A Look at Lawn Mowers through The Henry Ford's Collections
20 artifacts in this set
Since the 18th century, most American homes have included some sort of adjacent outdoor space for chores. If needed, these yards could be maintained by grazing animals (for grass) or sweeping (for dirt). But a large expanse of manicured lawn was something only the wealthy could afford. Hired gardeners cut the grass by hand with a scythe and then rolled it flat with other tools to achieve a perfect look.
This model mowing machine model features a "sickle bar" mechanism – triangular blades attached to a bar that oscillated back and forth as draft animals moved the machine forward. Lawn mower manufacturers scaled down the sickle bar mechanism to suit smaller grass-cutting jobs.
After the Civil War, as suburbs grew up around cities, practical automatic mowers in a range of designs made it much easier for the average homeowner to maintain a neatly trimmed lawn – which soon became a sign of arrival into the middle class. Pushing this mower activated a chain drive, which powered the sickle bar's cutting motion.
Several designs found footholds in the growing lawn mower market, but the cylinder- or reel-type mower, first patented in the United States in 1868, gained prominence. The basic form consisted of blades that rotated around a horizontal axis, cutting the grass as the user pushed the machine.
To set their product apart from competitors, mower manufacturers marketed a wide range of features – both functional and decorative. Advertisements touted this embellished "Charter Oak" model as "the most beautiful and perfect Lawn Mower in the world."
Though early mowers were often heavy and hard to push, trade cards like this one suggested that – with the right model – mowing the lawn could be "like a walk in the park" or "so easy a child could do it."
As with hand-operated mowers, manufacturers offered power mowers in multiple configurations, but a standard cutting mechanism – a single rotating blade – soon emerged. This fashionable gasoline-powered mower, sold through Montgomery Ward, featured a rear wheel that helped operators turn with ease.
Power mowers became immensely popular, but they never fully displaced traditional hand mowers. Manufacturers updated both styles to meet consumer demand. This 1950s reel-type hand mower, suitable for smaller yards or users trying to avoid fossil-fuels, featured an attachment designed to catch grass clippings.
Power and hand mowers remained marketable into the 21st century. Dille & McGuire, a mower manufacturer since the 1870s, offered versions of both styles – including an electric model – in this 1956 catalog.
Manufacturers introduced another level of convenience with fully motorized riding mowers. Fairbanks, Morse and Company promised its version was "so easy, so relaxing" that it could make women want to take over the stereotypically gendered "men's work" of mowing the lawn.
Lawn mower innovator Norman Swanson outfitted this small tractor as a prototype riding mower for his 5-acre farmette by adding a multiple cutter system of his own design. Its three blades improved on standard single-blade mowers, and a bell-shaped deflector better pulverized grass clippings. Swanson received patents for both innovations in 1959.
Norman Swanson, who had previously designed riding mowers sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co., built 50 of these mowers with his son under the company name Swanson Engineering. Swanson mowers included a patented mechanism that carried the cutting blades above uneven landscapes, so they did not damage the turf or the blades. This innovation became a standard feature on riding mowers.
Manufacturers of push and riding mowers alike touted their utility beyond cutting grass. Customers who purchased Toro Manufacturing's 1960 "Whirlwind" model mower in the fall of 1959 received a special attachment reported to bag "5 bushels of leaves a minute!"
Roto-Hoe Company Sales Brochure, "Turf-Star II Islander: The Sophisticated Riding Mower Now with Automatic Drive," 1972
Roto-Hoe Company's Turf-Star II Islander riding mower not only offered automatic drive -- it could pick up, shred, and bag grass clippings or leaves.
A century into mass lawn mower production, convenience remained manufacturers' primary selling point. Huffman Manufacturing Company branded its Huffy mowers as "leisure makers." This 1969 catalog suggested a Huffy could free up time for the owner to enjoy a cold beverage in his freshly manicured yard.
Efforts to reduce the physical labor and time required to maintain lawns led to the autonomous Mowtron. It offered the ultimate in convenience – no human operator required! The machine circled lawns in a pattern defined by buried wire (part of Mowtron's transistorized underground guidance system). The designers retained the look of a riding mower but used fiberglass rather than durable metal, as no human need ever take a seat.
Simplicity Manufacturing Catalog, "Simplicity Zero-Turn Riding Mowers: The Way to a Beautiful Lawn," 2005
Since their beginnings, personal mower manufacturers had to compete with lawn care professionals. Some potential customers preferred hiring a mowing service to owning and operating a mower. By the early 2000s, Simplicity Manufacturing, Inc. advertised "commercial mowing at home," claiming that ease-of-use and maneuverability helped its zero-turn mowers' performance rival that of the professionals.