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The first successful horse- or ox-powered machine for separating grain from its husks is said to have been invented by the Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle in the 1780s. Meikle’s invention was one of the primary innovations of the Agricultural Revolution. By 1812 such devices, which could also winnow the grain, were in wide use, though their high cost meant that small farmers had to rely on the machines of regular, itinerant operators.
This song, however, collected in both Britain and Ireland, is about an entirely metaphorical machine. Oxford’s Bodleian Library holds a number of broadside versions of “The Thrashing [or “Threshing”] Machine,” which is usually sung to the all-purpose tune of “Villikins and Dinah.” The earliest broadside printing that can be dated accurately is from about 1845, and all are very similar. Like “The chandler’s boy” and “Nellie the milkmaid,” this is one of several bawdy songs from nineteenth-century broadsides that have enjoyed a long survival in oral tradition. Jerry Protherough’s version includes a frequent modern stanza describing the farm girl’s illegitimate son as having a “brand-new two-cylinder thrashing machine.”