Monday, September 22, 2014

1 scythe, 5 acres, 8 hours?

"Mowing Matches" were competitions where contestants with scythes would try to mow a certain area in the least time, or try to mow the most area in a given time. These contests date back to the 1700s or earlier. (From the mid-1800s onward, mowing matches were also held to compare the performance of various designs of mechanical mowers and reapers.) 

Listed below are the published results of some mowing matches held during the past few centuries.

1795 -- Finchley, England 
2 acres (0.8 ha) of grass cut in six hours and 40 minutes

A mowing match was decided a few days ago at Finchley; the prize being a fat hog of eight and twenty stone, and a wooden powdering-tub lined with lead. Only married men under one and thirty years of age were allowed to be candidates, of which there were eleven The winner cut down, and laid in swathe, in a neat and farmer-like manner, two acres of grass, in six hours and forty minutes.

1822 -- New Boston, NH, USA 
One acre (0.4 ha) of grass cut in one hour and 26 minutes

There was a famous mowing match in New Boston, on Saturday, August 17th, between Mr Daniel Andrews, of New Boston, and Mr Abel Hart, of Goffstown. The competition was who should mow an acre of meadow grass the quickest and best. The ground was staked out and the work performed in the presence of numerous spectators. Mr Andrews completed his acre in one hour and twenty six minutes. Mr Hart in one hour and twenty eight and a half minutes. The victory was of course decided in favor of Mr Andrews.  Amherst (N.H.) Cabinet.

1826 -- Stratham, NH, USA 
813 square feet (75.5 square meters) in one minute

    On the morning of the 4th inst. many of the farmers and other inhabitants of Stratham assembled at the Plain's corner to witness the novel exhibition of a mowing match. The premium was an elegant scythe, by which the work was executed. The rule was previously established that no candidates should be accepted, excepting those between the ages of 18 and 21; that after the work was executed it should be measured, and the three best mowers should again perform the task. Three judges were appointed: Major Benj. Clark, Major David Robinson, and Capt Joseph Smith, with liberty to the mowers to select two additional ones. if they should think fit.
     When the work was executed by the nine mowers who had presented themselves as candidates, it appeared that Messrs Benjamin F Clark, Nathan L Morrill, and Benjamin Kelly, had done the best minutes mowing; and the work was again performed by them, when it was declared by the judges that Mr C. had mowed in one minute, 45 strokes, 8 feet swathe, and 101 feet in length, being 808 feet square; Mr M. 50 strokes, 7-3/4 feet swathe, and 103 feet in length, being 796 feet square; and Mr K. 48 strokes, 7-7/12 feet swathe, and 107-1/4 feet in length, being 813 feet and one quarter square; and Mr Kelly accordingly received the premium. The thanks of the company were tendered to the gentlemen who acted as judges; to Capt Smith for the use of his field; and to Rev Mr Cummings, for an elegant and appropriate address delivered by him upon the occasion.
     Previous to the dissolution of the meeting, Major Smith, aged 80 last autumn, mowed one minute and cut over a surface of 803 feet square. The work was executed by him with great ease, and he was rewarded by the applause of all present and with a badge of respect and honour. It is proposed to continue these meetings; and we shall endeavour in our next paper, to give some further account of the plan. We regret that our limits will not allow a more extended notice of this first exhibition of the kind.
[Exeter Gazette]

1827 -- Canandaigua, NY, USA
586 square feet (54.4 square meters) in one minute

     In giving an account of the festivities off the 4th, the mowing match should not be forgotten. As soon as the procession returned from the church, a large concourse of people repaired to the meadow of Mr Thaddeus Chapin, a few rods west of the burying ground, where the following exercises took place: Fourteen candidates entered for the premiums, six in number, to be awarded to the man who should cut the most grass, and in the best manner, in the space of one minute. The first premium, (an elegant scythe with snath) was taken by Calvin Simmons, who cut 586-1/2 square feet; swarthe 9 feet 2 inches wide. The second do. (an axe was) awarded to John Kentm who cut 511 square feet; swarthe 9 feet 9 inches wide. Third do. (a hoe), to John Woby, a colored man, who cut 546 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Fourth do. (a fork) to Daniel Trowbridge, who cut 508-1/2 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Fifth do. (a spade) to Elias Russell, who cut 557 square feet; swarthe 9 feet wide. Sixth do. (a shovel) to K. Murray, who cut 496 square feet; swarthe 8 feet wide.
     All the work was extremely well done, and it was with some difficulty that the judges, Messrs. Bates, Wilson, and Hubbell, could determine which of the men ought in justice, receive the last two premiums.
     The premium articles were all of elegant workmanship and were given by several of our most respectable citizens.
[Canandiagua Repository]

