Friday, September 5, 2008

The lawn obsession

“The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession” written by Virginia Scott Jenkins.

Many American people are obsessed with their lawns. Homeowners spend billions of dollars not to mention countless hours and energy on their lawns every year. Some so much so that they have riding mowers that they drive back and forth across acres of front lawn.

Author Virginia Scott Jenkins was so curious about these facts that she researched the history of the obsession with lawns and then wrote a book about it titled “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession.” In her research she went back to before people had lawns. She also found the definition of a lawn has changed over the past 400 years.

In the 16th century the term “lawn” was used to describe an open space or glade in the woods. By the 17th century it was used to refer to a stretch of untilled ground covered with grass. Then in the 18th century it came to mean a portion of a garden covered with grass and kept closely mown.

In the United States in the 1950s “lawn” was redefined as land covered with grass kept closely mown, especially in front of or around a house. Grassy yards today are so familiar and common that many Americans find it difficult to imagine an alternative residential landscape without them. Our yard is an exception to this as we have geese and they ate every blade of grass there was.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is that Americans have adopted the front-lawn aesthetic. The second is on the democratization of the lawn.

In her research Jenkins found that before the Civil War very few Americans had lawns at all. Houses in town were built close to the street with perhaps a small fenced garden. Farm houses had tended to be surrounded by pasture, fields, gardens or just bare ground. Many old paintings or woodcuts produced during that era do in fact illustrate that houses had no lawn.

Domestic front lawns are unique to the United States. People in other countries have only read about lawns in books or seen them when they visit the United States. The closest comparison is in Europe where a lawn may be an element of a formal garden behind the house or in a walled garden.

Jenkins book has a section with pictures, most of which are of advertisements for lawnmowers. The earliest advertisements showed young women pushing the lawnmowers in the hopes they would appeal to male customers. Other advertisement posters were for grass seed, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Mother Nature was not mentioned.

The first lawn mower was patented in 1869. The industry grew to be a multibillion-dollar venture serving homeowners from coast to coast. Lawns are used to beautify everything from graveyards and factories to highways and parks all the way to the White House.

Today some changes are being made in part due to the amount of water needed to maintain a lawn. Another consideration is more privacy is desired and so more fences are going up making lawn areas less accessible to the general public.

The conclusion seems to be that it is yet to be seen if lawns will become a thing of the past. Either way it is interesting to read about the growth of the idea of a lawn to the industry that makes millions from the effort to maintain them.

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