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Many times, in the course of our work processing local government records, we run across something interesting that sends us down the proverbial rabbit hole. Case in point, the smut machine. No, it is not a nickname for that one freaky dude from your freshman dorm. A smut machine, I discovered, is a device for cleaning wheat and other cereal grasses. I learned this by very, very careful Googling on my government-issued computer.

A disagreement regarding the right to market E. P. Fitzpatrick’s patented smut machine in Virginia prompted a Rockbridge County chancery cause in the 1850s. This case contains a very attractive patent drawing, the item that prompted my research spiral. In 1854-012, James MacKey vs. Lysander D. Childs, one can find not only the patent drawing, but also a copy of the patent certificate from 1835 signed by President Andrew Jackson.

Smut is a disease that affects grain crops, and these machines helped grain producers salvage their harvests by separating the hulls from the grains. Farmers and millers apparently welcomed these new tools, as evidenced by the many testimonials for the various versions of the machine and the numerous patents, improvements, and new designs for the device found in a search of the Virginia Chronicle newspaper database and the U.S. Patent Office database, respectively.

Discoveries like this are just one of the reasons many of us love the work that we do.

Vince Brooks

Local Records Program Manager

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