Boomers Knew All About Grass

When Baby Boomers were in their pre-teen years, their parents were very happy to get them involved with lawn maintenance. Many parents of boomers came from urban dwellings with limited yard space, so the move after the War to a suburban sprawl meant a wider expanse of lawns and more grass to maintain.

Push mowers had been around since the 1800s, but they became the first mowers most often used by the fathers of boomers to manage their new suburban lawns. Power mowers were around before the War, but whether it was economic reasons or an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude coming out of the Great Depression, the power mower didn’t capture the public sentiment until the 1950s and ’60s. Was it that our fathers didn’t want to take on the drudgery of a push mower any longer in the Modern Suburban Age, or did they finally have enough money to afford a gas-powered mower?

Gas-powered mowers needed to be started in much the same way as early engines in vehicles did: Single-engine airplanes needed a hearty spin of a propeller; Model Ts had a hand-crank that assisted in starting the engine. For gas lawn mowers, there was a pull cord. This consisted of a rubber handle attached to a rope that was wound around a central shaft on the engine. Pulling the cord spun the internal chamber to put the starting mechanism in motion. In any case, it has been Mister Boomer’s experience that many boomer fathers gladly relinquished the chore to their sons, often at the young age of between eight and ten.

There were four main tasks involved in lawn maintenance: regular weeding, mowing the grass, raking up the clippings (many mowers did not have catching baskets) and edging the lawn. Once or twice a year there would be a need for fertilizing and de-thatching and in the fall, raking leaves. The acceptance and distribution of these tasks varied from household to household. For the most part, lawn maintenance was relegated to the males in the family. Women and girls may have gotten involved in watering, weeding and occasionally raking, but it was the men and boys who handled the bulk of it. On the other hand, the girls would do laundry and clean house.

Mister Boomer’s connection to lawn care seems to be both typical and not-so-typical when compared with other boomers. In the early days in his family, his mother did the mowing. This was not typical for the neighborhood, as fathers took on the task. But as children grew, one by one the oldest sons became the chief grass mowers.

Mister Boomer’s mother, like thousands of other women in her generation, had worked in factories during the War. When the War ended, these women left the factories and became wives, then soon after, the mothers who gave birth to the Baby Boom Generation. Perhaps it was her “we can do it!” mindset that propelled her to cut the grass in the early years of her marriage, or maybe it was that Mister B’s father was not incredibly interested in lawn maintenance. This went on for many years, but one day, when Mister B was around eight years old, there was an accident that changed everything. His mother, clad in flip flops, was ready to mow the backyard. As she had done so many times before, she placed one foot on the mower body, grabbed the pull cord and gave it a tug. As often happened, the mower did not start right away. A couple of tugs later, the engine spurted to life at the same time as the front of the mower lurched upward on its back wheels. The motion caused Mister B’s mother to remove her foot from the contraption, only to have it fall back a second later, directly on top of her right foot.

She yelled for Mister B to bring her the dish towel from the kitchen. Mister B ran out with it and she wrapped her bloody foot, twisting the fabric on top. Keeping hold of it, she directed Mister B to go the neighbors who had a car during the day — one of the only households that had more than one car — and tell the woman there she needed a ride to the Emergency Room. Mister B’s mom hobbled down the driveway holding the towel-wrapped foot and to the neighbor’s waiting car. Mister B stayed behind with Brother Boomer, both tasked to watch their little sister until their mother could return. Fortunately, the blade cut into her instep and nothing was broken, so a few stitches were all that was necessary.

When she returned, however, she announced that she was through cutting the grass. From that day on, the chore fell first to Brother Boomer, who was three years older than Mister Boomer, then split between Mister B and Brother Boomer until the older Boomer got his first job. Then it fell to Mister B until the day he moved out.

Mister B never minded cutting the grass, even though it was physically demanding for a young boy. Weeding and edging, however, were far from his favorite things, especially on hot summer mornings. The weeding tool had a long wooden handle attached to a metal shaft with a thick, two-pronged end that gave it the look of a capital “m,” like a snake’s tongue. You’d have to plunge the edge of the tool into the ground below the weed to grab at its roots, then leverage it out by pushing the handle. It was always easier to pull the weeds by hand, but Mister B would be admonished that in doing so, the roots were inevitably still present to grow back again. Likewise edging was back-breaking and blister-inducing work. There was no such thing as an electric or gas-powered edger then, so it was a purely by-hand operation. A pointed, spoked wheel served as the cutting edge on the tool, which was positioned with a spacer for keeping a standard width away from whatever concrete was being edged. A long handle enabled the user to stand during the operation, but required constant pushing pressure, like a fencer lunging his foil at the ground.

It has been Mister B’s observation that today the task of lawn mowing for many households has either returned to the father of the house, or has been contracted out to a lawn maintenance company. It is a rare sight to see young males — especially eight to ten years old, as in Mister B’s day — out with a mower. For that matter, you don’t see girls out there either. In speaking with other boomers, Mister B finds that in general the children of boomers — and subsequently their grandchildren — seem to be required to do fewer chores than we did.

Certainly boomers did less hard labor than their parents around the house; modern technology helped us in that regard, too. But is the current trend the natural evolution toward a day when machines take over these tasks, or is it the spoiling of a generation too absorbed in personal technology to get their hands dirty?

What was your experience, boomers, and where do you stand on lawn duty when it comes to getting children involved?