History of the Lawn
Evolutionary Reasoning & Definitions
The definition of the lawn has changed significantlly over the last 5 centuries..
- 16th Century: An open space or glade in the woods
- 17th Century: A stretch of untilled ground covered with grass
- 18th Century: A portion of garden or pleasure ground covered with grass and kept closely mown
- 1950s: Land covered with grass kept closely mown, especially in front of or around a house
Why so much love for closely mown grass? It might be because of our evolutionary history. As our ancestors evolved into social-tribe life, they also became fully bipedal (standing upright), which significantly increased their height compared to other proto-homid (pre-modern human) species. Being able to look over the tall Savannah grass gave our ancestors an edge against predators, and thus a preference for short grass may have been previously advantageous interest for our ancestor's survival.
Ever notice that a lot of important landmarks and buildlings (castles, temples) are built with flat land- often pasture or prarire -around them? More visibility means less of a chance of someone sneaking up on you!
Cultural History: From France with.. love?
To start off, the species of grass that are most common in North America today aren't native.
- Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) --> Africa
- Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus) --> Africa
- Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis) --> Eurasia
- Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) --> Europe
- Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) --> Eurasia
European colonizers replaced indigenous-cultivated grasses with perennial pasture grasses because of the superior nutritional value. Species were also inadvertently introduced to the continent via ballast dumping around ports as well as the ship's waste (discarded bedding, fodder, manure, etc).
Before the American lawn, there was the European lawn. Until the mid-nineteenth century, houses were built close to the street. If you were lucky, you had a small enfenced garden or your house was built around an interior courtyard. In more rural settings, houses and other buildings were surrounded by pasture, natural fields, or gardens with packed dirt as pathway for areas with heavy traffic. If you've ever been to an old European city (or have seen photos), you'll know just how packed in houses can be, especially in historically poor neighbourhoods. Then, you can imagine that most people did not have lawns of any sort, and you'd be right! Only the fabulously wealthy could afford both the space and the constant upkeep a lawn required. For context's sake, the lawnmower wasn't on the market until the 1860s, which meant lawns were maintained either by scythe (which is very hard to do evenly) or was kept short by grazing animals.
The modern concept of the front lawn began to take shape at the end of the 18th century, brought over by wealthy folk inspired by French and English aristocratic landscape architecture. The most famous lawn was, and to some extent still is, the Palace of Versailles' massive tapis vert or "green carpet". Still, the craze wouldn't take root (wink) until after Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War. Urban pollution due to the sudden growth of industry as well as xenophobic opinions regarding immigrants caused the perception of cities to shift from a beacon of the modern world to a corruptive representation of crime and sin- while rural life became indicitive of moral, religious influence. All of these factors would lead to the birth of modern Suburbia- lawns included, of course.
There were two major reasons why lawns were popularized:
(1) The City Beautiful Movement
The City Beautiful Movement was a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning, inspired by the previous Village Improvement movement. The movement's goal was to "spread middle-class values through the uplift of unforunates and the physical improvement of urban areas considered to be unsightly". In essence, there was a general agreement between folks that cities could (and should) be made beautiful through accessible green space, landscaped streets, public art displays (statues, fountains, murals, etc), and "refined" architecture that was modeled after European aristocracic trends. This would set new aesthetic standards in domestic landscaping, including: setting houses back from the street, removing fences, and planting trees & lawns along streets.
These "front-lawn aesthetics" were spread through community beautification campaigns, advertisement through books & articles, and sponsered events. Perfect lawns found at private golf courses and country clubs led by example as well. The surge in interest would lead to the creation of the Garden Club of America (GCA), who further stoked the novelity of lawns (as well as gardening as a whole as a "wholesome" past-time) by attempting to "nationalize" lawn-care via instituted educational programs and gardening courses.
Because America (and to a lesser extent, Canada) had suffered little infrastructural damage from WWII, the economy boomed and war-time industry morphed into consumer industry, with a huge focus on the ideal suburban life which became practically sysonymus for the decade.
(2) The Popularization of Golf (and Bowling)
Another large draw for lawns came with the introduction of golf and bowling to North America. For America, it was mostly Golf, as bowling was rejected after the revolutionary war along with all things British. In Canada, it was both golf and bowling.
Remember, until about 70 years ago only the wealthy could afford to maintain a perfect green lawn, so sports that required such a lawn could also only be played by the wealthy. That was also true for the wealthy Americans that brought the sport over from Europe, which quickly gained popularity due to the status it represented. Thus, wealthy Americans who could afford an education wanted to ensure they could play golf across the entire country, no matter the climate or grass- and that's exactly what they did.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to fund the research into the technical knowledge required to grow golf courses in various areas of the country. Specifically, the monoculture lawns of today were popularized by senior agrostologist (grass scientist) F. Lamson-Scribner, who warned against the use of mixed grasses in 1897.
Like with gardening, interest in golfing spread through advertisements- but specifically lawn care products and equipment, who were often endorsed by prestigious country clubs. With the economic boom post-WWII, a lot of hobbies and activities previously only enjoyed by the elite became democratizized to the middle class. Public golf courses (along with other public facilities, like pools and beaches) became somewhat common-place, but the sport still managed to retain it's reputation as the "wealthy man's sport".
- Jenkins, V. S. (1999). The lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Smith, L. S., & Fellowes, M. D. (2013). Towards a lawn without grass: The journey of the imperfect lawn and its analogues. Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 33(3), 157–169. https://doi.org/10.1080/14601176.2013.799314