The Suburbs

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Many magazines championed the vogue, insisting that even a few hens “made sense.” Now and then someone published an article recounting financial losses, but the majority emphasized profits and “model” henhouses: “A-shaped” houses, coops made of logs to blend in with shrubbery, portable coops and runs, and dozens of others. “The outside of the building is very attractive, being dark green with white facing under the eaves,” says one 1913 piece. A 1915 article urges that a poultry house be “in harmony with its surroundings.”

When the National Association of Real Estate Boards published M. V. Folsom’s A Home of Your Own and What It Means to You in 1922, soaring food prices preoccupied the nation’s housewives—and their husbands. Folsom argued that “the back yard of your home is the most profitable Food Factory on earth,” and the full-color pages speak glowingly of “$50 to $100 each year in effective profit or saving of food expense.” According to the author, a flock of “carefully selected hens” fed on table waste could “pay your taxes,” one eight-year-old apple tree could produce a $75 profit, and “there are instances where the back yard has been made to pay for the home itself.” At the least, backyard farming might pay the commuting costs and make practical a family’s relocation to a suburb. Always, of course, backyard agriculture remained tinged with nostalgia, but in the Depression, when owning vegetable gardens helped millions of suburban families endure poverty, and in the Second World War, when suburbanites planted victory gardens, the backyard spoke loudly to city dwellers.

The Lawn

SO DID THE FRONT YARD. WHATEVER THE suburban family built in back—tiny orchard, large vegetable garden, harmonious henhouse—it insisted on a lawn in front, the emblem of vast estates, English country homes, and great wealth. Beginning in the 1880s, suburban families learned an immense amount about lawns, largely through magazine articles. Scientific American chronicled the rapid innovation in lawn-mower design; other magazines explained the use of the new machines. In a 1906 Suburban Life article, “How to Have a Good Lawn,” Samuel T. Maynard wrote of the lawn mower, “When nicely adjusted, and in good working order, it may be kept so by a hair’s breadth turn of the adjusting screws or bolts, and no one should be allowed to meddle with these parts unless he fully understands them.” So even before the automobile era, suburban families owned a machine that required skilled maintenance and skilled operation. The lawn mower reflected part of the industrial technology that made suburbs possible; so did green grass.

 

Maynard recommended “a little nitrate of soda, one hundred to three hundred pounds an acre” to achieve the dark green characteristic of a proper lawn. Some magazine experts suggested using organic materials, but as the century progressed, more and more counseled reliance on chemicals. “A small crystal of copper sulfate (blue stone, blue vitriol) applied” to dandelions “will kill them,” remarked another Suburban Life authority, who went on to explain the uses of such modern materials as strychnine, which could poison lawncreasing moles. Chemical and mechanical products eventually transformed the lawn into a nearly artificial creation.

By the 1920s almost every suburban family accepted the aesthetic of smoothness, greenness, and shortness; the nation’s lawn-mower manufacturers had determined that grass height should be standardized at one and one-half inches, and suburbs everywhere displayed lawns perfect for playing a wide variety of games. Tennis, croquet, badminton, and other lawn sports became known as suburban sports. The velvet lawn reflected a new love of a new beauty—and a new attitude toward leisure at home. This attitude was best explicated by Mabel Wright, who published The Garden of a Commuter’s Wife in 1902 after adventuring for a few years in the suburbs of greater New York. She wrote: “Now among the outdoor sounds, bird music at its height and the babbling notes of the early nestlings, comes a new tone, the voice of the lawn mower.” It is “happy, cheerfully talkative, easily garrulous” in low grass and speaks in “thick and choked” accents when entangled in tall. Her book celebrates suburban life, life regulated by the departure and arrival of her husband’s train, and brightened by poultry raising, gardening, and lawn mowing. But nowhere does she address a growing concern of suburban householders.

“Like-Minded” Neighbors