The lush, green lawn is such a staple of the American dream, and an ideal associated with owning a home and property. We tend to forget it wasn’t always that way. The lawn has strong European roots. Its concept arrived in the United States (and North America as a whole) with early immigrants. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the history of the lawns in America and around the world.
This article will provide a timeline for the importation to the lawn to the New World. I’ll also discuss how and when it became so ubiquitous on our properties here in America.
History of Lawns & How They Originated in Europe
Grass always had a hospitable home in Europe, where the climate tends to be moist and temperate. It was in England of the 17th century that it became especially en vogue for wealthy landowners to have an extensive lawn.
At that time, great wealth was necessary for a lawn. After all, one needed an army of servants to keep the lawns trimmed and maintained.
A well-manicured lawn was a possession of the aristocracy and upper ranks of the gentry only.
Scotland plays a significant role in the development of the lawn.
This is because the country had so many open spaces without trees. It was this reality that led to the development of sports that require a lawn, such as golf and bowling or lawn bowls.
There were a few reasons why only the wealthy had lawns at this time:
- The first is that lawns require a number of servants to maintain.
- Additionally, a lawn has no utilitarian purpose. After all, one cannot eat grass. The space that a lawn occupies cannot be used to produce food. So only those with a surplus of food could “waste” that space.
How Lawns Arrived in North America
Immigrants from England, Scotland, and other areas of Northern Europe brought grass seeds and their love for the lawn to North America.
Sometimes travelers carried seeds with them in a deliberate fashion. Other times seeds arrived accidentally. For example, grass seeds sometimes arrived in North America on the hems of coats and other clothing. Grass and lawn seeds even arrived within crates of miscellaneous goods made in Europe.
George Washington’s admiration of the lawns of European palaces also played an instrumental part in the development of the American lawn obsession.
He hired an English landscape gardener specifically to help him create a lush bowling green. Overall in the America at this point, though, most people still preferred the aesthetic of the English Garden.
So, starting in the 19th century, North America had the idea and possibility of the lawn. Still, lawns were still only popular with wealthy people who owned rural properties.
Some exceptions included public parks in cities (such as Central Park in New York City).
Others are golf courses. Golf courses and public parks in themselves, in fact, played a major role in a developing love for lawns and the dream of individuals to have a space like that of their own.
During the years between 1910 and 1924, the USGA (the U.S. Golf Association) played a big role in research carried out with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the most effective methods of gras cultivation for lawns. It was considered so important, that the first experimental turf farm ever to exist in the United States stood where the Pentagon is located today.
In 1830 the first lawnmower was invented and patented by Edwin Beard Budding in Gloucestershire, England. It was actually inspired by a machine he’d witnessed cutting fabric at a local cloth mill.
Mowers began to gain popularity on farms by the time the 1890s arrived. It would be once lawnmowers could be mass-produced post WWII that lawns became much more common in the USA. Homeowners could buy and own a mower of their very own for their property.
History of Lawns in the 1950s: What Changed
It was in the 1950s that the popularity of suburbs really exploded. A lawn was integral to the design of these spaces. And so, the history of lawns in America will be forever linked to suburbia.
Suburbs made new homeowners strive to take care of their lawns with a perfectionist’s eye.
Neighbors pressured each other, and everyone was afraid of having the worst lawn on the block.
The invention of the rotary lawnmower occurred in the 1950s.
There was also the advent of different kinds of pesticides (many of them dangerous), as well as residential lawn fertilizer spreaders that made them easy to apply.
These developments made having a lawn entirely free of weeds possible.
Today most people consider clover to be a weed and seek to eradicate it from their lawns. But in the early ’50s clover many people considered clover perfectly normal and many wanted it in their lawns. This was because it was effective in bringing nitrogen existing in the air into the earth, a process that helped give one’s lawn more nutrition.
But soon very strong and dangerous herbicides emerged. Since many of these killed clover, people started to think of this plant as something to remove from an attractive property.
Lawns and Keeping up with the Jonses
Most of us know how much Americans tie together the lawn with ideas of success and status.
Really an accident to history, for decades the lawn has been a part of one’s property that homeowners have spent thousands of dollars and endless amounts of worry and frustration on. We try to make our lawns as beautiful as those of our neighbors.
Homeowner associations often have regulations which dictate how often lawns must be maintained. They also will describe how this maintenance should take place.
This is because of the perception (and still the fact) that the state of the lawns in a neighborhood can bring down general home prices.
Many people who can afford it hire landscapers on a monthly (or even weekly) basis. This is to make sure their lawn stays up to standard.
The cost of lawncare products, the time it takes to maintain a lawn, and the overall investment in a uniform green space are factors that make the lawn such a status symbol.
For many Americans, the effort you put into caring for your lawn reflects your pride of ownership, and your participation in creating a “good” community that is pleasant for you and your neighbors to enjoy.
This idea is starting to give way a little, but it’s still very persistent in the suburbs of America.
Lawns in the Future
As we learn more about how dangerous certain herbicides and pesticides are, the lawn is continuing to evolve.
Natural practices have emerged as a focus in maintaining lawns today. Many homeowners are prioritizing safety over having “the perfect lawn.”
The good news is that it’s possible to have a lovely, lush and vividly green lawn without resorting to the toxic chemicals in harsh herbicides.
There are new ideas about what makes for a pleasant front yard circulating in the United States today. This is especially true among younger people.
People are starting to reject the obsession with uniformity that one saw in the ideal 1950s or ’60s lawn. Today’s homeowners are yearning instead to make their own unique mark.
Many homeowners today want more of a natural look and feel, even letting some wildflowers and flowering weeds flourish in their lawn, and allowing their green space to have a more complete ecosystem.
Still others object to how much of suburbia is grass (a beautiful, if useless space). Imagine if people planted Victory Gardens (vegetable gardens) instead!
Given how many Americans still obsess about every aspect of their lawn, worrying about judgment from the neighbors if even one element is askew, it’s unlikely that the general cultural connection between lawns and status will completely disappear in the near future.
Cultural change tends to be gradual. And we’re certainly seeing that at play in how we think about our yards today. When we look back at the history of lawns in America and around the world, we’re offered important context that can help us understand how we got here.