Lawns are a staple of modern American suburban life, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the industrial revolution, manicured lawns were only for an elite, wealthy few. Lawnmowers weren’t available for public use until the late 1800s. Before that, families would have to hire groundskeepers to trim their lawns with scythes, or otherwise purchase cattle to eat excess grass. These weren’t viable options for workers that subsisted on less than a dollar a day!
Most homes had dirt plots or small vegetable gardens out front rather than lawns. If there was grass, it was typically overgrown and unmanaged. Grass growth was generally considered a nuisance. Americans did not have access to foreign grass varieties or genetically engineered turf, and the majority of grass that grew in the wild was unsuitable for tidy lawns. This, combined with America’s unpredictable weather patterns and a lack of reliable irrigation technology, meant that lawns were an impractical commodity.
An American “lawn” in the plains, circa 1870.
Designs for a man-powered grass mowing machine started popping up in the early 1800s. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a push mower easy and inexpensive enough to be used by ordinary Americans. This invention allowed lawn management to become a reality for America’s rapidly developing middle class. The allure of a broad, green lawn worked its way into the American consciousness, and America’s lawn craze began.
Illustration of an early cylinder mower
By 1915, The U.S Department of Agriculture was searching for the perfect grass variety to be used in lawns. Aided by new technology, the U.S.D.A tested Bermuda, Fescue, Bent, and Blue grasses. After studying the qualities of each variety, scientists began genetically engineering new strains of grass seed that were sturdy, beautiful, and adaptable to America’s diverse climate.
With the invention of the watering hose and improvements in irrigation technology, America’s obsession with lush lawns grew. By the mid 1900’s, there was a way to keep plants hydrated even during dry seasons. Additionally, the import of “cool season” grasses meant lawns could stay green all year long, even in northern climates. When millions of Americans moved from urban centers to suburbia in the 1950’s, lawns became a major focus in the lives of middle class Americans. Families had more land and more money to turn their outdoor spaces into livable and beautiful symbols of status and prestige. A green lawn (and a white picket fence to go with it) became a part of The American Dream.
Today, Americans spent billions of dollars each year on lawn maintenance, and millions of people hire landscaping companies to put in irrigation systems, lay down sod, and trim up gardens. There have been numerous innovations in the landscaping industry, especially when it comes to “green” landscaping. Now more than ever, landscapers are finding ways to keep lawns looking beautiful while also conserving water, cutting down on pollution, and preserving the environment. As the definition of what makes a healthy, beautiful lawn changes, landscapers are changing their businesses to adapt. Whatever the future holds, we’ll be ready.