Lawn Care in the Early 20th Century

Lawn care in the early 20th century was accomplished with reel mowers, trencher/edgers and more.

Clipper Mower Ad

A 1906 magazine ad for the Clipper mower.

Illustration Courtesy George Wanamaker

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When it comes to lawn work, today’s homeowner barely breaks a sweat. Lawn work has become a highly mechanized activity, complete with self-propelled power lawn mowers, lawn tractors and an endless array of electric, gas-powered and battery-powered hedge trimmers and weed whips.

Things were different 100 years ago. In that era, good old-fashioned elbow grease and manpower kept lawns and gardens looking orderly. Homeowners, gardeners and grounds men relied on simple but cleverly designed equipment — and provided the muscle to make it go.

Mowing the lawn

If you think there’s a unique urgency to keeping the lawn mowed during the summer growing season, imagine the pressure of doing so in an era before mechanized mowers existed. A century ago, only rarely could a homeowner allow 10 days to pass between mowings. If more time than that elapsed and the grass was allowed to grow tall, most mowers of the day would not cut the resulting stand. Tall grass would clog the mower’s blades and, under extreme circumstances, cause the turf to be ripped out. The rotary power mower of today was as yet unknown. The reel mower was the dominant mower of the day.

The reel mower was invented in England in 1827. Blade widths were offered in ranges of 10 to 16 inches. The mower’s blades, which were driven by the wheels, were numbered. Those numbered from three to seven were curved and attached to the reel in such a manner that only a small segment of the blade was actually cutting at any given moment. That design made the mower easier to push. In use, the operator pushed a wooden T-handle that extended up from the reel at a 45-degree angle.

Basket-type grass catchers made of canvas were available as optional equipment on early reel mowers. Engines were first attached to reel mowers in about 1902.

Sickle bar mowers were also used for lawn care. The Clipper, invented in 1895 and patented in 1898, is a classic example. It was manufactured by Clipper Mower Co., Norristown, Pa., until 1904, when the company’s manufacturing operation was moved to Dixon, Ill. Clipper introduced a reel mower in 1914; the company went out of business in the 1940s. The Clipper was offered in 12-, 15-, 18- and 21-inch lengths; all were hand-pushed. A 24-inch model was pulled by a pony.

The Monta mower, built from 1923 to 1962 by Montague Mfg. Co., Traverse City, Mich., is an unusual piece. It was manufactured with a wooden T-handle until 1941 or 1942 when a metal rod handle with rubber grips was introduced. That model was deep blue with the name painted in gold.

The Monta featured a row of nine interlocking cutting discs. This mower was very low to the ground and would have been useful in reaching under bushes. It could also be used to mow open spaces, where it worked well on reasonably short grass.

Putting an edge on it

To give the lawn a finished look, walks, patios and gardens were edged. Some people achieved that look by using a spade to dig a narrow trench alongside each feature, stopping grass growth. Others trimmed right to the edge. A market soon developed for commercially produced edgers.

One early trencher/edger cut a trench about 1 inch deep and 2 inches wide, just enough to keep grass off the walk or patio. In use, the unit was pushed along on a hard surface being edged. It generated a ribbon of sod that was easily collected and disposed of.

Another trencher/edger featured a vertical cutting disc that cut next to the surface being edged and a concave disc that cut at a 45-degree angle to form a trench when the sod was removed. This unit could also be turned over to cut grass around lawn features. Trenching edgers were simple devices, but required considerable effort to use.

A.M. Lawn Tool Co., Canton, Ohio, produced a sickle bar-type edger as early as the late 1890s. It had a 5-1/2-inch cut with the sickle action driven by lugged wheels.

Philadelphia Lawn Mower Co. made a mower/edger that looked like a miniature reel mower. Patented in 1923, it had characteristics of a larger reel mower including the wooden roller at the back. The small cast iron wheel on the right front was designed to be run on the sidewalk during edging. The 8-inch rubber-covered drive wheel was on the left. The unit was steered with a 40-inch handle.

Federal Laboratories Inc., Pittsburg, Pa., built a single-wheel trimmer painted green with yellow lettering and trim. The cutting wheel, positioned on the left with nine pointed teeth, was driven by a wheel on the right at a speed fast enough to cut grass. The trimmer had a 40-inch T-handle.

The Keen Kutter edger was made by or for Shapleigh Hardware, St. Louis, in the 1940s or early 1950s. Similar to a small reel mower, it has an 8-inch, rubber-covered drive wheel and 3-inch sidewalk side wheel. An adjustable attachment on the right mounts on the handle and could be used to trim grass overhanging the sidewalk. This is arguably one of the best-made, most useful edgers.

