Lawns: A Troubled Past
How the humble lawn had an impact on American expansion.
URC Editorial Desk
April 4, 2019
Approx 15. minute read
Give me land lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in.
- Cole Porter
a relationship is slow to start, difficult to maintain, abusive, costly, and impractical, typically people walk away. But when it comes to lawns, everyone’s a masochist. Whether it’s the blood-pressure-raising crab grass, or the quiet shaming from homeowner’s associations about unkempt grass length, or the neighbor who always mows right when you’re sitting down to dinner- lawns hold a special place in the heart of Americans. And this is not by accident. It took hundreds of years of work by the United States Department of Agriculture, United States Golf Association, The War Department, and a whole lot of determination from home owners to make lawns a part of the American landscape. And in doing so, lawns would plant the seed that slowly but radically changed the way people think about definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’. As lawns became a ubiquitous feature of the American landscape, they played a big part in shaping American imperialism from Manifest Destiny to overseas wars.
With the amount of green acreage dotting suburbia, it’s easy to think lawns have always been here and always will be here. But in fact, lawns were originally a status symbol for the elite. Lawns were reserved for folks like Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, along with other members of the upper echelon of society. This is because lawns were often situated on massive estates which featured hunting parks, and manicured fields which required constant upkeep from enslaved individuals. Plus, the idea of a lawn itself was imported from Europe. Only those who could afford to travel to Britain and France brought back with them landscape designs for sprawling home acreage. Commoners who happened to own land in the fledgling America at the time often used their land for utilitarian purposes. In the North, people kept gardens and reared livestock. In the South, notes Virginia Jenkins in her book The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, given its climate most ‘front lawns’ “were simply swept dirt and clay.”
Even well into the early 19th century lawns remained a sparse feature of the American landscape. However, it was during the late Industrial Revolution that lawns and America entered into a new phase of their relationship. With the rapid expansion of urban areas, and growing exposure to the harmful effects of urbanization, many began to move out of cities and into proto-suburban homes on the outskirts of town.
Affluent residents in city centers began fleeing coal dust, concentrated poverty, and diseases. With the help of new railroad technology, rich (and often white) folks flocked to rural lands to seek better health. The exodus of the wealthy from urban areas overlapped with America’s Second Great Awakening. America’s Second Great Awakening was a religious revival movement that swept across rural America in reaction to scientific advancements during the Enlightenment. A major feature of the Second Great Awakening was a strong belief that being in nature was a way to get closer to God. So if crowded urban cities were centers of illness, impurity, and decay, then being closer to nature promised a healthier and more wholesome, pure, Christian life. Suddenly, during the Industrial Revolution and the Second Great Awakening, the idea of owning a home with a lawn became an attractive feature of life in the American imagination. On a lawn, one can reconnect with God. With this new marriage between religion and nature, narratives of Eden and Paradise began swirling around the splendors of owning a lawn.
By the 20th century, the newly minted middle class began foregoing livestock and yard gardens for supermarkets and trimmed grass. As lawns became less utilitarian, they grew more manicured, measured, and tamed. As such, lawns played a significant role in shaping the America’s colonization of Native Americans on the Western frontier. Nature, which offered a closer connection to God began to look a whole lot more like fresh cut grass than unkempt wilderness. What was ‘wild’ was out West, on the frontier, where ‘savage Godless Indians’ lived. What was ‘natural’ was well maintained, clean cut lawns where God-loving Americans lived. For Americans, Eden came with a set of hedge clippers and a bag of fertilizer. And the ‘savage’ untamed wilderness on the American frontier was just waiting to be settled, and made natural. The expansion of American colonization over Native Americans was as much ecological as it was religious. This is because Native peoples who lived in the ‘wilderness’ were seen as ungodly, by virtue of the fact that they lived in the wilderness. The very category of ‘wilderness’ was created in part by the American lawn. Lawns helped create the category of ‘wilderness’ that was used as justification to further colonize Native Americans and steal their land, in order to make the land more natural. What was wild was unnatural, and because it was unnatural it was ungodly, and because it was ungodly, it was in need of saving by the American forces. As Luther Standing Bear, a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show notes about the origin of the ‘Wild West’: “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as ‘wild’…Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was for us that the ‘Wild West’ began.”
By the time the 1950’s and 1960’s came around, lawns had thoroughly fixed their place in the American consciousness. Endless expansions of White suburban neighborhoods, often barring minority residents, came complete with lawns and shallow neighbors to quietly shame you for letting your grass grow too long. To have a lawn was an achievement in whiteness. There was an explosion of guide books, periodicals, and manuals tasked with telling you how to grow and care for a lawn. And while the ‘wilderness’ of the ‘savage’ West may have been conquered, lawns continued to fuel a mindset of the necessity to eliminate the messy wilderness. In order to further bring nature under human control, millions of dollars were pumped into the development of new kinds of grasses that could grow in unsuitable climates. Zoysia, Merion bluegrass, Bermuda, Centipede, St. Augustine, and AstroGrass, were marketed to Americans living in areas where Mother Nature made having a lawn difficult. At the same time, lawn owners began ramping up their assault against the pests which sought to undue their idyllic lawns. Lawn owners waged a violent war against Mother Nature trying to reclaim her land. Weeds, crab grass, cockroaches, Japanese beetles, ants, and worms, all were in the crosshairs of lawn owners. Millions of dollars were spent to design specialty lawn grass, and billions were spent on the development of pesticides and fertilizers to maintain that grass.
Lawns helped create the category of wilderness and savagery that gave a reason to further America’s colonization of indigenous lands. But even long after America finished colonizing indigenous peoples, lawns continued play a key role in America’s expanding empire- this time overseas. After World War II, an arms race developed between the USSR and the USA. Each country was developing more efficient ways to eliminate foreign invaders. Chemical companies in the 40s and 50s were hard at work developing weapons to stop foreign invaders from coming into American lands. Many of their products wound up in American lawns, to protect American land from foreign invaders. As Jenkins notes, Japanese beetles, crab grass, chinch bugs, and a host of other critters were targeted for messing up the perfectly green lawn. 2,4-D, also known as dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, was hailed as a breakthrough for lawn care. Developed in part by the U.S. Golf Association, when the public got its hands on this weed killer, it was a game changer. Finally, a product which you could spray on lawns to kill weeds without having to kill your whole lawn. Known in the market as Weedone, America fell in love. Weedone became widely sprayed throughout America to maintain pristine home lawns. By the 1960s, 2,4-D had made its way overseas, to Vietnam, as the principle ingredient in Agent Orange. The United States used lawn care inventions designed to kill pests making pristine natural lawns look messy against ‘savage’ human combatants in the ‘wilderness’ of Vietnam. Foreigners and pests were treated to the same pesticide in order to get rid of them. Lawns and America’s colonial empire have always maintained a close relationship. Jenkins adds that even in the 1930s, partnerships between the USDA and USGA built experimental farms in and around Virginia to explore effective pesticides. By the 1940s, the USDA transferred its experimental farm to the War Department, upon which they built the Pentagon.
Lawns have played a significant role in shaping America’s imagination about what counts as natural, and what counts as wild. From their beginnings as status symbols for the elite, to partnerships between the War Department, USDA, and golf associations to build bombs- lawns helped shape America’s foreign policy on the Western frontier and overseas. Today, more of the world’s populations are migrating to city centers. And like in the 1850’s, the necessity for green space is becoming part of a global conversation. Though this time people are looking for nature in urban areas, not rural areas. As cities and communities learn to provide natural spaces in the middle of urban areas, we should avoid using lawns as an opportunity to reinforce dangerous ideas that nature looks like a well-manicured clean lawn.