Posts tagged ‘lawns’

The Great American Lawn

March is a month of green: St. Patrick’s Day decorations, green buds appearing on the trees, and a new hint of green reappearing on our lawns. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard opens March 18th at the Elmhurst History Museum in Illinois. Let’s take a look back at American lawns through the years and our changing attitudes towards the green beneath our feet.

Street of houses with lawns

A long line of American lawns stretching from east to west. Elm Avenue, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1946. J. Horace McFarland Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 

In his 1989 article “Why Mow?” Michael Pollan describes the American landscape as a carpet of green stretching in an unbroken line from the East Coast to the deserts of New Mexico to the most arid regions of Southern California. “Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television,” he writes, “the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not.” Lawns are arguably the most prevalent garden feature in the United States.

The popularity of lawns in the United States is an influence from the English school of landscape design. Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the first landscape designers in America, expounded on the virtues of the lawn in his 1841 book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. According to Downing, “the close proximity of fences to the house gives the whole place a confined and mean character . . . A wide spread lawn, on the contrary, where no boundaries are conspicuous, conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”
English lawn

An unidentified English estate lawn, ca. 1930s. Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Lawns were expensive to maintain in the nineteenth century. Before lawn mowers only the wealthiest landowners could afford to hire a full-time gardener to trim the lawns by scythe and pull weeds. A verdant lawn was a symbol of wealth and stature, but the development of the cylindrical lawn mower in the 1880s put a tidy lawn within the reach of the middle class. The forty-hour work week and the increase in home ownership in the mid-twentieth century turned lawn care into the hobby (or curse, depending on who you ask) that it is today.
Commercial illustration from the Burpee Collection

Companies advertised various lawn products that purported to be time savers for homeowners. Here, a man kicks up his feet and enjoys his yard. In actuality many homeowners bemoaned the amount of time–and money–they had to spend on their yard to keep it trim and green. Undated commercial illustration from the 1950s or 1960s, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 In certain parts of the country, lawns that were covered in a dusting of snow a month ago will soon be in need of a good mowing. Many homeowners in the 1950s would have rejoiced to have a healthy lawn in the middle of winter. A plethora of products and chemicals to combat pests and keep lawns healthy year-round flooded the market after the second World War. Much of technology was a direct result of wartime scientific advancement. Advertisements such as those by W. Atlee Burpee & Company peddled every product under the sun to the postwar consumer, from grass seed to DDT to sprayers and lawn mowers.
Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements

Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements, circa 1950-1960. W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Garden magazines published a backlash of editorials in the 1950s and 1960s bemoaning the “keeping up with the Joneses” race to have the perfect suburban lawn. There are even reports of some homeowners being so fed up with lawn maintenance they ripped out their grass and replaced it with green cement. (Of course, the introduction of AstroTurf in the mid 1960s would give irate gardeners another option.)
The Archives of American Gardens includes a photographic examples of almost every type of American lawn imaginable—from bowling greens to sweeping estate lawns to small suburban lots—including a retired lawn!
-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator. A version of this post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog

March 15, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo

Pink Flamingo at the Smithsonian

Our pink flamingo lawn ornament (c. 1990s) decided to take a little vacation from storage and visit our gardens at the Smithsonian.

We had a holiday visitor to Smithsonian Gardens – no, not the bearded one in a red suit, but a small hot-pink friend that decided to escape from our storage facilities in Maryland to see the sights in Washington, D.C. The halls have been decked and yards across the country decorated in their holiday finest. As a new year begins, and lights are put away with hopes they will not tangle between now and next December, we have a different kind of ornament on our minds—the lawn ornament. A very American invention which holds a special place in our hearts, right between their European cousin the garden gnome and classier sibling the armillary sphere, the pink flamingo is an icon of mid-20th century kitsch and consumerism.

