Lawn Care in the Early 20th Century

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

| August 2013

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.