The philosophy of the Great American Lawn

Green expanses have a price

Push mower, c. 1940s

Push mower, c. 1940s

MOWED LAWN GRASSES seem oddly perverse. Their ideal state is timeless, unchanging, eternal; they grow and grow and grow and never mature. The telos, the genetically programmed desire, of plant life is to mature and reproduce itself. Nowhere in nature do grass blades grow upward to a two-inch height, and then chop themselves off, making themselves perpetually preadolescent botanical castrati. Nowhere in nature do grasses — if not interrupted by acts of God — not flower, go to seed and propagate.

The current definition of a good lawn, according to cultural historian Virginia Scott Jenkins’s The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, is “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” To maintain such a lawn demands that on a weekly basis the life cycle of lawn grasses be interrupted. Slicing off the blade’s chlorophyll-rich photosynthesizing tip diminishes the grass’s ability to make and store food, which in turn means fertilizer must be applied. A lawn is rather like a brain-dead ten-year-old, kept alive on an IV-drip.

In the United States, as of 1991, some 45 million home lawns, more than 50,000 square miles, about the size of the state of Illinois, were trying to go to seed and being frustrated in that attempt. Home lawns — plus parks, golf courses, and lawns surrounding public buildings and cemetery markers and separating freeways — from coast to coast have replaced forests, deserts, wetlands, and meadows with savannahs composed of turf grasses not native to America.

The grass lawn is so common a part of the American landscape that a youngster easily might believe that God seeded one after another of these sharply edged green turfs during His seven-day creation frenzy. But He didn’t. According to historian Jenkins, the lawn as we know it is recent and peculiarly American.

The definition of lawn, writes Jenkins, has changed several times during the last 400 years. In the 16th Century, when Francis Bacon observed that “nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass finely shorn” and the lawn mower was a sheep, the word lawn, from launde or land, referred to an open space or glade in the woods. In the 17th Century a lawn was a stretch of untilled ground covered with grass; when this grass was cut, men armed with scythes did the cutting. By the 18th Century lawn had come to mean a portion of a garden or pleasure ground covered with grass and kept closely mowed.

Before the Civil War, few Americans other than the wealthy kept front lawns. Most grass growing near a house was rough pasture. Grasses indigenous to North America did not produce good lawn; they were rough after cutting and green only during the growing season. Houses in American towns tended to be built close to the street and fronted by a small fenced garden. Farm houses and out-buildings were surrounded by pasture, fields, or gardens and a packed dirt farmyard where chickens pecked at insects and the farm wife tossed the “slops,” or kitchen garbage. In the South, swept dirt or sand, covered with pine straw, surrounded houses. In the Southwest, adobe houses were built around cool interior courtyards, the more luxurious of these courtyards graced by a fountain. In the 1830s an English textile engineer recognized that the machine used to shear soft nap away from carpets could be rebuilt as a machine that cut grass. The engineer fabricated a reel mower. The mower was not produced in quantity, because little demand either in England or the United States existed for it. What grass-cutting got done was still done primarily by sheep or scythesmen.

Jenkins traces the development of the post-Civil War single-family house surrounded by grass through three major suburban movements. Suburban communities, founded between 1850–1880 near Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York, were made possible by expansion of rail- road, street car, and trolley lines. These late-19th- century suburban communities, built for upper- and upper-middle-class families, were modeled after parks and frequently given the name “Park,” as in Tuxedo Park in New York or Takoma Park near Washington, D.C. Some excellent descriptions of these suburbias can be found in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and E.L. Doctorow’s newest novel, The Waterworks. In the latter, Doctorow writes:

The War of Secession made us rich. When it was over there was nothing to stop progress — no classical ruins of ideas no superstitions to retard civil republican ardor. Not so much had to be destroyed or overturned as in the European cultures of Roman towns and medieval guilds. A few Dutch farms were razed, villages melded into towns, towns burned into precincts, and all at once block and tackle were raising the marble and granite mansions of Fifth Avenue. ... Almost a million people called New York home, everyone securing his needs in a state of cheerful degeneracy. Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by.

As Jenkins indicates, no single person so strongly influenced the aesthetic of early suburbias as Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903). Best known as designer in 1858 of New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted’s ambition was to adapt the 18th-century informal English garden to an American setting, particularly in parks for public use. Olmsted had toured England in 1850, visiting Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park, the first landscaped park intentionally laid out for public use. Olmsted recorded his journey abroad in his 1852 Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, noting about Birkenhead Park that “in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to with this People’s Garden.” (In California, Olmsted was principal landscape designer, in 1888, for Stanford University’s campus.)