1828 -- Canandaigua, NY, USA
892 square feet (82.9 square meters) in one minute

The Mowing Match at Canandaigua on the 4th excited much interest. The first premium, a Plough, was awarded to Samuel Remington, of that town, who mowed in one minute 100 feet in length, and a total of 892 square feet.

1856 -- Vallejo, CA, USA
5 acres (2.0 ha) of grass cut in 7 hours, 55 minutes

The True Californian gives an account of a mowing match which came off on the 9th instant, in Vallejo Valley, near the town of Vallejo, between Addison M. Ripley, from Maine, and Mr. Ball, from Vermont. The task was five acres of grass each, turning off two and a half tons to the acre! They mowed against time. Mr. Ripley won the match, finishing his work in seven hours and fifty-five minutes, and beating his adversary a quarter of an acre!! The stake was five hundred dollars. Mowing machines would not stand much chance with such men.


The results of mowing matches should give some indication of what extremes are possible when a scythe is in very skilled hands attached to a strong body that is pushed to its limits. Such a pace is obviously not sustainable for actual farm work.

Of course, the results of non-standardized contests cannot be compared too closely, since there are numerous factors that can cause variations in the outcomes. These factors include differences in grass type, height, density and moisture content; contest format; requirements and penalties related to quality of cut; and inaccuracies in area measurements. "Sloppy reporting" could also distort the results of a match.

(Interesting to see so much variation in the reported results from 1827 and 1828, with the matches held only one year apart at the same town.)

Nevertheless, these published results show some remarkable achievements in the realm of hand mowing, during times when scythes were common tools on a farm. In the early 1800s, more than 800 sq ft (75 sq m) could be cut in one minute, and an acre (0.4 ha) could be cut in an hour and a half (assuming that the reports are factual).

The report from the 1826 match gives some notable details. The mowers in this match cut only one swath, at whatever width was optimal for them. The swath widths were around 8 feet for the top contestants. The winner mowed a distance of 107 ft (33 m) in one minute using 48 strokes, which means that his average forward advance was over 26 inches (68 cm) per stroke! The corresponding advances for the other top contestants were similarly over two feet (60 cm) per stroke.

To obtain such a large advance with each stroke would require a long blade (swung a certain way) and a sturdy snath (to withstand the forces from moving that amount of grass with each quick stroke). The American scythes of that era could qualify, with their stout snaths, and blades commonly available around 4 ft (1.2 m) in length.

[New York] Farmer whetting his scythe, by William Sidney Mount, 1848

Competition scythe (S├╝dtiroler Bauernjugend photo, 2010)

The 1856 (Vallejo) match results are outstanding, perhaps unbelievable. The newspaper reports that the winner's name was Ripley --  so believe it or not.

In closing, the following newspaper article from 1900 gives an account of a mowing match that was surely a "tall tale" from a storyteller:


The Greatest of All Giants Enters In the Farmers' Mowing Matches.

"If anything," said the old circus man, "the great giant used to come out strongest In competitive contests. You see, there he showed for not only what he was, but even greater, by the contrast. Of course, he was always in contrast, but here the contrast was made more striking; but we never failed to enter him in any sort of a competitive contest that we could get him into. Mowing contests, for instance, the giant was very strong in; and we never missed an opportunity to put him into one of these when we could. The old man was always on the outlook, sharp, for this sort of thing, in any form, and if he ran up against a mowing match coming off, say the day the circus struck the town, he'd get the old man into it somehow, sure; not, of course, entering him as a giant or a big man, or anything of that sort, but simply as an unknown. He used to go equipped for this mowing business.

