- Historic Sites
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
So it was that Scott’s pronouncements, echoed in gardening books, magazines, and advice columns, simplified principles first applied on British estates and sold them to the American middle class as good taste and civic duty. In the decades after the Civil War the lawn became much more than a ground covering or even a decorative asset; it quickly evolved into a suburban institution, shaping weekend activity for several generations of men and teen-age boys. (From the beginning of the suburbs, lawn care has primarily been a male preserve, while gardening was a female pastime.) The lawn mower, perennial symbol of suburban life, had been patented by Edwin Budding in 1830 and was widely available by 1860. When the homeowner wasn’t tending his lawn, he might well be playing on it. A whole set of lawn games gained popularity: badminton, croquet, horseshoes, archery, and tennis. The lawn also became a place for socializing, a setting for picnics and family reunions.
If appeals to self-respect and morality don’t persuade Americans to keep their lawns neat, a little neighborly coercion often works wonders. Lawns, especially front lawns, constitute a curious exception to America’s private-property ethic. To some degree they belong to the community as well as to their owners. Suburban residents will tolerate neighbors who fight with their spouses or run auto-body businesses from their garages—"that’s their affair"—while loudly condemning people who don’t mow their grass. This preoccupation with “thy neighbor’s lawn” is nothing new; property deed restrictions addressing lawns date to the early-nineteenth-century suburbs.
The most visible sign of this attitude is the lack of fences around most front lawns in America, a break with British tradition. Some writers have attributed this to the American democratic spirit; Robert Fishman, a Rutgers University history professor, traces the unfenced front lawn to the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Best remembered as the designer of New York’s Central Park, Olmsted also planned such influential suburbs as Riverside, outside Chicago. He drew some of his ideas about landscaping from English suburbs, which he toured in the 185Os. He particularly admired the verdant setting of Birkenhead Park, near Liverpool, but the high walls surrounding the houses in Manchester’s Victoria Park reminded him of a “series of private madhouses.” When he came to design Riverside in 1868, he did away with front-yard fences, mandated that houses be thirty feet from the street, and required their owners to keep at least one or two trees in the front yard, to ensure that the suburb looked like a park.
Horticulture writers, for the most part, echoed Olmsted’s preference for the open front yard (although a fenced back yard was generally acceptable). Articles in home and garden magazines from the 187Os on denounced fences as unchristian and unneighborly and criticized them for spoiling the suburb’s green continuity. By 1912 the writer H. G. Dwight could lament, in an Atlantic Monthly article, that Americans’ “very grass is not their own.” But Dwight’s grousing represented a minority viewpoint. Only in the Southwest, where lots are small and the Spanish influence is strongest, are fences commonly seen around the front, as well as the back, yard.
The open-yard policy makes for a nice vista from the street, but inevitably the practice leads to turf wars, chronicled in fiction and nonfiction since the turn of the century. In The Garden of a Commuter’s Wife , Mabel O. Wright’s 1901 novel about suburban life, a neighborhood busybody criticizes the main character’s “wild lawn,” which contains violets, dandelion, oxeye daisy, and saxifrage. Says the neighbor: “A wild lawn? How odd! just fancy! Why, it is full of everything but grass. Somehow, I thought a lawn was all grass, you know.” Six decades later The Levittowners , a study of the brandnew planned suburban community of Levittown, New Jersey, described how residents used the same kind of goading to ensure lawn conformity. According to the author, the sociologist Her bert J. Gans, “Standards of lawn care were agreed upon as soon as it was time to do something about the lawn, and by unspoken agreement, the front lawn would be cared for conscientiously, but the backyard was of less importance. Those who deviated from this norm—either neglecting their lawn or working on it too industriously—were brought into line through wisecracks.”