Unlike other edgers that had a blade that rotated with the line of travel, the cutting blade on the front of the Ottcraft Products Inc. edger rotated perpendicular to the line of travel. The blade was driven by a large, gear-toothed wheel. The handle was a tube T-handle. The entire machine was orange.

Hand tools for small jobs

Small tools were needed for other chores. Grass scissor shears were used to trim small patches of tall grass. Adjustable blades allowed the width of the opening to be modified; a spring eased immediate return after each cut.

Hand sickles were used to cut larger areas of long grass or weeds. Modern Specialty Corp., Norwalk, Conn., produced one with a wooden handle and a 10-inch toothed blade and sharp, curved teeth. Ezykut Tool Corp., Northampton, Mass., built an innovative hand sickle with a folding cover that protected both the blade and the user’s fingers. The blade’s cutting edge had nine single- or double-edge razor blades that could be replaced when dulled or broken. When not in use, the blade (with the cover closed) could be folded to the handle, making a compact tool.

Specialized tools were developed to tackle dandelions and other weeds. The familiar hand digger was pushed into the ground next to the weed. A forked point was used to cut the root. When the handle was pushed back and down, it lifted the weed from the ground using the U on the back of the fork as a fulcrum. A sheet metal piece on the front could be used as a fulcrum on the front to push the weed away, preventing contact with the user’s skin, or the weed could be removed by a gloved hand.

Long-handled weeders eliminated the need for bending. J.G. Rieff Mfg. Co., London, Wis., won a patent in 1933 for just such a tool. Instructions printed on a piece of paper adhered to the handle read: “To cut weeds, push knife down at a 65-degree angle, hold top in position. With one hand, push forward on center of handle with other hand and rake picks up weeds. Repeat until chamber is filled. Rake and chamber are adjustable for deep or shallow digging. Always adjust both the same amount.”

Special tools for special jobs

Hand-shear hedge trimmers were commonly used to shape bushes and hedges. Before they were manufactured in factories, shears were routinely produced by local blacksmiths. Hand-forged shears were made with offset handles to keep the user’s hands out of the foliage. Blades on some were probably tempered to harden them and hammer-welded to handles to which wooden grips were then added.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, hand shears were produced commercially. They were available with blades ranging in length from 5-1/2 to 16 inches. A pair made by Seymour Smith & Son, Oakville, Conn., date to the early 20th century. The tang the handle was attached to was bent up, keeping the user’s hands out of the foliage. The handles afforded plenty of leverage for short blades but were long enough to add leverage for the longer bladed shears.

The Cyclone hedge trimmer used a different cutting method. It had teeth that combed the bush as a sliding cutter was moved back and forth over the teeth with a push/pull handle to cut it. Patented in the early 20th century, the Cyclone was manufactured by Chandler Mfg., Ayer, Mass. Designed for use by right-handed persons, it would not operate unless the user’s right hand was on the slide handle.

Patented in 1915, the Dahl hedge trimmer (employing a design still used today), had sets of V-shaped cutters on two bars. One set of teeth was on a fixed bar; the other bar of cutters slid on the fixed bar, with the cutting edges together, as the crank was turned. The teeth cut the bush. The trimmer shown had a 4-foot cutting section and neck strap to support the machine. The user’s left hand supported the middle of the machine; his right hand turned the crank at the right end, driving the blades. This long machine was much easier to use when operated by two people, one at the position mentioned above, and another holding the handle on the left end. This company remains in business today (though under a different name), building Little Wonder hedge trimmers with the same type of blades — but driven by an electric engine.

The Sparrow hand pruner was used to remove small branches (with diameters up to about 3/8 inches) from shrubs and trees. Made by Burman & Sons Ltd., Birmingham, England, the pruner had an automatic spring return. In the U.S., the tool was mainly found in the Northeast.

The Champion branch pruner, patented May 1, 1877, and manufactured by J. Park, Williamsburg, Ohio, was used to cut larger limbs and branches from bushes and trees. The Champion’s overall length is 39 inches; the blade was operated with an 18-inch wood handle. A metal lever on the handle connected to a steel rod. It cut branches up to 1 inch in diameter and had the advantage of reaching branches about 8 feet tall.

Caring for a yard has always been a big job, but advances in technology have made it less of a chore. Early tools lacked the labor-saving devices that we take for granted today. Maybe the “good old days” were not as good as we think! FC 

George Wanamaker is president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter tools in the mid-1970s and now, in addition to carpenter tools, collects farm and kitchen tools and anything unusual and old. Contact him at George.Wanamaker@gmail.com.