Antique wooden wheelbarrows with their aged wood and thin spokes help create a country ambiance when added to your gardens and sunrooms. These simple gardening tools have been used for thousands of years for a variety of duties and are still sought after today by both collectors and decorators alike for their rough, rustic appeal.
History of the Wheelbarrow
Etymologically, the word wheelbarrow stems from a combination of two English words - wheel and barrow. Barrow comes from the Old English word, barwe, a device that was used for carrying loads, while wheel is rather self-explanatory. That being said, the English can't lay a claim to inventing the wheelbarrow anymore than Italy or China can. It seems that all of the ancient regions of the world developed their own form of a wheelbarrow out of sheer necessity, the likes of which were improved upon over the centuries.
Wheelbarrows in Antiquity
It's uncertain where and who first invented the wheelbarrow, although some historians feel that a Greek inventory of building materials for 408-407 and 407-406 B.C.E. list what sounds like a wheelbarrow among the tools. While there's no mention of the Greeks using wheelbarrows in farming, i's believed that they were used on construction sites for practical reasons.
As it's well-documented, the Romans adapted many things from the surrounding Mediterranean civilizations, including the Greeks, and it shouldn't be surprising that a one-wheeled vehicle is also mentioned in documents dating from the 4th century C.E.
Meanwhile, in China, wheelbarrows were being used as early as the first century B.C.E. to transport people from place to place. The Chinese credit the invention to Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD) even though their own writings and illustrations show wheel barrows in use much earlier. Interestingly, Liang used wheelbarrows in an unexpected way to transport military supplies and wounded soldiers. These Chinese military wheelbarrows could transport six passengers at once.
Wheelbarrows From the Medieval Period to the Modern Era
Although there was no mention of the wheelbarrow in Europe after Roman times, it resurfaced around the beginning of the 13th century. The wheelbarrows pictured in various drawings and paintings typically have one wheel near the front, similar to wheelbarrows today.
Like most tools, wheelbarrows were brought to the United States through immigration and were an instrumental part of the country's expansion. By the 19th century , there were tales of men following tales of riches and traveling to the California Gold Rush with all of their belonging in a wheelbarrow. On the manufacturing side, J.M. Studebaker--an auto industry magnate--started his wealth by making and selling wheelbarrows. He eventually used his funds to launch the Studebaker Corporation, one of the first automobile production companies.
Thanks to their perfect design, wheelbarrows haven't changed much over the years. They're still an important tool used by gardeners, construction workers, and others who need to move heavy objects easily from one place to another.
Antique Wheelbarrow Styles to Create Your Country Cottage Paradise
Interestingly, wheelbarrows that're used as functional tools haven't gone through any major redesigns in centuries. The basic principles of the wheelbarrow--a central wheel upon which the basket (wooden or metal) is bolted--continues to be the most efficient way of moving greenery items like mulch and dirt from one place to another. Thus, the modern wheelbarrow and the ancient wheelbarrow are actually close siblings of one another. For example, this illustration of a woman pushing a wooden wheelbarrow in an illuminated manuscript circa 1489-1499 shows just how familiar Medieval wheelbarrows look to the modern eye. Besides their elongated handles, these historic wooden wheelbarrows would look right at home at any tack and feed store across the world.
However, there are a few distinctions that you can expect when browsing through a catalog of these homely antiques:
- Dowels vs. planks - Ancient wheelbarrows and wheelbarrows from parts of the East, such as China, used thick dowels to create their wheelbarrow baskets (which in turn had large gaps) in comparison to the Medieval and modern wood planks that were used that prevented any gaps or holes from appearing in the compartments.
- Size variations - Smaller wheelbarrows were either created for children to play with or for small gardening operations such as moving individual plants across the yard, whereas much larger wheelbarrows were used for large-scale projects or professional purposes.
- Rustic vs decorated - Typically, antique wheelbarrows that were highly decorated with paints and illustrations weren't meant to be used a lot outside, rather being kept indoors for such purposes as moving books around a library. In contrast are the bare wooden wheelbarrows, which have a great rustic appeal. These wheelbarrows were meant to see extreme wear and tear and served less of a decorative purpose than their rustic counterparts.
- Use of metal - On the whole, metal wasn't broadly incorporated into wheelbarrow manufacturing until the mid to late 19th century with the onset of mass production and industrial manufacturing. Thus, most wheelbarrows with metal wheels, baskets, or handles are probably newer than those fully constructed out of wood (though wooden wheelbarrows are still made today).
Examples of Wooden Wheelbarrows
Because antique wheelbarrows were often made by individual craftsmen, there are hundreds of different designs. Here are some visual examples:
You can find antique wooden wheelbarrows at thrift shops, flea markets, garage sales, and antique stores locally, especially if you live near farming communities. You can also find these unique antiques on eBay and other online action sites or retailers.
Antique Wheelbarrow Values at Auction
While it's super unlikely for you to stumble across an incredible archaeological find (like an ancient Han dynasty wheelbarrow) in your local antique store, these tools aren't impossible to find in antique stores and online auctions. Generally, the wheelbarrows you'll find for sale are from either the 19th or 20th century, and are in varying states of disrepair. Decorative wheelbarrows tend to sell for higher than rustic, wooden wheelbarrows do at the mid to upper-hundreds in comparison to the lower to mid-hundreds. Of course, the wheelbarrow's structural integrity is crucial to it being worth anything, and the more preserved and decorative it is, the increasingly valuable it can become.
For example, here are some antique wheelbarrows that recently sold at auction:
- Antique wooden wheelbarrow - Sold for around $275
- Child's wheelbarrow from the 1880s with remnants of the original paint - Sold for $325
- Early 20th Century painted French wheelbarrow - Sold for $750
- Mid-19th Century exquisite library wheelbarrow - Sold for $16,150
Using Antique Wooden Wheelbarrows in a Modern Context
Decorating with antique wooden wheelbarrows, like farm wagons, is a great way to add a country touch to any garden. The wheelbarrows can even be used inside the house in a casual sunroom if you like. Some ideas for using your wheelbarrow, if you are lucky enough to have one, are:
- Create a flower bed - Filled with flowers near the rest of the garden, a wooden wheelbarrow adds old-fashioned country charm to any yard.
- Store your firewood - Use a small wooden wheelbarrow near the fireplace to hold wood inside the house.
- Convert it into a potted plant stand - Fill the wheelbarrow with potted house plants to brighten up a sunroom.
- Incorporate it into your seasonal decorations - Use as a holder for your seasonal decorations outside your home. Fill will pumpkins for autumn, flowers for spring, etc.
- Store your linens and paper goods - Use the wheelbarrow for holding books and magazines, or even old quilts in the den.
There are many ways to use these charming tools, and you're limited only by your imagination.
Add Some Provincial Charm to Your Garden
Finding the antique wheelbarrow of your dreams is only half of the trouble, as making sure your wheelbarrow withstands the ravages of Mother Nature is just as much of a process. Make sure to protect it against too much sun exposure and inclement weather, and adding a clear varnish can help you seal out moisture if you're not concerned about keeping 100% of its historic integrity. But, once you've got that wheelbarrow placed in just the right spot in your screened in-porch, you'll wonder why you didn't hunt one down sooner.