The Colorful History of the Dibbler

We’ve been spending a lot of time dibbling on the farm this season, and you can’t dibble without a dibbler.

But what, you might ask, is a dibbler? Is it even something that can be discussed in polite company? Perhaps propriety would suggest that dibbling is best kept behind closed doors.

Don’t worry: farming may be dirty, but not that way. I’ll explain.

A dibbler is a small, extremely rare species of crepuscular marsupial mouse. The Sandstone Dibbler is not to be confused with the Southern Dibbler (or Freckled Antechinus), the latter of which is considered a true dibbler and was thought mistakenly to be extinct for the greater part of the 20th century.

That was obviously a red herring, but you'll have to admit that it's interesting these elusive pouched mice came to share their name with a very practical little farm tool. Inexplicably, “the dibble” is also British slang for the police, was briefly employed as a euphemism for the moustache, and has been used as a synonym of “dabble.” Which brings us back to all the dabbling in dibbling we’ve been doing at Cornercopia lately.

The Oxford English Dictionary, that venerable authority on obscurity, tells us that to dibble is simply to “make a hole in the soil” for purposes of planting. Moreover, the word, although it sounds like an invention of Lewis Carroll, actually dates back at least to the 15th century. One of the (apparently lazy) characters in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” warns that “Ile not put The Dible in earth.” The great John Keats, too, seemed to have a strange aversion to dibbling, and wrote in his romance “Endymion,” that “In sowing-time ne'er would I dibble take, Or drop a seed.”

In a way, a dibbler (also known variously as a dibble or a dibbling-machine) is a non-tool. No invention was required. It is literally a hole-poker, a sharp stick. Even a dull stick might suffice, depending on your soil type.

One can easily imagine the dibbler's presence at the very birth of agriculture. The conversation probably went something like this:

World’s first farmer:
“Hey, I bet this seed will grow if I can find some way to get it into the ground.”

Prehistoric pioneer of the agricultural implements industry:
“Here, dibble it with this stick, dummy.”

Inevitably, though, from these humble beginnings the dibbler was refined over centuries of use. Some have crossbar handles, like the now-classic Oxford dibbler, and others make multiple holes at a time—what we call a “compound dibbler” here on the farm. An entry from the “catalogue of implements” published in an 1846 Edition of the Farmer’s Magazine from England gives us a peek into the stunning variety of the dibbler. The esteemed Philip Fowler Hidgkins, of Chipping Norton, Oxford offered the following:

A patent self twisting single hand seed dibbler, and a double hand seed dibbler, invented, and manufactured by the exhibiter; (new implement) a single hand seed dibbler, and (new implement) a two row horse seed dibbler, invented and manufactured by the exhibiter.

Just imagine what you could get done with a two row horse seed dibbler.

Whatever its form, the dibbler is always simple, always elegant, and ever useful. The Englishman Thomas Tusser, in his landmark 1573 work Five hundreth pointes of good husbandrie, highlights the necessity of the dibbler: “Through cunning with dible, rake, mattock, and spade, By line and by leauell, trim garden is made.”

Don’t ask me what a “leauell” is, but it’s clear enough that we at Cornercopia are only the latest in a very long line and rich tradition of cunning dibblers. So here’s wishing all the eager growers out there trim gardens, and happy dibbling.

Michael Pursell, Blog Editor and Farm Volunteer Coordinator

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