With the rise of suburbs in post-WWII America, the Perfect Lawn has become a powerful symbol of the American dream. Whether it was a vast field of green mown in neat diagonal stripes or a more modest swatch of grass and clover, a lawn expressed the national ideal that with hard work sacrifices and can – being a little help from Uncle Sam, home ownership and a piece of land could be within the reach of all Americans.
In contrast, the historical development of lawns in Europe had largely expressed values of elitism and power: some inhabitants of medieval castles needed their tall grass cut by hand by scythes to see their enemies approaching. Landowners with livestock needed fields cut to grazing heights. And wealthy people with free time have tamed nature in carefully trimmed surfaces for sporting activities like golf, tennis and bowling.
And as America’s first landowners appropriated some of these values, by the mid-20th century the nation had developed its own less elitist image of the lawn. This evolving history would be shaped by the GI Bill, widespread home ownership, egalitarian ideals, technological advancements in mowing, golf courses and the racing saga.
The GI Bill and Homeownership
In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill, to provide education and home loan benefits to millions of returning World War II veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the program supported 2.4 million low-interest home loans for veterans between 1944 and 1952. While homeownership rates rose from 44% in 1940 to nearly 62% in 1960, owning a home has become synonymous with the American dream. .
A well-maintained lawn has become a physical manifestation of this dream. “A beautiful lawn makes a frame for a home,” said Abe Levitt, who, with his two sons, built Levittowns, housing communities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania that have come to define homogeneity in the cookie-cutter of the booming suburbs. “It’s the first thing a visitor sees. And first impressions are the ones that last.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, father of the American lawn
Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the landscape architect of over two dozen prominent public green spaces, including Central Park in New York and Washington Park in Chicago, all known for their rolling prairies. But in 1868 he received a commission from the Chicago area to design one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Each home in the Riverside, Illinois development was located 30 feet from the street. And unlike houses in England, which were often separated by high walls, Richmond’s courtyards were open and connected to give the impression of a manicured lawn, suggesting the possibility of the lawn being accessible to all.
“Even though Olmsted has carefully preserved the property lines, he seems to have wanted to blur the line between private courtyards and public spaces,” writes Georges Teyssot, architectural historian and author / editor of The American lawn.
With this blur, written New York Times journalist Michael Pollan in 1989, the lawns came to unify and define the American landscape: “France has its formal and geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this limitless democratic river of manicured lawn along which we lay out our houses. ”
The rise of rotary mowers
Olmsted’s idyllic and boundless lawn needed to be perfectly maintained. “The lawn is the homeowner’s primary contribution to the suburban landscape – the piece of the ‘park’ he maintains himself,” wrote Robert Fishman, professor of architecture and town planning at the University of Michigan.
For this job, the owners needed mowers. In 1830, the Englishman Edwin Bear Budding made a series of blades around a cylinder to obtain the first patent for a mechanical lawn mower. Forty years later Elwood McGuire, a machinist from Richmond, Indiana, became the first to design a lightweight push mower. His machine became the “official mower” of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, where men demonstrated its use on a large lawn. According to Mike Emery of the Richmond Daily, The palladium object, McGuire’s invention helped the city of Indiana become the lawn-mower capital of the world: “Ten Richmond companies produced two-thirds of the world’s push roller mowers, and the city’s innovators and entrepreneurs have helped switch to the electric spool mower, then to the rotary mower.
In 1935 Leonard Goodall, a mechanic from Warrensburg, Missouri, developed an electric rotary mower, which made lawn care easier than reel mowers, which could cut golf greens to an inch, but had blades that required constant sharpening. “[Reel mowers] could not cut tall grass, making it difficult for individuals to grow them long enough to mow a large yard, “wrote Leonard E. Goodall, the son of the mower pioneer.” The post-WWII commuter movement created a great need for a mower that could be used on large lawns. Goodall’s rotary mower answered that need.
The popular electric rotary mower has led to massive growth in the industry. According to Virginia Jenkins in The lawn: a story of an American obsession, The production of electric mowers increased from less than 35,000 before World War II to 362,000 in 1947 to nearly 1.2 million in 1951.
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As vivid as golf greens
In 1966, when CBS first broadcast the Masters Golf Tournament in color, viewers were able to see the perfectly-groomed and perfectly-groomed bright green color of the Augusta National Golf Club, whose beautiful Bermuda grass exemplified the enhancements. turf management. “Almost everywhere, golf courses have beautiful grass, often for 12 months of the year,” Illustrated sports claimed in 1966, “and after seeing what is possible, millions of homeowners feel compelled to go and do the same.”
For a culture that grew increasingly obsessed with golf in the 1950s, “the perfect lawn became an icon of the American dream,” wrote Ted Steinberg, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University and leading lawn scholar. American.
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America’s Dirt Yards
If the beautiful lawn was a shining emblem of the American Dream, it could also signify how racism and systemic inequalities have marked the American landscape. “At a minimum, the cool new super green lawns offered an escape from the monochrome life in the cities – a cohesive, vibrantly colored landscape that reflected the aesthetic and racial uniformity of the 1950s suburb,” Steinberg wrote.
In The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Parted America, Historian Richard Rothstein reveals how racist mortgage lenders, realtors, and discriminatory federal housing policies have limited black homeownership – and how white Americans have moved to the suburbs because Afro- Americans couldn’t. For many years in Levittown, where perfect lawns proved vital to the planned community’s value system, realtors only sold homes to white buyers.
But this exclusion did not mean that African Americans did not embrace or understand the meaning of the perfect American lawn. John Lewis, the late Congressman and civil rights activist, used to tell a story from his youth about playing in a dirt yard at his aunt Seneva’s shotgun house in the countryside of Alabama. “She didn’t have a well-kept green lawn,” he said in a speech. “She had a simple and ordinary earthen courtyard. Every now and then she would go out into the woods and pick up branches of a dogwood tree. And she would make a broom. And she called that broom the broom. And she swept this very clean dirty yard, sometimes two or three times a week.
A giant of the civil rights movement, Lewis clearly understood how the juxtaposition of the dirt courtyard and the “manicured green lawn” provided a jarring image of race in America.
READ MORE: How GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to One Million Black WWII Veterans
Biodiversity is redefining the perfect lawn
In the 21st century, there has been growing concern with the use of pesticides and water on American lawns – how they waste precious water and poison the groundwater table with chemicals.
According to a CNN 2020 report by Matthew Ponsford, residential lawns make up two percent of US land or 49,000 square miles (roughly equal to the size of Greece), but require more irrigation than any agricultural crop grown in the country. . There is a growing trend to turn lawns into gardens that support biodiversity while reducing the use of water and dangerous chemicals. “If attitudes towards lawn care change,” Ponsford wrote, “these grassy green patches represent a huge opportunity.”