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History of the American Lawn

By Cameron Donaldson

Reprinted with permission from the Guide for Real Florida Gardeners, a free publication for homeowners, available at your local native nursery or Florida Native Plant Society chapter, or by calling Just Cause Media, 321-951-2210.

Some scientists believe that humans may be genetically encoded with a need to surround ourselves with low-growing turf grass. Tens of thousands of years ago in Africa, our ancestors stayed fit by chasing and being chased by big wild animals. The African savannas, large areas of low grasses, enabled human hunters to easily stalk their prey and spot predators at a distance.

Historians, however, believe that the human desire for lawns came about much later, in 17th century Europe, when the ruling royals flaunted their wealth by surrounding themselves with lawns. Lawns did a great job of showing off castles and manor homes. They also let the neighbors know that the lawn owner was so wealthy that he could afford to use the land as a playground, rather than a source of food. Thus, the lawn became a status symbol.

In the United States, early colonists were far too busy to be bothered with something as time-consuming and useless as a lawn. Their yards were cottage gardens planted with edible and medicinal plants and surrounded by paths and storage areas of hard-packed dirt, swept clean daily. And so it remained until enough wealth and leisure time was accumulated to start decorating the yard and creating play areas. Naturally our immigrant ancestors brought with them their Old World ideas-and Old World plants.

By the mid 1800s, the desire to emulate upper-crust Europe was in full swing. Literate Americans began to see magazine articles and books touting the lawn as essential for beautiful homes. At first, only the wealthy could afford the labor provided by hired staff to maintain lawns. Of course, this further cemented the idea of lawn as a status symbol. The push mower came on the scene in 1870 and suddenly almost any property owner who wanted to could have a lawn.

Seizing on this opportunity to push forward an “improved” lifestyle and supporting industry, the Garden Clubs of America, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Golf Association jointly spread the gospel of grass throughout the country in the early 1900s. Contests were held to reward lawn owners. Garden writers focused on the neighborly desire to conform and acquire status. Lawns became not just an aesthetic issue but a moral imperative.

With ever-improving technology, gas-powered lawnmowers came on the scene and after World War II, chemical weapons manufacturers turned their attention to the lawn and the formidable perceived enemy: insects. Warehouses of potent chemicals turned into fertilizer and pesticide products. This came at the perfect time for the postwar boom era, when Americans everywhere became suburbanites and felt they needed lawns.

Fortunately for all of us, scientists like Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) came along to explain the danger that such chemicals presented to all life, including ours, and the modern environmental movement was born. Scientists and activists battled to institute legal protections for public health and welfare and continue to do so today. Thanks to their efforts, many homeowners already want to reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in their home. Now we’re beginning to recognize the need to reduce or eliminate lawns!

Read more on your own:

  • The Landscaping Revolution, Garden with Mother Nature Not Against Her, Andy Wasowski, Contemporary Books, Contemporary Gardener Series, Chicago, 2000.
  • The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Virginia Scott Jenkins, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1994.
  • Redesigning the American Lawn: a Search for Environmental Harmony, F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, Yale University Press, 1993.

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