Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mow the Lawn

In my novel, The Rebel Wife, there is a small part played by the lawnmower.  It is a very small part, but the image was very important to me.  I wanted to be sure not only that lawnmowers existed in 1875, but what type of lawnmower exactly Simon, the caretaker of the garden, would be using.  This led me on a fascinating search about the history of the lawnmower.

Up until the 1830's, there were not many ways to mow your lawn.  On a big estate, you might have sheep roaming around the lawns keeping them trimmed close.  You might also have someone mow your lawn with a scythe, like this man in the UK.

Simon Damant mowing in the June 2008 West Country Scythe Competition
Scything was still done in the 1870's and later, for instance in this engraving "Preparing for Croquet" from 1871 by Edward Hughes...

but by then the lawnmower was almost 40 years old and far more available than ever before.  The lawnmower was well-known enough to be the feature of a humorous editorial from the Iola Register from Iola, Kansas on July 6, 1878, "The Old Way of Doing It":
The grass was getting frightfully high around our domicile, and the cow was out of meat, as it were, and so we bought a scythe; a lawn-mower is too new a contrivance, to be recognized yet, by any one of old-fashioned tastes, and so we simply went for the good old tool of our daddies.  We never had interviewed a scythe before, and at the present writing we never want to get mixed in with a scythe in the future.  A scythe seems to be made of crookedness and cussedness mixed in about equal parts; and how a man is expected to go straight at his work, behind one of them, is a little in advance of any mathematical calculation we have on hand.
What made our defeat too humiliating for any thing was, we had been lecturing our young descendants, during the breakfast hour, upon the nobility of labor, and also upon the wickedness of running after every new thing that came out to lessen the labors performed by our forefathers; that we used a scythe instead of a lawn-mower as a matter of principle, and after breakfast we’d show them how their lamented grandfather mowed his hay, and how their Maker intended hay should be mown—and didn’t want they should ever become so averse to labor, or so filled with pride, as to countenance the use of a horse-power machine, or a sacriligious lawn-mower in the performance of this ancient and honorable branch of labor.
Garden manuals, as well, were taking note of the prevalence and availability of lawnmowers in the 1870's.  Frank J. Scott's The Art of Beautifying the Suburban Home Grounds (published by D. Appleton & Co., New York in 1870) has this mention in its chapter on lawns:
Rolling mowers by horse or hand power have been prinicpally employed on large grounds; but the hand machines are now so simplified and cheapened that they are coming into general use on small pleasure grounds, and proprietors may have the pleasure of doing their own mowing without the wearisome bending of the back, incident to the use of the scythe.  Whoever spends the early hours of one summer, while the dew spangles the grass, in pushing these grass-cutters over a velvety lawn, breathing the fresh sweetness of the morning air and the perfume of new mown hay, will never rest contented again in the city.  It is likely that professional garden laborers will buy these machines and contract cheaply for the periodical mowing of a neighborhood of yards, so that those who cannot or do not desire to do it for themselves may have it done cheaply. 
Funny, I never remember feeling quite that giddy about getting behind a lawnmower.  Compared to scything, however, it must have been nothing short of miraculous.

Edwin Beard Budding is credited with the initial invention of the mechanical lawn mower.  Budding was a mechanic in a United Kingdom textile mill and was inspired by a cylindrical bladed reel he saw that was used to trim the nap on woolen cloth to an even finish.

Budding's Lawnmower - c. 1830

The patent for Budding's lawnmower was granted on August 31, 1830.  Budding went into a manufacturing partnership with John Ferrabee, but they also allowed other manufacturers to produce lawn mowers under license.  This allowed other makers to spread awareness of the lawnmower and also its technical innovation.

By the 1860's, Farrabee was manufacturing eight different types of lawn mowers.  Other well-known UK manufacturers included Ransomes of Ispwich and Thomas Green & Sons of Leeds, who named their mower the Silens Messor (silent cutter).  Early lawn-mowers could be either horse-drawn or human pushed.  If horses were used, they were also supplied with special leather boots to keep them from damaging the turf.

The first United States patent on a lawnmower was granted to Amariah Hills of Connecticut on January 12, 1868.  Early Connecticut manufacturers of lawn-mowers were located in Glastonbury, Hartford, Derby and New Britain.  Hills own manufactory, the Archimedean Lawn Mower Co. of Hartford, was formed in 1871 and specialized in branded lawn mowers with names like the Archimedean and the Charter Oak.

The Archimedean from c. 1871, thanks to the UK Old Lawnmower Club

A close-up of the Archimedean, c. 1871, thanks to the UK Old Lawnmower Club

Another early U.S. manufacturer of lawn-mowers was Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana.  The Memoirs of Wayne County and the city of Richmond, Indiana, edited by Henry Clay Fox, published in 1912, states:

The Dille & McGuire Manfuacturing Company was started in 1870, as a general machine shop, by H.H. Dille and Elwood McGuire.  The first lawn mowers were made in 1874.  The company was incorporated in 1880 and has grown to be one of the largest and best equipped lawn mower factories in the world.

A lovely shot of several early lawnmowers from Antiques from the Garden by Alistair Morris from the Garden Art Press (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1996).
Antiques from the Garden by Alistair Morris from the Garden Art Press

Advances in lawn-mower technology included steam powered mowers in 1893 and the first rotary mowers in 1899, developed in part by African-American John Burr.


  1. Not too far from my current push mower!!

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