History Stories

With the rise of suburbia in post-WWII America, the perfect lawn became a potent symbol of the American dream. Whether a sprawling sweep of green mowed in crisp diagonal bands or a more modest swatch of grass and clover, a lawn expressed the national ideal that, with hard work, sacrifice and perhaps a little help from Uncle Sam, home ownership and a patch of land could be within reach for every American.

By contrast, Europe’s historical development of lawns had largely expressed values of elitism and power: Some medieval castle dwellers needed their tall grass hand-cut by scythes in order to see approaching enemies. Landowners with livestock required fields cut down to grazeable heights. And wealthy people with leisure time tamed nature into neatly trimmed surfaces for sporting endeavors like golf, tennis and lawn bowling.

And while early American landowners had appropriated some of those values, by the mid 20th century, the nation had grown its own, less elitist image of the lawn. That evolving history would be shaped by the G.I. Bill, widespread home ownership, egalitarian ideals, technological advancements in mowing, golf courses and the saga of race.

Mowing his well kept lawn on Hill Street is Jesse Madina who has lived in the house for 6 years.

Man mowing his well kept lawn.

The G.I. Bill and Home Ownership

In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill, to provide educational and home loan benefits for millions of veterans returning from World War II. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, the program backed 2.4 million low-interest home loans for veterans between 1944 and 1952. As homeownership rates rose from 44 percent in 1940 to almost 62 percent in 1960, owning a home became synonymous with the American dream.

A manicured lawn became a physical manifestation of that dream. "A fine lawn makes a frame for a dwelling," explained Abe Levitt, who together with his two sons built Levittowns, housing communities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania that came to define the cookie-cutter homogeneity of the burgeoning suburbs. "It is the first thing a visitor sees. And first impressions are the lasting ones."

Frederick Law Olmsted, Father of the American Lawn

Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the landscape architect of more than two dozen prominent public green spaces—including New York's Central Park and Chicago’s Washington Park—all known for their rolling meadows. But in 1868, he received a Chicago-area commission to design one of America’s first planned suburban communities. Each house in the Riverside, Illinois development was set 30 feet back from the street. And unlike the homes in England, which were often separated by high walls, Richmond’s yards were open and connected to give the impression of one manicured lawn, evoking the possibility that the lawn was accessible to everyone.

"Even if Olmsted carefully preserved property limits, he seems to have wanted to blur the line between private yards and public spaces," wrote Georges Teyssot, an architectural historian and author/editor of The American Lawn.

With that blur, wrote New York Times journalist Michael Pollan in 1989, lawns came to unify and define the American landscape: "France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses."

boy mowing lawn

Boy mowing lawn

The Rise of Rotary Power Mowers

Olmsted's idyllic and boundless lawn had to be perfectly manicured. "The lawn is the owner's principal contribution to the suburban landscape—the piece of the "Park" he keeps up himself," wrote Robert Fishman, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

For that job, homeowners needed mowers. In 1830, Englishman Edwin Bear Budding crafted a series of blades around a cylinder to earn the first patent for a mechanical lawn mower. Forty years later, Elwood McGuire, Richmond, Indiana machinist, became the first to design a lightweight push mower. His contraption became the “official mower” of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where men demonstrated its use on a large lawn. According to Mike Emery of Richmond’s daily newspaper, The Palladium-Item, McGuire’s invention helped the Indiana city become the lawn mower capital of the world: “Ten Richmond companies produced two-thirds the world’s reel push mowers, and the city’s innovators and entrepreneurs helped transition to power reel, then power rotary mower.”

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In 1935, Leonard Goodall, a Warrensburg, Missouri mechanic, developed a power rotary mower, which made it easier to maintain lawns than the reel-type mowers, which could cut golf greens down to one inch, but had blades that needed constant sharpening. "[Reel mowers] could not cut high grass, which made it difficult for individuals to push them long enough to mow a large yard," wrote Leonard E. Goodall, the mower pioneer’s son. "The post-World War II suburbanization movement created a great need for a mower that could be used on large lawns.” Goodall's rotary power mower responded to that need.

The popular power rotary mower drove massive industry growth. According to Virginia Jenkins in The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, power mower production increased from under 35,000 before World War II to 362,000 in 1947 to nearly 1.2 million in 1951.

READ MORE: 11 Innovations That Changed History

As Vivid as Golf Greens

In 1966, when CBS telecast the Masters Golf Tournament in color for the first time, TV viewers could see the perfectly manicured, wall-to-wall vivid green color of the Augusta National Golf Club, whose beautiful Bermuda grass exemplified improvements in turfgrass management. "Virtually everywhere golf courses exhibit magnificent turf, often through 12 months of the year,” Sports Illustrated asserted in 1966, “and having seen what is possible, millions of homeowners feel compelled to go and do likewise."

For a culture growing obsessed with golf in the 1950s, "the perfect lawn rose to become an icon of the American Dream," wrote Ted Steinberg, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and a leading scholar on the American lawn.

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America's Dirt Yards

If the beautiful lawn was a shiny emblem of the American Dream, it could also signify the ways in which racism and systemic inequality marked the American landscape. "At a minimum, the fresh new supergreen lawns offered an escape from monochrome life in the cities—a brightly colored consistent landscape that mirrored the aesthetic and racial uniformity of 1950s suburbia," wrote Steinberg.

In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, historian Richard Rothstein reveals how racist mortgage lenders, real estate agents and discriminatory federal housing policies limited black homeownership—and how white Americans moved to the suburbs because African Americans could not. For many years in Levittown, where perfect lawns proved vital to the planned community’s value system, real estate agents sold houses only to white home buyers.

But this exclusion didn't mean that African Americans didn't embrace or understand the significance of the perfect American lawn. John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights activist, used to tell a story from his youth about playing in a dirt yard at his Aunt Seneva’s shotgun house in rural Alabama. “She didn’t have a green manicured lawn,” he said in a speech. “She had a simple, plain dirt yard. From time to time, she would go out into the woods and take branches from a dogwood tree. And she would make a broom. And she called this broom the brush broom. And she would sweep this dirty yard very clean, sometimes two and three time a week.”

A giant of the civil rights movement, Lewis clearly understood how the juxtaposition of the dirt yard and the “green manicured lawn” provided a jarring image of race in America.

READ MORE: How the GI Bill's Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans

Biodiversity Redefines the Perfect Lawn

In the 21st century, concern has grown over the use of pesticides and water on American lawns—how they waste precious water and poison the underground water table with chemicals.

According to a 2020 CNN report by Matthew Ponsford, residential lawns make up two percent of U.S. land or 49,000 square miles (roughly equal to the size of Greece), but require more irrigation than any agricultural crop grown in the country. There is a growing trend toward turning lawns into gardens that support biodiversity while reducing the use of water and dangerous chemicals. “If attitudes toward lawn care are shifted,” Ponsford wrote, “these grassy green patches represent a gigantic opportunity.” 

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