The history of the American lawn was driven by technology, desire for social status, and marketing. Its roots are in the estate gardens of the Middle Ages.
In the U.S., green, weed-free lawns were rarely seen before the late 19th century. Prior to this, the front yards of rural U.S. homes featured “gardens” of packed earth and small flowerbeds planted with edible and medicinal plants, watered by buckets (garden hoses weren’t yet invented). At the time, a green lawn in the American front yard was an idea promoted by wealthy travelers to Europe and England who became enamored with the classical Roman-style landscape architecture. This style of landscaping, seen only on the largest estates in Europe, featured enameled meads sloping away from sprawling mansions, much like the landscaping seen at the U.S. White House.
What is an enameled mead?
Green expanses of cultivated grasses first appeared about 900 years ago during the Middle Ages on royal estates in Great Britain and Northern France. Both countries have climates with mild winters and warm, humid summers, ideal for cultivating many different types of grasses. During this era, lawns weren’t always the vast swaths of green grasses we think of as lawns today – they were also “rooms” in a walled garden meant for entertaining or sitting.
An enameled mead is a landscaping technique dating to the Middle Ages in which low-growing perennial flowers are planted in and surrounded by mowed grass, in imitation of a natural meadow. It was none other than England’s King Henry II, who reigned from 1154 to 1189, who it’s believed, first ordered his laborers to slice up tracts of meadow turf and transplant them to his palace gardens.
Found only on vast estates that could afford the high maintenance, a flowery mead of the Middle Ages included areas of turfgrass from a local meadow with various native perennial flowers, planted methodically inside the grassy areas. An army of gardeners kept the grass mowed low with hand shears and scythes, or grazed by sheep. The flowery mead, often surrounded by hedges within a walled garden, contained elaborate lawns and paths on which people of wealth and royal status strolled, danced, and mingled.
Flowers in the enameled mead may have included lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, violets, daisies, or daffodils. Later, it evolved to include white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal, and other groundcover plants and grasses. The flower and grass plantings were called “enameled” because, at a distance, the effect suggested the look of enameled jewelry. This style of landscaping was still in practice on European and English estates in the 18th and 19th centuries and became the envy of wealthy travelers from the U.S.
How front yard gardens became lawns in the U.S.
In the U.S., having a lawn in the 18th or 19th century, much less mowing it, was not possible for most home gardeners unless they were extraordinarily wealthy. For instance, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was among the first to incorporate the European style of lawn on his estate at Monticello. Maintaining a lawn became possible in 1830 with the invention of the reel mower when an English engineer named Edwin Budding modified a machine used for cutting the nap on velvet in textile factories. Budding’s reel mower was less than ideal for mowing, as it dug up the soil along with shearing the grass. But others improved upon Budding’s contraption and eventually homeowners of more modest means could maintain a turfgrass lawn with their new reel mower.
With the technology to maintain them, lawns became more common in temperate parts of the U.S. But in drier areas, lawn irrigation was still a challenge until the invention of the garden hose and sprinkler in 1871. Even with these advances, the green, weed-free lawn was yet to take the place of the front yard garden.
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Who invented the American lawn?
According to Michael Pollan‘s article, Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns, “If any individual can be said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted.” In 1868, Olmsted designed one of the first planned suburban communities in America, Riverside, just outside of Chicago. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road with no walls between them – he had an aversion to the walls between English houses. Each home in Riverside featured one or two trees and a lawn that flowed seamlessly into the neighboring lawn, creating the impression of all the homes in a single park.
In an attempt to make Olmsted’s landscape design ideas more accessible, in 1870, Frank J. Scott published “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds”. This was the first book devoted to “suburban home embellishment” and arguably, it did more than any other book to influence the style of the suburban landscape in America, with ideas such as, “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house“.
But even with figures like Olmsted and Scott promoting the idea of the lawn, incredibly, it was the invention of Golf that helped drive the development of the modern American lawn. In the first decades of the 1900s, the USDA and the U.S. Golf Association collaborated to develop combinations of lawn grasses adapted to a variety of climates in the U.S. With the nation’s first golf course appearing in New York in 1888, golf exploded, as did the desire for one’s own pasture-like turf. In fact, F. Lamson-Scribner, a senior agrostologist at the USDA wrote, “lawns are the most fascinating and delightful features in landscape gardening, and there is nothing which more strongly bespeaks the character of the owner than the treatment and adornment of the lawns upon his place.“ And so, the idea of a green, grassy, weed-free lawn as the indicator of social class and character was officially introduced in government publications.
The American Garden Club and post-WW2 development seals the deal for the American lawn
But it was the American Garden Club early in the 20th century that ultimately democratized and popularized the front yard lawn through a series of contests. The garden club’s standard was “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.” It was notoriously poor advice, which only focused on aesthetics and not on the appropriate grasses or plants for the appropriate place (hence, the unintended consequences of pollution from pesticides to control the “weeds”, groundwater pollution from fertilizer use, and air pollution from gasoline-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers).
It was during the construction boom after World War 2 and the introduction of rotary power mowers when a lawn in the front yard became the norm – the garden was moved to the backyard. Housing developments like Levittown, with thousands of cookie-cutter identical homes with small identical lawns, became the model for suburban development and a well-tended, manicured lawn, with no “weeds”, and cut at just the right height, demonstrated your devotion to the community and pride of ownership.
And that is how we got here today: 31,360,000 acres (49,000 square miles according to NASA) of monocultures of grasses in our yards which require high maintenance, demand vast resources, and do not support pollinators or wildlife. Lawns are, in ecological terms, a wasteland. Do I have one? Sure, but it shrinks every year, given over to ever larger perennial gardens that border my home, 6 raised garden beds for vegetables and fruit (in the backyard naturally), and a pollinator garden at the base of a River Birch tree. These are infinitely more interesting to look at and support far more wildlife than a plain, green expanse of grass I have to endlessly mow.
 from The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession by Virginia Jenkins