Research: The American Lawn – Claire

Scholars disagree as to when lawns first cam over to America from England. While it’s clear that lawns had an early start in the U.S. — the Boston Commons have been a designated green space since 1634 — it took some time for them to infiltrate popular American culture and practice.

Bard professor Myra Armsted broke it down like this: “English landscape gardening began to influence landscaping for American elites in the eighteenth century, but not until the mid-1840s did landscape architecture for the upper-middle class have manuals. By the early twentieth century, suburban houses required neat lawns.” While these are the major trends that the American lawn followed, as Americans began to adapt the lawn they came to question how it should be structured and relate to the house. It should also be noted that early on that grass seed had to be imported from England to get the desired effect and that grass required a lot of upkeep with recommended cuttings between once and twice a fortnight. Seeing as the lawnmower was expensive and wasn’t widely available until the 1870s, a grass was generally cut by hand. It took approximately three skilled laborers a day to cut one acres worth of lawn. Cutting was essential to fostering the “perfect” lawn as the frequent cuttings did not permit the grass to grow long enough to seed itself forced new root networks and blades to grow. The constant cutting, likened to a man shaving his face every day by some scholars, encouraged the grass to grow into a sort of impenetrable, vegetal mat.

While the English climate is generally quite damp, irrigating one’s lawn was not a major concern until lawns were widely installed all over the United States. This was especially so in more arid regions such as the Midwestern prairies and American Southwest. Since, roughly, the 1980s there has been a push for “natural” lawns which feature an array of plants in the front yard and doing away with the needy, ecologically troubled grass lawn. But even if grass is expelled from the front, street-side, lawn what will become of parks, the lawns of civic buildings, college quads, cemeteries, and sports fields?

Over the course of two centuries grass has infiltrated nearly all aspects of American culture. It delves into issues of the public vs private spheres, the community vs the individual, being eco-friendly vs one’s own aesthetic and class issues. All American embassy’s feature a lawn. As John Greenlee wrote, “The lawn is a state of mind. It’s cartoon nature, Disney nature. It has to be the right color. No one wants to look at grass that isn’t green.” The American obsession with the emerald carpet is far reaching and exceptionally nuanced so while it might be easy to jump up and say “lawns suck down with laws” in doing so one challenges hundreds of years of culture, history, and sod.

 

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