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The Tyranny Of The Lawn
For more than a century now, American homeowners have been struggling to remake their small patch of the environment into a soft, green carpet just like the neighbor’s. Who told us this was the way a lawn had to be?
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Scott warned homeowners against such déclassé practices as growing vegetables, planting too many flowers, or filling the yard with “garish carpentry.”
To the extent that any single person can be blamed for the unnatural state of the American greensward, one might as well point to Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52). A horticulturist and landscape architect, Downing had a brief but distinguished career whose highlights included designing the public grounds around the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institution, editing the magazine Horticulture , and introducing the American middle class to English landscape gardening and architecture through a series of books and magazine articles. Chief among these works is his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841), the first book on the subject written for the average American homeowner. It went through five editions in the decade following its publication and launched a craze for English-style gardens.
Downing, who did not visit Europe until the year before his death, borrowed many of his ideas about landscaping from British writings. To the future frustration of many homeowners, he refused to believe that the lawns that flourished in England’s soggy climate were ill suited to the United States. “There are not wanting admirers of fine lawns, who, witnessing this summer searing, have pronounced it an impossible thing to produce a fine lawn in this country,” he wrote in Landscape Gardening . “To such an opinion we can never subscribe, for the very sufficient reason that we have seen over and over again admirable lawns wherever they have been properly treated.” Downing promoted the lawn’s role as a green backdrop for clusters of trees and meandering paths, and he insisted that coarse, unruly meadow grasses had no place in it. Rather, it should consist of redtop and white clover “softened and refined by the frequent touches of the patient mower.”
Downing comes across to us as aristocratic, dandyish, and haughty, but despite his airs he had a democratic mission. In Landscape Gardening he wrote that the American Republic lent itself to the proliferation of small landscape gardens rather than the development of grand gardens in the European manner. To be sure, one could shrink the estate lawn only so far (Downing warned that the effects he described would not work on lots smaller than ten acres), but the principles of landscaping “may be studied with advantage, even by him who has only three trees to plant for ornament.” Within two decades of Downing’s death in 1852, house and garden writers were doing what he had deemed impossible: adapting the estate lawn to lots as small as a half-acre.
Lawns flourished in the suburbs, which became widespread in the United States during the years after the Civil War, as the railroad and the electric trolley allowed people for the first time to work in the city and live in the “country” (often just a few miles out of town). There the middle class could enjoy homes surrounded by fruit trees and verdant lawns that evoked the farm’s pastoral beauty while avoiding its dreary realities.
Chief among a group of proselytizers who introduced the new homeowners to the mysteries of lawn care was Downing’s protégé Frank Scott, author of the first suburban gardening book, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds (1870). In contrast to Downing’s high-toned aesthetic theorizing, Scott’s is a homelier work, full of cheerful advice on fences, vegetable gardens, and plaster statuary.
Despite his informal tone, Scott had grandiose plans for the suburban halfacre. He warned homeowners against such déclassé practices as growing their own vegetables, planting too many flowers, or filling the yard with “garish carpentry, or plaster or marble images of any kind.” He admitted that the estate lawn couldn’t be translated directly to the suburban lot but insisted that even “the half acre of suburban cottage … may be as perfect a work of art, and as well worth transferring to canvas as any part of the great Chatsworth of the Duke of Devonshire.”
By 1912 unfenced front yards had become so pervasive that one writer lamented that Americans’ “very grass is not their own.”
Having a beautiful lawn was more than a matter of artistic satisfaction for Scott; it was a moral obligation. He compared a lawn “where shrubs and flowers mingle in confusion with tall grass” with the home of a slattern. Grass should be close-cropped. Weeds were cancers that had to be cut with “a long sharp knife, and busy fingers.” But the work required to perfect the lawn was not burdensome; it was fun, even uplifting. Scott was absolutely giddy about mowing. “Whoever spends the early hours of one summer day, while the dew spangles in the grass, in pushing these grass-cutters over a velvety lawn, breathing the fresh sweetness of the morning air and the perfume of the new mown hay, will never rest contented in the city.”