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Straw bale building: an old technology in a new environment

Dederick Agricultural and Machine WorksReading Art Molella’s entry on the Museum of American History’s blog, Oh Say Can You See, on Earth Day themes such as sustainable “eco-cities” and souvenirs of Earth Days in the past (from the exhibit Science in American Life) reminded me that the book he mentions, Inventing for the Environment, published by MIT Press in association with the Lemelson Center, included an essay that used the Trade Literature Collection at Smithsonian Libraries.

The book discusses how technology, sometimes considered the villain in the quest for a “greener” world, can be used appropriately and innovatively, potentially enhancing sustainable environments. Kathryn Henderson, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Texas A&M University, wrote an essay entitled, “Straw-Bale Building: Using an Old Technology to Preserve the Environment,” which focused on the renewed interest in a technology—constructing buildings with hay or straw bales—that began in the 19th century.

Straw (or hay) bale building is an example of adapting and reusing technology in an environmentally friendly way: one that employs some 20th century technological innovations to help meet today’s more stringent building codes, while embracing the spirit of yesterday's ecologically sound technique. Straw bale houses started in Nebraska in the mid-1800’s as an inexpensive but surprisingly durable method of dwelling construction that has emerged recently as a “green” alternative for shelter construction. Dr. Henderson used some of the library trade catalogs to trace the history of straw-baling equipment. Once the hay balers could produce uniform brick-like bales, the homesteaders and farmers could effectively use the bales to build houses.

Kansas City Hay Press Co. Lightning Press

One of the catalogs she used is from the Dederick Agricultural and Machine Works (P.K. Dederick’s Sons) in Albany, New York. P.K. Dederick was in inventor and patented several improvements in hay-baling equipment (see image above, left). Another company making hay presses (or hay balers) was Kansas City Hay Press Company in Kansas City, Missouri (see image above, right). Virtually all of the early straw-bale-built homes were constructed in the Midwest and the popular Lightning Press was likely used in Nebraska by straw bale builders, according to Henderson. Though the process is now mechanized, the straw bales themselves are basically still the same. Contemporary straw bale home builders must now comply with building codes that require fire-testing and load-bearing refinements that Nebraska pioneers did not have to contend with. But, as a glance at a search of Google Books for “straw bale building” will show, this seemingly old-fashioned method has been embraced by those who like the tradition and simplicity of the style with its thick walls while the favorable insulation values also attract those looking for more sustainable and energy-saving construction methods.—Jim Roan   

5 Comments

  1. What a great find for me. I’m working on a future issue of The Last Straw (TLS is the international journal of strawbale and natural building published since 1993) titled All About Bales. Have been looking for information about bale presses old and new and this would be a great item to include.
    Would it be possible for you to send a copy of this article to me? Do I need to have permission from any publisher or author to reprint it?
    I would be glad to send a complete set of print issues of TLS to you for the Smithsonian Library and add the Smithsonian to the mailing list for complimentary copy of future issues.
    Joyce Coppinger
    Managing Editor/Publisher
    The Last Straw journal
    PO Box 22706, Lincoln NE 68542-2706
    402.483.5135, fax 402.483.5161 http://www.thelaststraw.org

  2. Ms. Coppinger: Thank you for your interest in the Smithsonian Libraries blog. I wrote the post basically because the Smithsonian Libraries had assisted Dr. Henderson, who wrote the original article cited in the blog. She was doing research on the evolution of hay balers and had found our catalogs of hay baler manufacturers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries useful for her essay on the resurgence of the technology of straw-bale building. From the Libraries’ catalogs, she made reproductions of several images which were published in her article. I could not readily locate the negatives, so I went back and re-scanned the original images from the catalogs as they had appeared in her article. I am a complete novice in the straw-bale building movement, but you are certainly welcome to cite or reprint the blog. I can send you a copy of Dr. Henderson’s article too. By the way, we would appreciate a copy of your article in TLS that would include our blog. Thank you for your comment. –Jim Roan, Smithsonian Libraries

  3. I really love to read some articles that have great positive impacts on its reader and benefit by reading such article. I admire these writers in sharing their views and or opinions that can enlighten the mind of the readers. Great Job and continue inspiring readers.

  4. Thank you for posting such great article that talks about the old process. After reading this, I still prefer to live a life with the old customs without the technology but with a greener earth, a better place for everyone. Thank you for posting articles like this that opens the awareness of every people that we can still use the old ones same time with the advancement of technology today.

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