My occasional wanderings through the world of Victorian ephemera have definitely convinced me that bicycles represented a form of liberation–physical and otherwise–for women a century or so ago, but I’m confused by the multitudes of similar contemporaneous images of women operating lawnmowers: why would women actually choose to do tedious men’s work–didn’t they have enough to do, or, weren’t they in a good position to get out of it? Is this a case of advertising push rather than feminine pull? Women in short shorts and other inappropriate attire seem to be featured regularly in post-war advertisements for lawnmowers, but I’m more curious about trade cards and such appearing fifty years earlier, when women were supposed to be a bit more closeted. The first “lady with lawnmower” that captured my attention featured was an apparently quite famous English actress named Marie Studholme (1872-1930), who posed with all sorts of things, so I thought the lawnmower was just one more thing. But she was in good company: between 1890 and 1910 or so there were several manufacturers that seem to be marketing lawn mowers for women, or lawnmowers that were so easy to use that even girls could operate them (in their perfect pinafores). Perhaps this is a case of class trumping gender: after all, the majority of women didn’t have expansive lawns in need of tending. The lawn itself, like the lawn mower, is a nineteenth-century creation. I must confess to having a rather romantic attachment to my own manual lawnmower, but only because my backyard is mostly garden with very little lawn–and my husband always does the mowing.
Miss Marie Studholme with her bicycle and lawn mower, c. 1900; Lawn mower trade cards from c. 1880-1910, Boston Public Library and from a selection at the Trade Card Place.