All photos/art by Mark Brewer
The popularity of the rake as a lawn-manicuring device coincided with the post-World War II boom in suburban homebuilding. As demand grew, so too did attempts to improve upon this perfectly simple tool. The first commercially available mechanical rakes, usually consisting of an assembly of spinning tines on wheels, were introduced around this time, and new models have been rolled out regularly ever since.Although several popular brands are available, none has succeeded in replacing the original, human-powered version.
It’s been estimated that there are approximately 12 billion hardwoods in New England. With all those trees, of course, come all those leaves, about 416,000 dump-truck loads’ worth. And for as long as man–the New Englander in particular–has had to move leaves, he’s had a good rake at his side. Here’s a brief history of autumn’s most essential tool.
The word rake comes from the Old English raca, from a German root meaning “to scrape together.” The first “rake” was almost certainly the human hand. Eventually, some of our earliest ancestral geniuses realized that they could save some wear and tear on their fingers by using a stick or a branch to move leaves around.
As the work of farming became more standardized, the rake evolved from a found item to a manufactured tool. At first, sticks were split into forks, with bits of wood wedged between to spread the tines. In time, forked branches gave way to wooden pegs fitted into drilled holes. A version of this wood-peg rake was used in China in 1100 B.C.
Don’t Leave Home Without (Burying) It
In colonial America, rakes and other garden implements were expensive and custom-made, among a family’s most important possessions, which made them a target of thieves. During the Revolutionary War, when men left home to join the fight, they often buried their garden tools to protect them.
The flexible fan rake was brought to the U.S. from Japan by entrepreneur George McGuire in 1919. American shopkeepers were unimpressed, feeling that this bamboo tool was too flimsy. When they didn’t sell, McGuire gave his rakes away. The strategy worked, and fan rakes remained a core product of the George W. McGuire Company, which was eventually bought by the Dejay Corporation in 1994, throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
Blowin’ In The Wind
The gas-powered leaf blower was created by innovative customers who discovered around 1950 that they could remove the chemical tank from Echo Inc.’s garden insecticide sprayer, add a metal pipe, and use the device as a portable apparatus. Before the end of the decade, several manufacturers had brought to market stripped-down versions, sold as lawn-maintenance tools. By 1997 leaf-blower sales had topped one million units annually.
Getting Ahead By Sucking Up
Blowing leaves is good–if your goal is just to move them around and stir up lots of dust. The more-muscular twin of the leaf blower, the leaf vacuum, takes things a step further by sucking up leaves and either collecting them in a receptacle or grinding them into mulch. The first popular model was introduced by Giant-Vac in 1966; today, manufacturers offer portable hand-held vacuums, larger varieties that attach directly to lawn mowers, and stand-alone models, too.
Nightmare on Elm Street
In 1997, George Eric Laughlin of Springfield, Ohio, patented his “glove rake”: a work glove with tines attached to the fingers.
Give Him An ‘A’
In 2008, Ryan Jansen, a student at Southern Illinois University, created the Rake N’ Take, a refashioning of the traditional tool that not only moves leaves around but also clutches them for easy lifting. Jansen’s innovation won him a Dyson Award, sponsored by bagless vacuum inventor Sir James Dyson.