Nothing helps improve a home’s curb appeal quite like a well-maintained lawn. Perhaps with the exception of drought-prone areas with strict water conservation, nothing seems quite as American as seeding, watering, mowing, and edging that lush green space. But while growing and maintaining perfect grass isn’t altogether too difficult for most of the country, what we think of as lawn grass isn’t native to North America—and likely wouldn’t thrive on its own (without human intervention).
The history of the American lawn doesn’t start in America. Like so much of our history, it starts in Europe.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, lawns weren’t a common thing in America. The traditional American yard was mostly packed dirt with maybe a garden and some native grasses. In England, however, sweeping green lawns were a frequent sight on wealthy estates. After the American Revolutionary War, wealthy Americans began traveling abroad. When they traveled to England they experienced these lawns. Returning to America, the Americans wanted lawns for themselves.
Creating a lawn in America wasn’t an easy task, however. The native grasses were not suitable for such a tidy, well-kept lawn, and British grass seeds didn’t thrive in our less hospitable climate. It took some collaborative effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Golf Association, and the American Garden Club to find the solution for the American lawn. This process took about 15 years.
President Thomas Jefferson was an avid horticulturist and in 1806 was among the first to style a European lawn in America at his Monticello estate.
Two other problems that plagued a practical lawn for most Americans were irrigation and cutting. Only the wealthy could afford to hire groundskeepers to maintain the grass and to cut it with scythes. And during summer droughts, hauling water was no easy (or simple) task, either.
Mechanical mowing was invented in the 19th century which certainly helped make lawn maintenance easier. Edwin Beard Budding, an English engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder mower known as a “reel mower.” This type of mower, which is still around today, is composed of a series of blades arranged around a cylinder with a push handle. In 1870, a man named Elwood McGuire from Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that helped bring push mowing to the masses.
The invention of the rotary mower and the garden hose both helped to make lawns a reality for a larger portion of the average American population. As soon as lawn maintenance tools and grass seeds because readily available, growing a lawn was far easier.
In the 1870s, vegetable gardens were relocated from front yards to back yards in favor of maintained grass. The American Garden Club also influenced the adaptation of well-manicured front lawns. They held contests and campaigned to convince homeowners that it was part of their civic duty to maintain a beautiful, healthy lawn. The American Garden Club campaigned successfully and America wholly accepted lawns as the ultimate form of landscaping.
In the 20th century, World War I affected America’s lawn improvement and put in on pause. Americans turned their yards into Victory gardens and invested their extra resources for war efforts. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson put a flock of sheep in charge of White House lawn maintenance, freeing the grounds crew for military service. They auctioned off the wool for $100,000 and gave the money to the Red Cross.
As of 2009, Americans were spending approximately $20 billion a year on lawn care.
If you want to keep your lawn neat and green (and you have the right soil and grass), make sure you follow these major components to proper maintenance:
If grass isn’t your thing, there are plenty of alternatives for your lawn, including moss, wood chips, gravel, artificial grass, and a patio.
Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.