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Manual lawn mowers are making a comeback

Powerful, loud mowers have been showing lawns who’s boss for decades. But now contraptions that couldn’t cut butter without a good shove are quietly — really quietly — making a comeback. Manual lawn mowers are pushing their way, or, more accurately, being pushed around more yards all over the country.
Ben Kogan
Some factors such as the environment and a growing number of women doing the mowing has caused a resurgence of those quaint reminders of yesteryear.M. Spencer Green / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Powerful, loud mowers have been showing lawns who’s boss for decades. But now contraptions that couldn’t cut butter without a good shove are quietly — really quietly — making a comeback.

Manual lawn mowers, long the 98-pound weaklings of the tool shed, are pushing their way, or, more accurately, being pushed around more yards all over the country.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Teri McClain, inside sales administrator at the 112-year-old American Lawn Mower Co. in Shelbyville, Ind., which she said is the only manufacturer of reel mowers in the United States. “Sales continue to rise every year.”

Phenomenal might be a little strong. Exact statistics aren’t available, but McClain estimates 350,000 manual mowers are sold in the United States each year — most made by her company. That is just a fraction of the 6 million gas-powered walk-behind mowers that hit the market last year.

Still, that number is about 100,000 more than were sold just five years ago and seven times as many as the estimated 50,000 a year sold in the 1980s, McClain said.

American Lawn Mower was one of about 60 domestic manufacturers of manual mowers at the end of World War II, when power mowers began taking over the industry, McClain said. Now, it is the only one making the mowers in the U.S., although some U.S.-based companies make the mowers in other countries.

According to buyers and sellers, the resurgence of these quaint reminders of yesteryear is due most notably to growing environmental concerns and an increasing number of women who do the mowing.

Headlines about global warming, pollution and vanishing natural resources have people — and not just those wearing Birkenstocks — making changes.

“I’m not a tree hugger but I think we all think about being more environmentally friendly and leave less of a footprint on the world,” said Ben Kogan, a Chicago architect who started using his new mower this spring.

“It’s an introduction into green gardening and a more green lifestyle,” said Jim Grisius, 45, of Homewood, Ill.

And the mowers provide one way to respond to pollution from gas-powered mowers, not to mention the warnings from at least one former vice president.

“I definitely see a bigger selection of people all the time, especially since the Al Gore movie (’An Inconvenient Truth’),” said Lars Hundley, the owner of Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas-based gardening equipment retailer.

The mower also is appealing because it is inexpensive — around $200 — and so simple.

It looks different than the one invented in England in the 1830s to take over a job that once belonged to scythe-wielding people or hungry sheep. And with the use of lighter metals and plastic, it’s a lot lighter than the heavy iron and wood mowers some baby boomers remember pushing around for a measly 50 cents an hour.

But it works pretty much the same way it always did: Just push it and it cuts.

“I don’t have to worry about gas, repairs and getting it (the mower) started,” said Eric Skalinder, a 35-year-old Chicago teacher.

Perhaps just as significant, more people are finding they don’t need a power mower because they have less lawn to mow.

McClain said houses in many new developments are being built on lots of a third of an acre or less. And with yard sizes reduced even further by increasingly popular amenities like rock gardens, sitting areas and dog runs, “the mowing area is really very small,” she said.

Kogan and Skalinder said that, considering their yards are the size of apartment bedrooms, power mowers didn’t seem necessary.

“I felt a gas-powered (mower) was a little over the top for my needs,” said Skalinder, adding he didn’t want to use the kind of screaming power mower that keeps him awake when he’s trying to nap.

Those are welcome words to those in the manual lawn mower business, who well know the hold that big, roaring machines have on the public. “For a lot of people power is the thing,” said McClain.

Even for all his talk about a “green lifestyle,” Grisius wondered if he really wanted to buy a powerless lawn mower.

“There was a little bit of ... do I want to be the only guy on the block with a reel mower?” he said.

Luckily for the manual mower business, there is a whole segment of the population that isn’t enamored with power tools or worried about looking wimpy: Women.

“We noticed very quickly that two out of three people buying manual mowers were female,” said Terry Jarvis, president of Sunlawn Inc., a Fort Collins, Colo.-based company that’s been selling the mowers for 10 years and making its own for two.

“Women like the simplicity of the machines, the fact that they work.” he said. “I constantly hear women commenting, ’I love the useful exercise.”’

Melissa Vesper, 32, of Arlington, Texas, appreciates how she can spend time with her two small children while she’s mowing — something she couldn’t do with a noisy gas mower that turned pebbles and twigs into projectiles.

“I can hear them and not worry about things getting flung at them,” she said.

Nobody suggests that manual mowers — still rare enough that Kogan’s neighbors confessed they didn’t realize they still existed — are going to push power mowers aside.

Reel mowers, which Hundley said many people buy over the Internet, increasingly are showing up in large hardware chains and small mom-and-pop places alike. But Hundley said stores aren’t likely to let push mowers that cost about $200 or less to take valuable display place from power mowers that can cost hundreds of dollars more.

“They’d rather sell an $800 Toro they make a couple hundred bucks on than (make) a few bucks on a push mower,” he said.

Still, some owners say they plan on sticking with manual mowers — and maybe get others to follow.

“I hope my neighbors see me,” said Skalinder. “I hope people see it and I can offer them a loaner (and) get more people to use them.”