Book Review – The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession

Every suburbanite must read!

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In The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Virginia Scott Jenkins explores the history, inspiration, and the physical and social evolution of the American front-lawn aesthetic.  Jenkins shows how the American perception of the lawn was shaped by the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the implications of American advertising, and the morphing of traditional American values.

Lawn grass is not a naturally occurring feature on the American landscape, but the ability of American soil to sustain various versions of lawn grass contributed to the proliferation of its existence.  The primitive history of American lawn grass can be traced back to New England in the 1600s where it flourished as an “invasive species” by today’s standards; European species of weeds and grasses were introduced via discarded bedding, fodder, and manure from ships’ ballasts.

The first foreign grasses and grass seed markets were used to accommodate livestock and other agricultural purposes in the 1800s.  Lawns defined as “a portion of a garden or a pleasure ground covered with grass and kept closely mown” first appeared in England and France.  It is interesting to note that this definition equates the lawn to a garden, which are entirely separate ideas in American society today.  The English notion of a lawn, as portrayed in books, inspired wealthy American landowners to craft their own lawns.

Then the nineteenth century upper middle class emulated the aristocratic elite by growing lawns in their front yards and felt that “a widespread lawn […] conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.  By this time, grass purpose had transformed from functional to recreational and aesthetic.  City beautification movements, campaigns, and clubs were led by the wealthy, and labor companies sponsored gardening competitions.  Beautification projects paused for a few decades when gardeners and community leaders concentrated on growing victory gardens during World War I, which we discussed in class.

In the twentieth century, the popularity of country clubs and golf course upheld the elite reputation of the lawn and golf course turf became a “measure of perfection” for American lawns.  Government funded research on turf and lawns resulted from close personal relations between golfers of the U.S. Golf Association and officials on the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Print media and advertisements directed at the growing middle class portrayed well-manicured lawns as a sign that indicated the owner as a good neighbor, citizen, and family man.  During the 1930-40s, lawn owners struggled to maintain their “velvety carpet of grass,” and again reverted to growing victory gardens.  At the same time, park projects of the Works Project Administration started an appreciation for park-like landscape.  I found it interesting that the lawn as a residential ornament had such a political past.

The postwar suburban flight resulted in “the biggest lawn boom of all time,” as reported by a newspaper.  In the suburbs, lawns served as a display of socioeconomic status like never before.  New lawnmowers and other tools of convenience proliferated with the growing competitive suburban lawn culture to maintain the perfectly front yard.  Jenkins also discusses the American lawn as a man’s, or husband’s, responsibility.  I found it particularly interesting that she attributes her mother’s lack of attention to her own lawn to the fact that she was a young widow.

The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession comprehensively analyses the development of the American lawn from a historical, political, socioeconomic, and cultural approach as it evolved to serve different purposes and represent the ideals of the American dream.  By doing so, it reveals the deep-rooted traditional values attached to the lawn that hinders ideas like Ron Finley’s sidewalk garden from being socially acceptable and gaining popularity.  Although this academic book references an extensive list of sources, I found this book to be an easy and enjoyable read! Having grown up in a gated suburban community, this book introduced me to the social, political, and economic influences that trimmed and manicured the concept of the American lawn as a natively suburban yet artificial landscape.  I would recommend this book to all fellow suburbanites!

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