In 1868, Olmsted was commissioned to design Riverside, outside Chicago, one of America’s first planned suburbias. Olmsted recommended that each house be set back a mini- mum of 30 feet from the sidewalk. In spite of the Tory Anglophilia exhibited by many among America’s new monied classes and their longing to recreate in the new America the old country homes of the English aristocracy, Olmsted’s design forbad high surrounding walls and hedges that surrounded these English houses. He believed these walls and hedges made city neighborhoods appear “a series of private madhouses,” and further, were “selfish” and “undemocratic” features, not to be encouraged in America. The required 30 feet would be put into lawn, and each home’s lawn would merge into his neighbors’ lawn. These green expanses, Olmsted hoped, would create the impression that all families in these new suburbias lived together, sharing one central park.

Jenkins, unlike other writers about gardening in America — Ann Leighton, Michael Pollan, and Allen Lacy — does not mention Frank J. Scott’s The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, published in 1870. Scott’s popular gardening manual is as important a document in the history of home gardening in America as The Boston Cooking School Cookbook is to the history of home cooking. Allen Lacy in his collection of American garden writing, The American Gardener: A Sampler, reprints several sections from Scott’s book. These selections show some of the changes Scott wished to make in lawn aesthetic from that of English to American lawns. The English country estate lawn was secondary to trees, flowers, ponds, fountains, and furnishings, and served as the location for games and parties. Scott advised that the lawn in America become the most important landscaping element: “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” And: “An unbroken lawn around the dwelling should typify the unwritten page in the opening book of earnest life.” Scott recommended that other elements — flowers, trees, lawn furniture — be only secondary to the lawn. About flowers, he wrote: “Imagine bits of lace or bows of ribbon stuck promiscuously over the body and skirt of a lady’s dress. ‘How vulgar!’ you exclaim. Put them in their appropriate places and what charming points they make! Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.”

Like Olmsted before him, Scott abhorred the barriers that surrounded English and Continental houses. Scott wrote, “There is no way in which men deprive themselves of what costs them nothing and profits them much, more than by dividing their improved grounds from their neighbors, and from the view of passers on the road, by fences and hedges. The beauty obtained by throwing front grounds open together is of that excellent quality which enriches all who take part in the exchange and makes no man poorer.”

Scott goes further, how- ever, than Olmsted, from a political to a religious argument. “It is unchristian,” Scott wrote, “to hedge from the sight of others the beau- ties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure; and all the walls, high fences, hedge screens, and belts of trees and shrubbery

which are used for that purpose only, are so many means by which we show how unchristian and unneighborly we can be. It is true these things are not usually done in any mere spirit of selfishness: they are the conventional forms of planting that come down to us from feudal times.”

Not everyone, of course, agreed with Olm- sted and Scott. Thorstein Veblen, in his 1899 The Theory of the Leisure Class, saw the lawn as one more negative example of “conspicuous consumption.” Lacy’s collection offers several anti-lawn, pro-fence essays.

Jenkins notes that in the U.S. the first three patents for lawn mowers were issued in 1868. By 1881 the Patent Office had granted 138 patents for lawn mowers. In 1881, 47,661 lawn mowers were manufactured in the United States; fewer than one-half of one percent of households recorded in the 1880 census owned a mower.

Grasses that provided year-round lawn were not yet readily available. In the late 1880s, writes Jenkins, the federal government initiated a search for grass that would provide lawn in all of America’s varied climates, and mail- order catalogs had begun to offer lawn-seed mixtures. The Sears, Roebuck catalog showed lawn-care equipment in its 1896 catalog. By 1900, by which time some 15 percent of the population lived in suburbs, many companies were selling grass-seed mixtures for different growing conditions.

Suburbia’s second great expansion occurred in the 1920s, when Henry Ford’s autos provided mobility needed for workers to live at a distance from their workplaces. Some idea of what these developments were like can be gathered from Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 Babbitt, in which developer George F. Babbitt takes pride in his Zenith City suburb, Glen Oriole. He “ironed woodland and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with small boards announcing the names of imaginary streets.”

As suburban developments proliferated, the front lawn that had been a luxury of the wealthy became a status symbol for the middle class. How important the appearance of these lawns were can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway has rented a small house near Jay Gatsby’s estate on the fictional West Egg, Long Island. Carraway has not attended properly to his lawn. In Chapter Five, Gatsby, visiting Carraway, gazes across Carraway’s unmown grass and then offers to send his yardman to mow Carraway’s lengthy grass.

“I want to get the grass cut,” he said. We both looked at the grass — there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began.

This second expansion in acreage put into lawns, according to Jenkins, was also influenced by the growing popularity of golf. After the first permanent golf course in the U.S. was built on a cow pasture in Ardsley, New York, in 1888, others followed. A search began for grass species that would survive golfers’ traffic. Collaboration between the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Golf Association on grass research began early in the 1900s, with the USDA providing technical assistance to the USGA. By 1928 the USDA had 480 test plots in Arlington, Virginia, at the Arlington Turf Gardens, for trials of putting green grasses, fairway mixtures, turf diseases, and pests, fertilizers, for cut- ting and watering experiments, and tests of turf under various playing conditions. At the same time, USDA researchers also conducted experiments on grasses for home lawns. (After World War II, the USDA’s Arlington facility was razed and the Pentagon built atop the old turf test plots.)