"I suppose that the average scythe blade would be three feet or thereabouts In length, and the snath maybe four feet and a half long. Well, now, the giant's scythe had a blade about ten feet long and a handle about fifteen. Those farmers would get together in a grass lot to see what a man could do, say, in half an hour, everything to count; width of swath, forward cut, cleanness and evenness of the mowing, and so on. I suppose that a man might cut a swath five feet wide, possibly more, but more likely less, and his cut as he stepped forward with even swings of the sharp scythe might be a foot to eighteen inches. The young farmer, and some old ones, too, for that matter, would try, one after another, in this competition, every man swinging along in fine style, till pretty much all of them had had their chance at it and then they'd begin calling for the unknown, and then we'd bring up the giant.

"And he never failed to make a sensation when he appeared; but when he stepped into the field and took off his coat and tossed it into the wagon alongside the lot, and took his scythe out of the wagon, with its ten-foot blade and fifteen-foot snath, and rolled up his sleeves and took the scythe and set to mowing, then there was a sensation. Talk about cutting a wide swath! Why, you ought to see the giant! The farmers cut maybe five feet, the giant fifteen. They'd step forward a. foot or a foot and a half with every sweep, the giant four or five feet. And he was a good mower, too; cutting close and even and clean from side to side. Just think of it, will you!—a man cutting a path fifteen feet wide and going forward five feet at every stroke!

"Pretty soon the giant would stop and pull a scythe-stone out of his bootleg—this stone was three feet long, as long as an ordinary scythe blade —and sharpen his scythe with it; and then he'd drop the stone in his bootleg and go to mowing again. And pretty soon he'd get dry and want some cider; and that's where he used to come in again with business. We had a jug that was as big around as a barrel in the biggest part of it, and that was pretty near as tall, but a regular jug in shape, and we used to get this over the fence to him wherever he was, and he'd lift that up as easy as coud be and turn it up, looking like a balloon up there turned up in that way, and take a big, long drink and then set it down and go to mowing again.

"Well, when the giant had got through mowing there wasn't likely to be much grass left In that lot to mow, and there never was any doubt about who'd won the prize. And he used to cut as wide a swath among the farmers as he did in he grass. There wasn't a farmer for miles around but used to come to the [circus] show and bring his family. Maybe they'd ha' come anyway, but the giant's mowing hit 'em hard; and as for the rest of the community, why, It just simply got 'em all.

"My, my; but It makes me sigh to think of the great old giant."

—N. Y. Sun.
[appearing in the Los Angeles Herald, 1900}


Mowing Ahead sign, U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, sign number W21-8, public domain

Finchley match results from The Sporting Magazine, Vol. 6, Rogerson and Tuxford, London, September 1795, page 327

New Boston match results from New England Farmer, Vol. 1, No. 5, Boston, August 31, 1822, page 35

Stratham match results from The American Farmer, Vol. 8, No. 17, Baltimore, July 21, 1826, page 139. Also reported in New England Farmer, Vol. IV, No. 52, Boston, July 21, 1826, page 411

Canandaigua 1827 match results from Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. 32, No. 829, Baltimore, August 4, 1827, page 373

Canandaigua 1828 match results from New England Farmer, Vol. VII, No. 1, Boston, July 25, 1828, page 6

Vallejo match results from The Genesee Farmer, Vol. 17, No. 9, Rochester (NY), September 1856, page 267.  Also reported in Rockland County Journal, Nyack (NY), October 25, 1856, page 2

Farmer whetting his scythe painting from William Sidney Mount book by Frankenstein, Alfred. NY: Abrams, 1975, plate 31 [color] Hay in Art Database ID: 133

Competition scythe photo from S├╝dtiroler Bauernjugend, April 15, 2010

Circus giant story from Los Angeles Herald, No. 141, February 18, 1900, page 17.
Also appears in Rockland County Times, Nanuet (NY), March 10, 1900, page 6

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Monet and me

Haystacks at Giverny painted by Claude Monet, 1884.
Photograph by Christine Hemp, haystacks by her husband.