A Green Velvety Carpet: The Front Lawn in America

Virginia S Jenkins. Journal of American Culture. Volume 17, Issue 3. Fall 1994.

Domestic front lawns in the United States didn’t just happen. Lawns do not grow naturally. They are a learned aesthetic that has become popular during the past 120 years. European colonists did not find lawn or pasture grasses in America. They brought them with them. Since then, particularly during the 20th century, there has been a radical change in the ecological makeup of America with millions of acres of lawn grass creating a savannah from coast to coast.

Front lawns are an American cultural artifact. Americans have been taught to desire and to care for lawns. Lawns are achieved at great expense and by continual labor. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have been developed to help homeowners achieve an ideal lawn. Millions of dollars are invested in lawn mowing machinery and irrigation equipment every year. Scarce water resources are allocated to domestic and municipal lawns in the Southwest. A multimillion-dollar lawn care industry has developed in the United States, unlike any other country in the world. To most Americans, grassy yards are so familiar, so common and so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine an alternative landscape without them and to realize that most people in other countries do not have American-style front lawns.

In the 18th century, Washington and Jefferson and a few other wealthy Americans emulated the landscape of English country estates. Nineteenth-century-American landscape architects such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted also modeled their work after English country house parks.

Nineteenth-century suburban houses were furnished with front lawns in emulation of upper-class park-like estates and the new municipal parks such as Central Park in New York, Front lawns were semipublic spaces that belonged to the community. Suburban developments were designed with houses set back from the street “in a park.” Many 19th-century suburbs were named Park such as Tuxedo Park in New York, and College Park, Takoma Park, Garrett Park and Cleveland Park outside of Washington, D.C.

The invention and manufacture of the lawn mower and irrigation equipment growing availability of a public water supply and the importation of hybridization of appropriate grasses brought the cost of making and keeping a lawn within the reach of a growing middle class of homeowners. Products for the new lawns were promoted through advertising, mail-order catalogs, gardening books and magazine and newspaper articles on lawn keeping that educated many Americans in the w landscape aesthetic. The lawn aesthetic was also promoted through the work of the ladies of the Garden Club of America and other similar organizations, City Beautiful campaigns and the combined efforts of the United States Golf Association and the United States Department of Agriculture.

In the 1920s suburban developments were built around or modeled after golf courses. By World War II the pattern for suburban developments had become fixed. Developers surrounded tract houses with grass as the easiest and cheapest way to cover the scars of construction. The family that moved in was left to cope with the care of the new lawn. Peer pressure kept homeowners at work on their lawns through neighborly rivalry and community regulation. These standards were reinforced by advertising and horticultural advice in popular magazines.

The lawn care industry used popular magazines to sell the idea of a “good” lawn to middle-class Americans. As new products became available for lawn care, the standards for a good lawn tended to rise. Advertisers promoted these standards in order to sell more lawn care products. Lawns were marketed to homeowners in terms of status and prestige. They were promoted as a good investment that would, perhaps, increase the real estate value of the home. Magazine readers were told that a good lawn represented good citizenship in transient communities in which residents were judged on the appearance of the home from the street.

Annette Kolodny has explored the differences between men’s and woman’s fantasies about the land and nature. She has found that women dream about locating their homes and communities within a cultivated garden. Men’s fantasies involve the massive exploitation, alteration and control of the landscape (Kolodny). Advertisers and horticultural writers have made use of this dichotomy since the 19th century. Most lawn care equipment manufacturers have advertised their products to men, knowing that it was the man of the house or the male gardener who would care for the lawn.

Men were offered healthy exercise, hobby interest, and control of the environment. Power machinery and chemicals, the tools of war, were sold to engage “Mother Nature” in a battle for supremacy on the lawn. Women were expected to respond to aesthetic appeals to the beauty of a green velvety carpet in front of the house or to offers for recipes for a good lawn or to cosmetic hints for a better complexion for the lawn.

