Some people spend most of their Summer weekends doing it while others actually hire someone else to do it. Then there are others who don’t believe in doing it all. When did they start doing it and what is so fascinating about it? To me it is just a necessary chore not some high-minnded ideal. Why do we bother doing it at all? What I am talking about is mowing the lawn.
The first formal lawns with neatly kept grass were grown in France during the 1700s. In the beginning they were “trimmed” by animals, most often sheep, and then people (servants) swinging a scythe or a sickle and even hand cut with shears. Whether the practice spread elsewhere by word-of-mouth or was independently developed I don’t know, but the first patent for a “machine for mowing lawns, etc.” was granted to Edwin Beard Budding, a British engineer, in 1830.
His mower was based on a device he invented to evenly trim the knap off of cloth meant for military Guardsmen’s uniforms. People thought he was crazy to cut grass with his invention so he had to test it at night so nobody would see what he was doing. Budding teamed up with John Ferrabee, who owned the Phoenix Foundry in Thrupp Mill, to produce his first reel-type lawn mower with a series of blades arranged around a cylinder much like the standard push mowers that are still being used today.
A Scotsman, Alexander Shanks, in 1841, produced what some have called the first “non patented” pony-drawn reel lawn mower with a 27-inch blade. These mowers were usually pulled by animals and some inventive people went so far as to put leather booties over the horses shoes so they wouldn’t damage the grass. Amariah Hills got the first American patent for a reel mower in 1868.
The 1890s brought another innovation to the world of lawn mowing called the steam powered lawn mower, but they didn’t last very long. It shows how important lawn care became when on May 4,1897 Joseph Smith patented the swiveling lawn sprinkler. In 1899 John Albert Burr patented an improved rotary blade lawn mower. By 1902 Ransomes, founded in 1879, began producing the first commercially available internal combustion gasoline powered lawn mowers. It took until 1919 for Colonel Edwin George to manufacture the first American made gasoline powered lawn mowers. It seems that the first attempts at electric lawn mowers took place in the 1920s and 1930s, but there wasn’t much interest in them back then. They became more popular when awareness of noise and air pollution spurred interest in non-polluting ways to mow the lawn.
I should let you know that I have never played tennis nor am I a real fan of watching others play it, though I have watched bits of some of the more famous tournaments on television. The sport of tennis can be played on hard surfaced courts or grass courts. I never knew how that developed until I did my research for this article.
According to Wikipedia “Historians believe that the game’s ancient origin lay in 12th century Northern France (here we go with the French again) where a ball was struck with the palm of the hand. Louis the X of France was a keen player of jeu de paume (game of the palm), which evolved into into real tennis, and became notable as the first person to construct indoor tennis courts in the modern style.” Apparently Louis didn’t like playing tennis outdoors in the weather. He became the first tennis player known by name. He died in June of 1316. That was called real tennis and not only was the bare hand used, but they were also able to bounce the ball off the walls.
In the 16th century rackets came into use and the term real tennis became just tennis. Now that we’ve had our little tennis history lesson I need to get to the reason why it is in this column. As I mentioned earlier, the first lawn mower was developed in 1830 and the use of grass tennis courts came not too long afterwards. Since the grass could be cut to a uniform height not only grass courts, but sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches and greens were soon to follow.
According to Toro they produced their first lawnmower for golf courses in 1921 and their first one for residential use in 1939. Not everyone appreciated this new-fangled invention that cuts grass to a uniform height. Max Behr, a golf course architect, had a strong opinion concerning the mowing of golf course greens “Unfortunately, the mowing machine has made the fairgreen an area of interest by itself. But should we look upon this as a definitive area and deal with it as we do in games? It would seem that if we allow such an idea to prevail we must inevitably destroy the sense of freedom and choice which is the very essence of such a sport as golf. In golf, nature, more or less modified, is our opponent; there can be no set limitations to space and time.”
He, like many others, subscribed to the way golf was played in Scottland. The St. Andrews course ran along the coastal dunes and wild grass. The only way the course was maintained was the golfers walking and trampling the grass as they played.
Let’s get back to residential lawn mowing. Twenty years ago when I bought my house the neighbor directly across the street had an immaculate front lawn. He was retired and spent a good portion of every day manicuring his beautiful front yard. It seemed like he was always watering it, even if rain was in the forecast. He eventually sold the home and between the time he moved out and the new owners moved in the lawn was just about dead. No matter what the new owner did that poor lawn, which faced the hot summer sun most of the day, nothing seemed to work. The next summer he replanted grass seed in an attempt to save the lawn. Again failure was the watch word. The reason, besides the burning sun, was the previous owner over-watered the lawn so much that it never developed a root system deep enough to take up enough water on its own.
The over-watering kept the root system stunted. Finally, he gave up and landscaped the yard with a path, some plants, and gravel. No lawn resulted in no front yard problems. He sold the house and the latest owner seems pleased with the front yard and has made even more improvements.
As I drove around town Sunday I observed lawns that were perfect, like a golf course, others that were well kept but not “grand,” and then there would appear one that was in serious if not critical condition.
I at least make an attempt to keep my lawn in reasonable condition so my neighbors won’t want to run me out of the neighborhood. After all of this information I still don’t understand why so many people spend so much time on their lawn. If you pretty much leave it alone in the summer, except for the necessary mowing and weeding, it may dry out and turn brown, but two weeks after the rain season starts it turns green and is lush again all without my help. That’s another reason I love this country of ours. You can choose to have a lawn that looks like a famous golf course and spend all of your free time manicuring it or you can do just enough to keep it reasonably healthy and not worry about it. The choice is yours.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].