Lawnside Classic: The Mow You Know

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(first posted 5/22/2016))     That’s my dad at considerably younger than my present age, proudly mowing the front lawn of his and my mother’s recently-acquired house in suburban Philadelphia some years before I arrived. He’s using a Sears Craftsman 20″ push mower, a ’68 model quite possibly bought at a grudge sale, with magnesium(!) deck, Foldamatic handle (you loosen two big red plastic wingnuts and fold it yourself; that sound anymatic to you?) and a Sears-spec Tecumseh LAV-35 engine with a vertical-pull starter. Here it is in the Spring 1968 Sears cattledog, for $97.50 with grass catcher ($810 in 2022 dollars; whee!):

One just like it showed up some years ago in remarkable condition; I spotted it during a late-night run down a Fleabay rabbit hole (no, I didn’t buy it):

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Right along with the charcoal barbecue grille and the electric garage door opener and the other tasty fruit of the postwar suburban boom—atop the heap, really—is the rotary lawnmower. Whether in Levittown or Homestead or Pleasant Valley or Southmoor Heights or Vista View Estates or The Wuthering Twin Oaks Bellevue Mews at Bel Air Manor, your suburban house almost certainly had a lawn. And as you didn’t want to incur the scorn of the Joneses or risk the wrath of Mrs. Kravitz (when she wasn’t selling Chevs) and the rest of the Homeowners’ Association busybody brigade, you strove for lawnly perfection. That meant keeping it green, weed-free, and “manicured”. None of this just happened to happen; wanna spur an economic boom? Accustom people to thinking of themselves as “consumers” and make sure every suburbanite buys stuff that’ll require perpetual spending. Like a lawn big enough to warrant the purchase and weekly use of a power mower and its fuel and upkeep, and addicted to water—better look into a built-in sprinkler system; the Joneses already have one—and chemicals also (b’gosh!) available for purchase.

And purchase did they ever…

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…and ever…

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…and ever!

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Quickly upon its mid-1950s advent, the rotary mower fairly shoved the reel type to the margins of the market. And aside from your house and the car(s) in your driveway, what better billboard for your cashflow—the Joneses may well be your neighbours, but you’re theirs, too—than a machine that draws attention to itself by making noise as you walk it round the yard in swaths about 20 inches wide every week? No real place for tailfins or a Breezeway backglass on a mower, but no matter; there was still puh-lenty of This Year’s Modelry to be done. In terms of how well a mower worked, how versatile it was, how easy it was to use (or how cheaply it could be built, but shush about that til later) some of the changes made substantial improvements. Others were either the wrong answers, or the answers to wrong questions.

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