Scarecrows – History & Hollywood
[October 2021 | By Kathryn R. Burke]
Scarecrows have been used by farmers to protect new seed and growing crops from birds—scare away the crows—and have been in existence for more than 3,000 years! (2) Egyptians used the first scarecrows in recorded history to protect their vast wheat fields along the Nile River from flocks of quail. Their version of the scarecrow was a wooden frame covered with nets. The farmers would hide in the fields and when the quail approached, they would scare them into the nets. That would not only save their crop from devastation but caught quail for dinner that night. (1)
About 2,500 B.C., Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows in the image of Priapus, the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, creating a “scarecrow” that was supposedly ugly enough to scare the birds away from their vineyards, ensuring a good harvest. Later the Romans copied the Greek scarecrow custom and introduced it to Europe when their armies marched through. (1) There is no record of how well these activities actually worked.
Scarecrows fashioned like people
Japanese farmers made scarecrows to protect their rice fields. They made scarecrows called kakashis, shaped like people. They dressed them in a raincoat and a round straw hat and often added bows and arrows to make them look more threatening. Kojiki, the oldest surviving Japanese book compiled in the year 712, features a scarecrow known as Kuebiko who appears as a deity who can’t walk yet knows everything about the world. (3)
About the same time, Japanese farmers started making their version of the scarecrow to protect rice fields. Their scarecrows were shaped like people, dressed in raincoats and straw hats. In Germany, scarecrows were originally wooden, made to resemble witches. In medieval Britain, young boys and girls were used as live scarecrows or “bird scarers” where they would patrol the fields of crops and scare away the birds by waving their arms or throwing stones.
This eventually led to farmers stuffing sacks with straw and using painted gourds to make heads and faces to create “straw men” which they would then lean up against a pole to scare away the birds. Meantime in the United States, immigrant German farmers began making human-like scarecrows called “bootsamon” or “bogeyman” that they would dress up in old clothes stuffed with straw with the proverbial red bandana tied around their neck. (1)
Over time, farmers have become pretty creative in how they make and use their scarecrows. Historically (and still most common), farmers build decoys from hay in human form, dress them in old clothing, and place them in open fields to scare away the birds. Over time, various adaptations have been employed such as windmills, which lose effectiveness as the birds figure them out. In California, farmers may tie shimmery, aluminum ribbons to crops, which works fairly well. Other farmers have tried noise, such as propane gas-powered guns, to stun or scare the birds.
One winery, Atwater Estate Vineyards in New York, has even used an inflatable tube man called Mr. Pinot to scare away birds. Another has had good luck with a modern-day inflatable scarecrow named Wayne. (3) One wonders if the scarecrow’s name has anything to do with Bruce Wayne’s Batman fictional supervillain appearing in DC Comics. (4)
Stage, Screen & Literary Interpretations
Scarecrows have fascinated storytellers and their audiences for hundreds of years. In Kojiki, the oldest surviving book in Japan (compiled in the year 712), a scarecrow known as appears as a deity who cannot walk, yet knows everything about the world. (2)
L. Frank Baum’s children’s book written in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a scarecrow as one of the main protagonists, who was searching for brains from the Great Wizard. Baun’s book was so popular, quickly sold out. (7) The name was changed to the wizard of Oz, which was adapted for a Broadway play in 1902, and in 1939, a musical fantasy film starring Judy Garland and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow. (6) Baum went on to write a series of 13 Oz books. The book is one of the best-known stories in American literature, and the Library of Congress has declared the work to be “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale.”(7)
The scarecrow was also portrayed by Frank Moore in the 1914 film His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, by Justin Case in the 1985 film Return to Oz, and by Michael Jackson in the 1978 musical film adaptation The Wiz.
A much scarier version of the scarecrow appears in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop, (9) first published in 1852, which tells the tale of a scarecrow made and brought to life in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, by a witch in league with the devil. The basic framework of the story was later used by American dramatist Percy MacKaye in his 1908 play The Scarecrow.
An endearing subject, the scarecrow became the lead character in a series of novels written by Russell Thorndike, later made into films in 1937—scarecrows were very popular in the 1930s—and again in 1962 and 1963 when Disney dramatized the story in the three-part TV miniseries The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. Al Pacino and Gene Hackman made a film titled Scarecrow in 1973. Loosely based on Baum’s book, it was never a box-office success, but eventually became a cult film.
The Scarecrow is a character in the DC Comics universe, a supervillain and antagonist of Batman; Cillian Murphy portrays the character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. (10) Similar characters, known as Scarecrow and Straw Man, have appeared in Marvel Comics. (11)
(1) “Scarecrows have a long history,” Concord Monitor. Joyce Kimball, Oct. 2016.
(3) “Scarecrows Historically Speaking,” Why Because It’s Here, Kathy Waines.
(4) “New Scarecrows for Vineyards: Car Dealers’ Inflatable ‘Dancing’ Tube Men. Wall Street Journal, Nov. 2013. By Jon Kamp]
(5) Scarecrow Wikipedia.
(9) Feathertop, short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
(10) “Scarecrow” (DC Comics). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarecrow_(DC_Comics)