Guest Rants, Lawn Reform

The American Lawn Predates the Civil War

Susan asked in a post whether we should blame Frederick Law Olmsted for the popularity of lawn in the U.S., and we have an answer by guest ranter Thomas Mickey.

Recent posts have appeared on this site that blasted the American obsession with the lawn.  I have no problem with that sentiment, but what made me uneasy was how people played with the time that the lawn first took on a major role in the American landscape.

For many Frank Scott’s book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Homes of Small Extent (1870) represented a landmark for proselytizing the necessity of the lawn.  However, his landscape ideas reflected those of  his mentor, nurseryman and landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). A bit later in the century as well as into the early twentieth century, the growth of the suburbs along with America’s fascination with golf courses both proved a major catalyst for the lawn.

The idea that the lawn however is essential for every homeowner developed over decades, beginning in the eighteenth century.

Lawns appeared much earlier than the Civil War, and not just among the wealthy. In her recent book Keywords in American Landscape Design, Therese O’Malley wrote, “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was an essential element of the American designed landscape. The scale of lawns ranged from modest to grand.”

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) wrote in the 1841 issue of his Magazine of Horticulture that he had visited the Philadelphia residence of James Dundas, Esq. Hovey wrote,  “At the corner of Broad and Walnut, we visited the garden of Mr. Dundas. The garden is laid out with a large circular grass plat in the center, about a hundred feet in diameter. The whole garden was in the highest keeping; the turf as smooth as a carpet, and of the deepest and richest verdure.”

Downing’s book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841), written for both the wealthy and the middle class, recommended the English lawn as the centerpiece of the home landscape.  meant he wrote for both groups of homeowners. His book went through several editions in the 19th century.

When Philadelphia nurseryman and editor of Gardener’s Monthly Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote about the lawn, he assumed that his readers knew both how to lay out a lawn and take care of it. In the first issue of Gardener’s Monthly in 1859, a column appeared with the title “On Improving Cottage Lots.”  The writer described a sketch of his property in these words: “My lot is 150 x 300 feet. Without apology, I proceed to describe the plan [which is illustrated]. B is the lawn.”  The lawn took up a major part of the plan for this small lot.

In the June issue of GM in 1860 we read: “If we carefully analyze the distinctions between a beautiful natural scene, and a well-kept garden, the most striking difference is in the lawn.” One year later in 1861, Meehan wrote: “The management and care of the lawn is of first importance. It is to the lawn more than to any other part that we owe the highest pleasures of gardening.”

For the 30 years that he was at the magazine’s helm, Meehan wrote frequent columns about the soil and seed needed for a lawn. On occasion he would include an engraving of a property that provided his readers with an example of a well-kept lawn.

Thus, several authorities, both current and from the nineteenth century, tell us that the American lawn was around much earlier than popular belief.  Perhaps that is one reason today we have a hard time scaling down the role of the lawn.

In some strange way that English garden with its green lawn continues its hold on the American psyche. Today amid much talk about sustainability homeowners still spend $30 billion a year on lawn care.   According to the National Gardening Association we spend less money on gardening now than five years ago, except for growing vegetables, but more money on lawn care.  For many the lawn, around since the start of the country, still plays a key role in the home landscape.

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Thomas Mickey writes his own blog at www.americangardening.net. His new book America’s Romance with the English Garden (Ohio University Press) will be out this spring.

Posted by on January 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm, in the category Guest Rants, Lawn Reform.
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6 Responses to “The American Lawn Predates the Civil War”

  1. Very interesting! What I wonder is if lawns in those days were given supplemental water, or if they just grew where and when there was enough rain. Also, what did they do about weed control? In other words, were lawns of old much more ecological?

    • Keeping the lawn watered was often a topic in Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly. From that and what Downing discusses there certainly was maintenance in showcasing a lawn on your property.

  2. Nice to have read a well researched post.

  3. carolyn mullet says:

    Thanks so much for the bringing some solid facts to a very emotional subject. Michael Pollan’s indictment of Olmsted needed to be corrected and I very much appreciate your post.

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