Between 1930 and World War II’s end, new housing starts lapsed and few new lawns were put in. Using magazine articles and advertisements, Jenkins shows that despite the building slump, the lawn industry managed to hold on through the Depression and war by selling their products to homeowners with established lawns and to federal, state, and local governments for public projects. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps built parks and playgrounds, surrounding them with new turf.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, grass seed, fertilizers, lawn mowers, gasoline, and rubber hoses were difficult for civilians to acquire. But these materials were available to the federal government, writes Jenkins, adding that during the war years the government expanded lawn building and care, seeding in new lawns around munitions factories, shell-loading plants, housing projects, and military bases.

The federal government, however, did not dis- courage civilian lawns. Jenkins quotes from a USDA pamphlet — “A Message from Your Uncle Sam” — published in January 1943. “In the Victory Garden campaign that is being planned for this year there is no thought of asking homeowners to spade up their front lawns or otherwise mutilate their ornamental plantings in order to grow vegetables. Too much of this kind of thing was done in the last war, and most of it paid pretty poor dividends.”

After World War II, writes Jenkins, “American lawns were in bad shape.” She quotes an article in the September 1945 issue of House and Garden: “The lawn is one of the saddest wartime casualties in the home garden. Annual feeding has been foregone and, in many instances lack of time has precluded even mowing. Consequently weeds are prevalent, the permanent grasses are being crowded out, the turf is thin, the sod probably run down, and insect damage has gone unchecked.”

With World War II’s end, writes Jenkins, the third and by far most widespread suburban development began. This development was financed by the federal government through Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loans for mortgages and by government funding for highways. Builders like William Levitt, who raised 17,000 homes in his Levittown, Long Island, subdivision, drew on a tradition of upper-middle-class suburban development and furnished their blue-collar tract housing with lawns.

By 1946, imported and hybrid grasses, new chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides (many formulated by the War Department), lawn mowers, and lawn tools were soon on sale again to civilians. Jenkins notes that in 1941 Americans spent $5 million on power lawn mowers; in 1950, Americans spent $100 million on power lawn mowers. By 1960 the nearly 30 million home lawns in the United States were being added to at the rate of almost half a million a year, and the average American lawn covered about 1/13 of an acre.

From magazines published in the ’50s and ’60s, Jenkins uses advertisements and articles, the latter some- times written by employees of companies who sold lawn-care supplies and equipment, to show that after World War II standards of perfection for lawn beauty continued to be raised. She shows, too, that these standards were impossible to reach and maintain without herbicides, fertilizers, and specialized equipment. “Lawns,” Jenkins writes, “were not a need expressed by consumers that was then met by producers. The need was fostered by producers, who continued to raise standards of what constituted a good lawn.”

All along, of course, the unfenced American “front” lawn, like the American “front” room, offered opportunities for the lawn’s owner to “put up a good front” and “keep up a good front.” Jenkins notes that advertising, throughout the 20th century, increasingly equated a good lawn with good citizenship. As Americans became more mobile and less often knew neighbors, so a neat front yard more often became a sign that behind the picture window dwelled a virtuous family. Jenkins quotes from a 1969 Life essay that described lawn care as the one act by which Americans judge the moral fitness of fellow citizens. “You don’t get to know your neighbors personally. You DO get to know how they keep their front yard. If you want to belong to the community fast, you conform.”

The good lawn, however, has its price. Now, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans dribble and spray some 70 million pounds of chemicals onto lawns each year. Again, according to the EPA, acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as the average U.S. farmland, with homeowners using higher concentrations of these chemicals than do most commercial farmers.

Jenkins doesn’t believe that the front lawn as we know it is here to stay. She cites a 1991 New York Times Op-Ed piece by Michael Pollan, Harper’s magazine editor and author of Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan chided then- President George Bush, who’d put himself forward as the “environmental President,” for not doing more to earn that distinction. Pollan proposed that President Bush issue an executive order to the Park Service to rip out the White House lawn. Pollan suggested that the lawn be replaced by meadow, wetland (the White House grounds’ original habitat), a vegetable garden managed according to organic principles that could supply food for Washington’s poor, or an orchard of apple trees, underplanted with meadow grasses.

“A new landscape aesthetic is a cultural creation,” Jenkins concludes, “and it remains to be seen whether the environmental movement in this country can enlist as potent a group of supporters for the 21st Century as the lawn industry, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture did during the 20th Century.

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