made by Emmanuel Gibbs of Castle Cary, Somerset, according to the accession book, it was sold by him as a 'token of harvest good luck'. The donor, Mrs I.G. Goddard wrote:

I went over to Castle Cary to see old Emmanuel Gibbs who made the corn dolly I sent you, to see if I could get anything interesting from him about it. The old boy is well over 80 . . . If I am right then he's only taken to making these since 1937 . . . When I asked how long he's been making them, he replied "Since 1892". He then went on to say that since he was twelve years of age he'd been working (then with his father), taking vegetables regularly to Shepton Market . . . I repeated my question briefly and clearly holding up a corn dolly in my hand, and he said . . . "I saw this and copied it, figuring out how to do the pattern". It was a copy of the "Farmer and Stockbreeder" for a date in 1937. He said there was no letter press (i.e. written instructions or description) in the number and that he'd just worked it out himself from the picture. He said he only made that pattern and never made any others. He also said they were good luck charms and were hung in barns when the last load of corn was brought in and after that it was customary for the men to chase the fair maids for a kiss, and chuckled.' [Letter dated 9 November 1953]

1961.7.48 This figure was from Cornwall or West Devon and was made from wheat ears, wrapped round the stalks with plaited straw. They were known as "Corn babies" or "Kern babies". It seems to date from 1888. It measured 15 inches long overall, 7 inches broad; the plaited straw extending for a length of 8 1/2 inches.
1961.7.49 came from Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire and dated 1892. It was made of wheat ears spread in two heads, the stalks being joined end to end and wrapped round with plaited straw. Its length overall was 18 inches, each head was 3 inches round.
Both of the figures were donated by the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew when the ethnographic section of the Gardens which had dealt with the use of natural fibres had been dispersed in 1961.
Here is one account of a Cambridgeshire corn-dolly (not the one in our collections):

Miss Enid Porter in her book on Cambridgeshire folklore [Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, London 1969] ... quotes a 76-year-old Eastbourne man who told her in 1951 that he could remember seeing corn dollies for the first time: 'It was when I was twelve (i.e. around 1887) and lived in Shoreditch in London. My grandmother came that year to live with us as grandfather had died. She brought with her a few things from her home in Royston and one of them was the last corn doll ... that my grandfather made. She often used to tell of how when she was a young girl in Litlington in Cambridgeshire, the harvest workers on the farm ... used to hold up the last shock of corn so that everyone could see it and all the workers gathered round and cheered. Then one of the men made a kind of figure - a proper dolly - she used to call it, with a head and arms and legs, out of the wheat from the shock, and tied ribbons round it. When they had the harvest supper, the dolly sat in a special chair, and after the meal was over the farmer carried it round the table several times, and then, all the men followed him - the women and girls weren't allowed to - took it into the parlour and set it on top of the corner cupboard ... About 1848 ... they gradually stopped making the straw figure - new people came to the farm ... - but a lot of people in the village made 'fancy dollies' like the one grandfather made.' [cited in Peate, 1971:180-1]

1970.8.1 This corn dolly is from Begbroke in Oxfordshire and is made from wheat stalks twisted spirally in a sickle-shaped curve, attached by bows of red ribbon at base and top. Made about 1967. Length c. 39.3 cms. max. breadth 22.8 cm. It was donated by Mrs Roger Meaden Downes.

Other corn-dollies include 1997.11.101, and 3 straw figures made for the Museum by a thatcher (Mr Wright) from Somerton, Somerset, replicas of the figures he made and attached to thatched roofs in the local area. These are not corn dollies but many people seem to think they are related to them in some way. [1971.13.1-3]

Further reading

Corn dollies:


http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/frazer/gb04500.htm [for the relevant chapter of Frazer's Golden Bough]


Ellen Ettlinger, 1943, 'Documents of British Superstition in Oxford', Folklore vol. 54, no. 1, (March 1943) pp 227-249
Iorwerth C. Peate 1971 'Corn Ornaments' Folklore vol. 82 no. 3 pp 177-184


D.J.M. Hooson. 1968. 'The Straw Industry of the Chilterns in the nineteenth century' East Midland Geographer volume 4, no. 6

Pamela Horn. 1971 'The Buckinghamshire straw plait trade in Victorian England' Records of Buckinghamshire volume 19 no. 1

Marian J. Nichols. 1996. 'Straw plaiting and the straw hat industry in Britain' Costume 30 pp 112-24.



Hay-making and straw