The trade cards of the 19th century often depicted women and children dressed in pretty clothes having fun pushing the advertised lawn mowers over the broad lawns of large houses. These advertisements linked the lawn with a home in the country, family, health and recreation. In fact, few women and very few children could have used the heavy cast-iron mowers of the period. Certainly ladies wearing corsets would not have been able to mow a lawn and most upper-class women would not have dreamed of performing heavy physical labor on the front lawn. For that matter, gentlemen felt the same way. Andrew Jackson Downing had his lawns mowed at night “by invisible hands” so that his family and guests would not have to witness this “distasteful activity” (Handlin). The hired help did the mowing. But the advertisements were attractive and, in some, young women even displayed quite a bit of ankle and leg. The message to men was that the equipment was so lightweight that even a woman or child could use it–that mowing was fun–like child’s play.

Many of the house and garden magazines of the 20th century dictated taste in home furnishings, clothing, lawn care and garden decoration. A growing number of middle-class men began to take an interest in their home grounds. Eight-hour days and five-day work weeks gave many more leisure time than in the past. Sedentary office jobs meant that more men were interested in spending time out-of-doors in moderate exercise. Horticulture writers and advertisers urged men to look at lawn care as a hobby.

Occasional advertisements specifically addressed women. Their rarity may indicate that manufacturers were trying to reach a new audience and that the advertising campaigns were not successful. In 1927, women were told that Coldwell Electric Lawn Mowers were as easy to run as a vacuum cleaner, placing it in the safe realm of household appliances (Coldwell Lawn Mower Co.). In 1940, the Jacobsen Manufacturing Company advertised a power mower named the Lawn Queen. Their advertisements pictured women mowing the lawn and promised: “You simply take the handle, turn on the power and away goes the Lawn Queen, leaving in its wake a lawn as smooth as velvet. A high school boy or girl can operate it–and have fun” (Jacobsen Mfg. Co.). The appeal to women was somewhat muted by the reference to a high school boy operating the machine. It appears that the advertisers themselves did not really believe that a woman would use the mower.

Advertisements for the new gasoline-powered lawn mowers that became available concurrently with the automobile frequently used young boys, rather than girls and women, as models to help take the mystery out of using the new mowers. Many people were nervous about using gasoline engines and these advertisements assured men that power mowers were easy to use. Few lawn mower advertisements before the 1950s gave much space to aesthetics. Some promised beautiful, velvety lawns but efficiency, economy, increased power and ease of operation were more important selling points.

Women became the target of lawn care advertising during the Second World War in the absence of their fathers, husbands and sons and w urged to keep up the home front. Advertisements used cooking terms and images of flowers and household items such as carpets and vacuum cleaners. Women were not expected to respond to the usual male images of power, efficiency and control. They were not told that lawn care was fun or good for physical fitness.

Lawn care advertising was somewhat more inclusive of women in the post-war years. Perhaps, after beginning to develop a market among women during the war, advertisers saw an opportunity to continue to include women in an expanding audience. Many women had been responsible for the upkeep of their homes and yards during the war years. Some had held traditionally male jobs and had become more self-confident about tackling jobs around the house. However, advertisers portrayed women as traditional wives and mothers. Women were told that the Huffy Mower “pushes easy as a baby buggy, runs quiet as a fan” (Huffman Manufacturing Company). Eclipse advertisements in 1947 noted that “Mrs. Home Owner will appreciate the easy handling, free rolling and distinctive styling of your new Eclipse as much as the man of the family goes for its exclusive mechanical features and troublefree maintenance” (The Eclipse Lawn Mower Company). An advertisement in Better Homes and Gardens featured a woman saying “When George is busy I like to mow the lawn. It’s so easy with a Pennsylvania. You know George is an engineer and before deciding on a Pennsylvania he compared all makes. He said this is the easiest to take care of. The longest lasting, too” (American Chain & Cable Co.). This advertisement may have appealed to some women, but it was also a way to express a man’s point of view to other men.

Advertisements for lawn care products other than lawn mowers were more apt to use women’s language. Women participated in watering and weeding the lawn as an extension of the traditional woman’s sphere of gardening. Some advertisements gave recipes for beautiful lawns. O.M. Scott and Sons marketed Scotts Beauty Treatment for lawns. Vigoro lawn food advertisements appealed to women to “give your lawn the beauty treatment it deserves” (Swift & Company). A. hose manufacturer pictured a woman with the caption: “I water the lawn in my best white dress!” (Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company).

