The History of American Lawns

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The American lawn is a fairly recent invention that had its start as a landscape feature of European manor houses that announced status and wealth

The subject of the well-manicured lawn and its place in the home landscape has been controversial for many, many years. As far back as the early 1700s, European landscape designers were spouting the aesthetic virtues of lawns to the landed gentry and selling secondary idea of the lawn as a status symbol.

Promoting lawns never failed to get Enlightenment garden designers work because 1) lawns show off castles and manor homes beautifully by framing them in a soothing sea of green; 2) people who live in manor houses surrounded by a soothing sea of green quietly show the world that they can afford to not grow food on their property; and finally 3) lawns were labor intensive and as such could only be sold to people who had enough money to employ a staff of gardeners, caretakers, and landscape philosophers.

How Lawns Came to America

Before the Industrial Revolution, most American homes did not have lawns. The typical front yard consisted of a patch of hard dirt and maybe a small cottage flower garden. Whatever land was available out back was used to grow vegetables, fruit trees, and maybe to keep a chicken or two. After America won its independence, visitors to the States brought back stories of a nation of yokels with ‘yard birds’ (an older, derogatory word for a chicken kept at home), while American diplomats to Europe came back with serious lawn envy.

Not to be outdone, American rich people began to plant lawns too. Even the White House got a lawn. Having a lawn became not just a status symbol, but also a mark of patriotism; a way of announcing to the world that the United States had attained the prosperity and refinement of its former colonizers. This was a mark of pride for the U.S. in early years, especially since European visitors to the new nation frequently made note of the lack of refinement in the landscape design.

In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, IN, invented the push lawn mower; making it possible for the first time in history for ordinary working people to cultivate and care for a lawn of their very own. McGuire’s invention was a wild success, and an entire industry grew up overnight around grass seed, fertilizers, crabgrass killers and insecticides, mowers and lawn equipment, and assorted turf experts and lawn services.

By the 1950s the suburban lawn had become imbued with a status similar to the lawns of aristocratic 17th century European manor houses: A well-kept lawn around a suburban tract home signaled to the rest of the United States that the owner was a successful member of the new and affluent middle class. Aristocracy, in American hands, went mainstream. People loved their lawns and loved that anyone could plant one.

American Lawns Decline in Popularity As Suburbia Declines in Popularity

Sometime in the early to mid-70s, American dreams of Suburbia began to go all surreal and woozy. By the 1990s director Tim Burton was actively mocking the whole suburban scene in the wildly popular film Edward Scissorhands; suburban housewives were being turned into droids in The Stepford Wives; and suburban dads were being eaten alive by sales sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Suddenly suburbia had become declasse and more than just a little bit creepy. Hippies were hitting middle age at about this same time and were finally coming into enough money to do hippie things to their own suburban lawns; things like tearing them up completely in favor of wildflowers, buffalo grass, vegetable gardens and home grown hemp. Some of the new suburbanites even bought goats.

Today Americans have come full circle on the topic of lawns and status. The hottest new trend in landscape design leans toward professionally installed and maintained vegetable plots in Manhattan, something that NY food author and columnist Corby Kummer has labeled, “The highest form of luxury…” but critics have dismissed as ecological snobbery, ‘green chic’, or “the $64 tomato.” (Considering the current price of real estate in Manhattan, $64 might not quite cover that tomato. But the status of being able to afford to grow it remains.)

Awareness of the ecological cost of spreading chemicals on lawns that then leach into the water table or into nearby rivers and waterways has also grown. Today ‘s suburban homeowners are as likely to keep the yard our peasant ancestors favored (flowers out front, vegetables out back, plus a fruit tree or two) as they are to plant a formal, high maintenance lawn.

Sources:

  1. “History of the American Lawn,” reprinted online courtesy of The Limpkin: Newsletter of the Spacecoast Audubon Society of Brevard County Florida.
  2. “History of Lawns,” Coalition for a Healthy Calgary