A Brief History of the American Lawn

Posted by Joseph Barnes on Jun 30, 2015 12:00:00 AM

As we approach the Fourth of July, we’ll all take some time to reflect on the great things we love about our country. We’ll celebrate with fireworks, barbeque, apple pie and ice cream.

Many of us will also take advantage of the long weekend to spend a little time working on our lawns.

We may take our lawns for granted today, but the modern American lawn is still a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, lawns have only become a practical and socially acceptable use of land in the last hundred years.

The American lawn’s history begins with some of our country’s most famous founding fathers.

George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, were modeled after the royal estates of England and France. They took their inspiration from Greek architecture and from the palaces of Europe, notably Louis XIV’s Versailles, and filled their sprawling grounds with freshly manicured, lush green grass.

These estates and their beautiful lawns were symbols of early American prosperity and power, but were completely impractical for the average citizen. Most early Americans used their land for crops and gardens, a legacy that would continue through to the late 1800s.

Even if the average early American had aspirations to keep a small patch of green grass look after, the tools to mow it weren’t widely accessible. Wealthy estate owners used servants or flocks of sheep to keep their turf trimmed to an appropriate height. Most Americans of the time couldn’t afford to hire out the maintenance of their lawn - to men or to sheep.

The Industrial Revolution removed two major hurdles to widespread adoption of the American lawn – tools and how we use our land.

In 1870, the first push lawn mower was invented. By 1885, Americans were buying 50,000 of them every year. At the same time, we were moving to cities and leaving our agricultural roots behind. With fewer families relying on their gardens for food, they could now create lawns for entertaining and recreation.

Still, there was a challenge to find the right type of grass for our American lawns. English grasses didn’t take hold in most parts of our New World, and native grasses didn’t lend themselves to the desired trim and tidy appearance.

The US Department of Agriculture and the US Golf Association began importing and testing different varieties of grass in different parts of the country in 1915. They soon discovered the right types of turf grasses to plant in each part of the country, in order to give us the perfect American lawn.

At about the same time, the Garden Club of America was formed, publishing a standard definition for what we now know as the American lawn:

"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."

Today, just 100 years later, the professional landscape industry employs over 1 million people and is expected to generate over $80 billion this year.

While some may question why we care so much about our lawns, the fact is that the American lawn has quickly become a part of our culture.

And we think that’s something to celebrate this Fourth of July.

SourceAmerican Lawns

Gardens of Versailles Image courtesy Kimberly Vardeman via Flickr

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Joseph Barnes

About The Author

Joseph Barnes

Joseph Barnes has served as Marketing Manager of Yellowstone Landscape since 2013. He writes on a variety of topics related to the commercial landscaping industry.