By the 1960s advertisements in women’s magazines that gave instructions on how to achieve a perfect lawn no longer assumed that women did the actual work themselves. Despite occasional appeals to women, lawn care rhetoric had reverted to the traditional assumption that lawn care was man’s work and that the lawn was the man’s responsibility. Women who wanted lawns got men to work on them. An advertisement in House and Garden made this clear: “Savage invites you to a lawn party. It’s here—the wonderful new savage Lawn Mower—practically guaranteed to make a landscape artist out of even the non-gardening variety of husband” (Savage Arms Corporation Lawn Mower Division). Another advertisement promised: “Easier mowing makes husbands easier to get along with!” (Ideal Power

Lawn Mower Division of Indian Motorcycle Co.). Lawn equipment was usually masculine and was considered appropriate for Dad for Christmas and Father’s Day gifts. Many lawn mowers were sold as recreational vehicles and little automobiles. Lawn mowers were named the Dandy Boy, the Lawn Boy and the Lazy Boy. Naming these machines “Boy” may have also appealed to white Americans on the basis of race, as in a Filipino “house boy” or an African-American “yard boy.” Such names may have meant to suggest class and the presence of servants rather than gender. However, even grass was considered to be masculine. Readers of Scott’s Lawn Care were told that “Summer’s warmed sod, cool nights and gentle fall rains hustle young grass plants into vigorous manhood” (O.M. Scott Sons Co.).

Advertisements for trimmers, sprinklers and power mowers often featured young women models wearing shorts and halter tops to attract the attention of male readers. One advertisement that pictured a woman mowing a lawn was captioned “Really Built!” (Worcester Lawn Mower Company).

It may be that many women were self-conscious about working hard in the public area in front of the house. It also put the man of the house in an embarrassing position with his neighbors to have his wife care for the front lawn. Men who did not want to care for their lawns planted ivy or hired someone else to do the work. Some covered the area between the house and the street with colored gravel, moss or flagstones. Others used concrete or asphalt and painted it green. Even though lawn care was promoted as a hobby and a fun activity, the novelty soon paled for many people and it remained hard work.

These advertisements symbolized home and family. Images of lawn mowing became an American cultural icon, used to advertise unrelated products such as 7-Up as well as various lawn related materials such as fences, fertilizer and outdoor furniture.

After World War II all things seemed possible. According to Scotts Lawn Care, homeowners dreamed of “push-button heat via low cost atomic energy and a beautiful green lawn without any energy at all.” A USDA leaflet stated matter-of-factly that “in choosing a grass for his lawn, the owner usually has the choice of selecting a grass that will thrive under existing conditions or of selecting the grass that he wants and then modifying the conditions to meet the requirements of that ass” (Grau and Ferguson). The new lawn grasses available in the early 1950s may have been expensive to buy and to maintain but, according to the USDA: “a good many homeowners feel this way: Mother Nature has beaten them to a standstill for so many years that revenge is worth almost any price as long as it comes in the form of a real good, drought-tolerant, weed-resistant lawn” (“New Grasses for the Lawn.”)

American front lawns have become engineered spaces with rigid boundaries and hard edges. “Good front lawns do not tolerate alien plants or animal life. Americans use power machinery and chemicals on the front lawn in a running battle for supremacy with Mother Nature. This battle which was begun in the late 1940s is the ultimate declaration of masculine ownership of the lawn.

Gore Vidal has pointed out that a state forever at war is easily controlled by a few (203). American presidents have waged war against communism, poverty, crime and drugs. The lawn care industry was not slow to follow suit, taking advantage of the national war mentality to sell the material to fight lawn invaders such as crab grass, weeds, insects, earth worms and, ultimately, Mother Nature. American homeowners, told to arm their lawns against attack, invested millions of dollars in defensive and offensive equipment.

Popular magazines taught their readers that they should expect something to go wrong with their lawns. Pests such as “Jap” beetles, ants, worms or weeds might appear at any time. Homeowners learned how to alter the environment in order to maintain their lawns through the application of water, fertilizer and lime, replacement of the topsoil or removal of shade.

