From April through October my wife and I do a lot of lawn mowing. As a matter of fact we have just finished the weekly chore as I sit down to begin this column. I have to admit it looks nice when we finish. Lawns today are a far cry from what they looked like before the 20th century. Well manicured lawns at nearby historic places we like to visit such as the Bronck House, Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove and Olana looked much different back then.
How were these early lawns maintained? I think we often conjure up an image of grazing sheep, but of course not everyone had sheep nor did they want them grazing on their lawn. What passed for lawns in the 19th century were mainly mowed with the use of a scythe. Webster’s tells us that a scythe is “An implement used for mowing (as grass) and composed of a long curving blade fastened at an angle to a long handle.” Picture that thing that Father Time or the Grim Reaper carries around. When I was a boy every farm had one or two scythes mainly used to mow places that could not be reached with mechanized equipment — ditches, under fruit trees, etc. Now the motorized weed whacker serves the same purpose.
In my research I was surprised to find there is an organization in Great Britain called “The Old Lawnmower Club” which promotes the collection, preservation and display of lawn mowers made from 1830 onwards. The club’s website was helpful in providing some information for this column. For instance I found that the first lawn mower was invented in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The first patent granted in the United States was in 1868. The club’s website says that Budding “obtained the idea after seeing a machine in a local cloth mill which used a cutting cylinder (or bladed reel) mounted on a bench to trim cloth to make a smooth finish after weaving. Budding realised (sic) that a similar concept would enable the cutting of grass if the mechanism could be mounted in a wheeled frame to make the blades rotate close to the lawn’s surface.”
This reel type mower was used for more than a century, initially as a push model, later as a horse drawn devise for larger lawns (horses wore oversize leather booties to prevent lawn damage), and finally as a motorized machine. Even today, a few people can be found using push models for small lawns and large motorized riding reel mowers are used to mow golf courses. After World War II the rotary lawn mower — push, self propelled and riding — began to quickly replace reel mowers used by home owners. Riding rotary mowers have made it much easier for some homeowners to groom acres of lawn if they choose to do so.
In my lifetime I have witnessed the greatest change in lawn care and most of it has to do with the revolution in lawn care equipment. However, there is a downside to all that. A study from the University of California at Irvine has determined that grass lawns are polluting the environment. The study concluded that the amount of carbon the lawns removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and storage of carbon in soil is far outweighed by the amount of carbon dioxide created by lawn maintenance devices. In addition; herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers improperly applied to lawns are often criticized as contributors to a degradation of the environment. Hopefully as we continue our love affair with our lawns, we will learn to care for them in a more environmentally sensitive way.
News and Notes: A few days ago my friend Tony Tuczynski sent me a public notice from the City of Kelownna, B.C. The notice is dated Nov. 7, 1918 and demonstrates the old saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It reads as follows: “Notice is hereby given that, in order to prevent the spread of the Spanish Influenza, all schools, public and private churches, threatres, moving picture halls, pool rooms and other places of amusement, and lodge meetings are to be closed until further notice. All public gatherings consisting of ten or more are prohibited.” Sound familiar?
To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail email@example.com or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”