In the landscape architecture world of the 1950s, designers sought minimal ornament and flowers, instead preferring expanses of grass, textured ground covers, and green, green, green. Poured concrete, fieldstone, hardscape, and geometric swimming pools provided a contrast to the verdant (and chemically-enhanced) lawns. However, this was also the decade of plastic everything as new materials and products flooded the market after World War II. Hula hoops, vinyl covers for lounge chairs, and yes, plastic lawn ornaments, were all within reach for the middle-class consumer eager to make their backyard a paradise for outdoor family living. Surprisingly, the pink flamingo lawn ornament was not invented in Florida, but by sculptor and designer Don Featherstone for the Massachusetts-based Union Products in 1957. Read more about the history of the pink flamingo here and here.

Decorated pink flamingoes at Louisiana's Old State Capitol

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments creatively decorated by visitors to Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard at the Louisiana Old State Capitol. A+ for effort and camp!

Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is a collaboration between the Archives of American Gardens and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services. The exhibit explores the rise of outdoor living and modern garden design in 1950s-1960s United States. In December, the exhibit wrapped up a run at the Louisiana Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The museum curators asked visitors to decorate pink flamingoes to display throughout the Old Capitol during the length of the exhibit, and boy did adoring fans of the fuchsia fowl deliver in creativity. Look for the exhibit at two locations in Illinois, the Elmhurst Historical Museum and the Glen Ellyn Public Library, beginning in March 2016.

Patios & Pools exhibit at Louisiana Old State Capitol

Curators at the Old State Capitol added objects from the museum and local collections to supplement the traveling exhibit panels from the Smithsonian. From bathing suits and sundresses to party decorations and barbecue tools, these artifacts colorfully illustrate what life was like in the American suburbs in the decades after World War II.

Pink flamingo lawn ornament at Oldgate garden

Oldgate garden in Farmington, Connecticut. Nora O. Howard, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Did you have pink flamingoes decorating your yard as a kid, or do you have them now? We’d love for you to add your story or a neighbor’s story to our digital garden history archive, Community of Gardens. Anyone can add a story about gardens and gardening in America. Help us preserve our garden heritage, especially the history in our own back (and front) yards, lawn ornaments and all.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard

January 8, 2016 at 8:00 am 8 comments

Sustainable Lawns at Smithsonian Gardens

Smithsonian Gardens continues to make significant improvements to its lawn maintenance program, which in turn has contributed greatly to institution-wide sustainability efforts. Since 2008 Smithsonian Gardens has reduced its fertilizer runoff and pollution to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, reduced pesticide applications, and reduced the total number of mowings each year. This year we are experimenting with more environmentally-friendly lawn maintenance equipment and collaborating with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension to evaluate the use of different types of grasses that require less maintenance.

Smithsonian Gardens is asking its contractors to switch to more eco-friendly mowing equipment.

Smithsonian Gardens is asking its contractors to switch to more eco-friendly mowing equipment.

In 2010, we started reducing lawn mower emissions by asking our mowing contractor to switch their riding mower from gasoline to propane. Our mowing contractor has switched all of its mowers over 42 inches from gasoline to propane powered. In addition, the contractor has agreed to replace all of the gas-powered handheld equipment it uses (backpack blowers, stick edgers, and string trimmers) with battery-powered equipment. The contractor hopes to replace its 21-inch gas-powered mowers with battery-powered mowers this summer thereby eliminating all gas-powered lawn equipment used by the contractor.

Evaluation of various types of grass the the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility.

Evaluation of various types of grass at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility.

Smithsonian Gardens and Maryland Cooperative Extension have teamed up to evaluate different types of grasses that require less maintenance. Fine fescue grasses have a reputation for being environmentally friendly as they require less water, fertilizer and–most important–less mowing. Last fall, we planted 10 x 10 foot plots of creeping red, chewings, sheep, and hard fescue grasses at our Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, Maryland. All the grasses were planted in the existing soil as well as in compost-amended soil to determine the best way to establish them as a lawn. The goal of this project is to determine which types of fine fescue grasses will work best in our climate. If they require less maintenance and can still be considered an acceptable lawn, we hope to use these types of grasses in the future.

Both of these initiatives have made Smithsonian Gardens’ lawn care program substantially more sustainable and do much to contribute to a healthier Smithsonian community and environment.

-Graham Davis, Horticulturist

July 10, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment


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