Readers of House Beautiful were told: “It’s time to take up arms against the weeds. From now on, when man and nature meet on the lawn, it’s dog eat dog.” The article went on to note that “your best bet is not these infantry tactics but wholesale slaughter by chemical warfare, utilizing the impressive arsenal of chemicals available to every lawn owner beset by weeds” (“Yes, You Can Have a Weed-Free Lawn”). By the 1960s the lawn care industry had produced a bewildering array of chemical products for lawns. An article in the Saturday Evening Post noted that “there are chemicals to make grass grow, to keep it from growing, to kill crabgrass before it comes up, to kill it after it comes up, to wipe out any number of encroaching weeds and grasses, to kill dozens of kinds of invading bugs and grubs, and to counteract grass diseases” (Skardon 30).

Crabgrass was compared to fifth columnists. One writer prided himself on a lawn that “was just too thick to allow for serious invasions by these foreigners” (Gladstone 63). Americans tried DDT, potassium cyanate, arsenicals and products containing mercury for weed and insect control. Isopropyl phenyl carbamate, perfected by U.S. Army biological warfare specialists, was recommended to rid the lawn of quack grass (Catleton, “How to Get Rid of Crabgrass” 197). Some people tried using tear gas to sterilize weed seeds. Chlordane was the big discovery of the 1950s. Readers of Better Homes and Gardens were assured that it could be used to obtain “a lawn free of crabgrass, as well as grubs, ants, moles, and night crawlers” (Carleton, “Lick Lawn Pests with Chlordane” 10).

The herbicide 24-D was released to the public in 1944 and was hailed as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the turfgrass world. 2-4-D was the principal ingredient of the defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam war. Today it is considered to be a likely cause of cancer in humans. In the 1950s and 1960s it was celebrated as a miraculous weed killer that would kill over 100 different plants without harming pets.

The public was warned that lawns needed to be protected from lawn moths, white grubs, fiery skippers, black beetles, cutworms, sod webworms, ants, chiggers, chinch bugs and earwigs and was offered a wide variety of pesticides with which to combat them. Readers of Better Homes & Gardens were assured that the Japanese Beetle was one enemy against which “Americans need have no scruples in waging bacterial warfare” (Palmer 26). DDT was hailed as “Killer of Killers” and “the atomic bomb of the insect world” (Whorton 248-49). Chlordane was said to work faster on Japanese Beetle infestation than DDT. However, DDT had the perceived advantage of remaining active in the soil for five years, thus protecting the lawn from reinfestation. One advertisement boasted that Antrol Lawntrol contained “new lethal chemical–granules reach soil where pests live-deadly months loner” (140). The ideal lawn had become totally artificial and could not be allowed to harbor any living thing other than the preferred type of grass.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, a study of the development of the lawn and garden chemical industry in the United States and its impact on the environment. She was appalled by the depiction of chemical killers as toys. Weed killers and pesticides and the gadgets designed to apply them to lawns were advertised as fun to use with promises of sensational results. She pointed out that “they give a giddy sense of power over nature to those who wield them, and as for the long-range and less obvious effects-these are easily brushed aside as the baseless imaginings of pessimists” (Carson 68). The publication of Silent Spring prompted an examination of the chemical industry and some chemicals such as DDT and arsenic were eventually banned for home use. Newsweek noted that American cellars had been “turned into arsenals of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides … Despite Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring,’ the U.S. lawn fanatic is still high on chemical warfare, although some suppliers have noticed their customers spending more time studying labels. Still he needs a Bachelor of Chemistry to comprehend the bewildering variety of weed killers and bug destroyers now fogging the market” (“Color It Green” 70). The war against nature continued to be waged. In 1964, it was estimated that Americans invested almost as much on their lawns as in foreign military assistance. By the 1980s the American public’s acceptance of the chemical dependence of the lawn was clearly mirrored in the naming of a national lawn care service ChemLawn.

Despite the warnings of Rachel Carson, the battle culminated in the 1960s in the ability to grow a ‘perfect’ lawn of a single type of grass of uniform color, height and density. Some lawns were placed altogether by artificial turf. Today, American lawns receive more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any farm crop.

The paradigm of the front lawn is beginning to be re-examined by those who are concerned about the future of the environment. This s increasingly important as the issues of water quality and the use of water become critical in many regions. The front lawn aesthetic, first defined at the end of the 19th century, is beginning to be challenged. It remains to be seen whether the environmental movement in this country can enlist as potent a group of supporters and teachers for the 21st century as did the lawn care industry during the 20th.