When my dad made me cut the grass when I was a kid, I often remember cursing the fact that lawn mowers had been invented in the first place. However, the history of lawn mowing is actually quite fascinating.
Until the 19th-century invention of the first push mower, there were three main ways to cut grass – sickles and scythes, grazing animals, or simply having no lawn at all. And it seems that from dinosaurs and ancient humans, to modern lawns today – cutting the grass has been going on for millennia.
Let’s look at when grass cutting started and why, when ‘lawns’ first became a ‘thing’ – and discover when the first lawn mower was invented.
Grass Cutting Before Lawn Mowers
When we get out our riding mowers to cut our lawns, we don’t really give much thought about their invention. After all, we have enough on our minds as we strive to achieve the perfect cut and tidy edges.
But think again, and take a look at your yard. How on earth would go you about keeping your lawn neat without some form of lawnmower? Our ancestors had all sorts of means to cut their grass before lawnmowers were invented, and we’ll take a look at the history of both the lawn and the mower.
For generations, until the 19th-century invention of the first push mower, there were three main approaches to grass cutting: sickles and scythes, grazing animals, or simply, don’t have a garden. Grass cutting before lawnmowers was labor intensive to say the least, and that’s if you were lucky enough to actually have a garden…
When Did Humans Start Cutting Grass?
Grass cutting in its literal sense would have started as soon as we realised grass could be useful. Grass has been around for a long time (there’s evidence that some dinos grazed on it), and it was recently found that our cave-dwelling ancestors used grass to make hygienic, bug-free bedding.
Humans first became farmers about 10,000 years ago, and we domesticated cereal crops like wheat, barley, rye and oats. Neolithic sickles have been found, suggesting that this was the first proper grass cutter.
How Did Early Settlers Cut Grass?
The early settlers were influenced by their European gardening heritage, and lawns were in their infancy during the settlers’ first years in America. The word lawn is older, coming from the medieval “launde”, meaning a clearing. But there’s a huge journey between the arrival of the word and the development of what we now have in our gardens.
How did people cut grass in the Middle Ages? In medieval Europe, villages shared communal fields for grazing animals and growing crops, and if someone was lucky enough to have their own patch of land, this is what they’d have used it for, too. When grass needed to be cut and dried for hay, this was done with a scythe and a large team of workers.
In the later Middle Ages, the aristocracy had private grasslands, but these were closer to pastures than today’s yards. A “garden” was an enclosed formal area with raised beds and pathways, where the rich could stroll around at leisure.
This carried on across most of Europe until the lawn became popular among the wealthy in the 17th-century (we’ll talk about this in a minute). Even then, most ordinary people would have carried on letting their sheep, cattle horses and visiting rabbits crop their grass. These were the garden care principles that were taken across by the early settlers when they moved to America.
With the industrial revolution, people in both the US and Europe moved away from the country and into the towns and cities. Food was bought, not grown, and very few city folk had access to their own land. City parks developed as a means of giving city dwellers access to fresh air. Central Park dates from the 1850s, and soon, even small towns had a communal space.
One of the reasons that towns could suddenly have these large lawned areas was thanks to an English man named Edward Beard Budding. He invented a push lawn mower in the 1830s, and even though it’s pretty unwieldy and awkward by today’s standards, it was much easier than using goats or scythes. Victorian gardeners finally had a way of maintaining their lawns, and although the lawnmower was still a century away from being a feature in many homes, things had started to change.
How Did Indigenous People Cut Grass?
Again, the answer is that they probably didn’t do much grass cutting. The native Americans used the tough indigenous grasses for a variety of applications, from basket weaving to building. Their tools were flint not metal, and they had a half-moon shape tool similar to a sickle.
They also used sophisticated (although to modern minds, risky) land management techniques, burning swathes of grass and scrub land to enrich the soil and encourage new growth. Before the Europeans arrived, our native grasses were very different to what we see today. The East Coast had grasses like wild rye, marsh grass and broom straw.
The settlers wanted to feed their livestock on the grasses they were familiar with, and imported European grass seed. As grass does, it grew, and began to dominate the land of New England. Most of the indigenous grasses eventually vanished.
When Did Lawns Become a Thing?
Lawns (in the modern sense of a managed, grassed area designed purely for looks and pleasure) became popular among the upper classes in 17th-century England. Owning grass without growing, grazing or building on it was a huge status symbol.
The wealthier early settlers would have brought the idea to America with them, along with grass seeds. As it was back in Europe, lawns were decorative, rural and cared for either by grazing animals or teams of servants with scythes.
For most people, if they had a yard, a grassed area would have been seen as a waste of space. There were vegetables and herbs to be grown, chickens to keep, laundry to dry. Grass that needed trimming would have housed grass-cropping animals anyway, or could be kept in (untidy) check with a scythe or sickle.
Many people simply had dirt yards, regularly watered to dampen the dust. Mexican and Spanish influence led to paved courtyards, with plants in beds and no lawn. British cottage gardens likewise had an abundance of planting but no grassed areas.
Unless you were wealthy, grass was for pastures and in later years, urban parks. But then, something changed that made lawns more readily available for us ordinary folk: the lawnmower was invented.
Who Invented The Lawn Mower & When?
Technically, mowers had been around since the early 1800s with Edward Beard Budding’s push mower. However, as it was made from cast iron, the “Ransomes Automaton” was pretty hard work. Easier to give the job to some hungry sheep.
Motorized lawn mowers were developed in the 1920s, and having a patch of lawn in front of your home became popular in the 1930s. Lawnmowers were easier to use, fertilizers were readily available, and gardening became seen as a relaxing hobby. This was the dawn of that popular image of suburban America: the manicured lawn and spotless front porch.
The real revolution (literally) came in the 1960s when lightweight rotary mowers were invented. There was finally a mower that didn’t require the strength of ten men to operate. And here we are. Sitting in our yards, admiring our short, lush lawns. We’ve come a long way since the days of scythes, rabbits and setting fires.
If only I’d have known the fascinating history of the lawn mower as a teenager when my folks gave me some pocket money to cut the grass – I still wouldn’t have wanted to do it!
Yet I hope you’ll agree, the subject does make for some interesting reading – and also makes me realise that we do often take such simple inventions as the lawn mower for granted.
With all that stuff about dinosaurs chomping on grass to keep it cut, it also reminds me of those Crabasauruses in the Flintstones – which were used to make Crab-O-Mowers to trim the lawn with their claws. That was a great show wasn’t it?
Yabba Dabba Doo! Wilmaaaaaa!
Homeowner and property investor Larry Jones founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >