The history of the lawn
There are few things quintessential to the American image as the perfectly cut lawn. If the ideal of America since the 1950s has been the suburb, the greatest hallmark has been the uniformity of the grass out front of every uniform house.
But why is that? Why does America spend so much on landscaping every year just to create a plant that serves no purpose? Especially when that plant is meant to just look like everyone else’s?
According to Scientific American, the answer is in the question. The desire for uniformity, or excelling at uniformity is a form of a status symbol that America has cultivated in the suburbs. While city dwellers show little interest in this point, suburban Americans work tirelessly not just to have a lawn of equal standing to their neighbors, but to surpass their neighbors in quality. That means no weeds, softer grass, and constant maintenance.
The history of grass outlined in the article is fascinating in its own right. The grass that most think of as so quintessentially American is actually an import from Europe and Africa. Kentucky bluegrass, for instance, which is now the favorite choice of American lawn growers, came from Africa. Even things like dandelions and other weeds were not found here when the first settlers arrived. They piggybacked in the grass seed that was requested to brighten up the landscaping. Even back then, Americans were landscaping enthusiasts, it seems
The actual invention of the lawn (because it had to be invented, it does not occur naturally) came from the English and the French originally. Anyone who has visited the great estates of either country will notice the primitive form of the American lawn immediately. There, the lawns are vast and expansive over acres, punctuated by small ponds and patches of cultivated forest and flower gardens. They were a sign of opulence, one our founders (especially Thomas Jefferson) greatly admired and attempted to emulate.
The move from estate to suburb is perhaps an obvious one. Since most Americans desire to appear as wealthy as possible and most Americans are not wealthy enough to own estates, the obvious compromise is a small patch of landscaping that is as close to an English estate garden as possible. That means well-cut grass, a tree or two, and a flower garden.
Beyond this obvious motivation, there was a secondary route the lawn took to reach the suburbs: the public park. City parks are often modeled on their European counterparts, which are often large lawns with a few trees. When Americans moved from the cities out into the new suburbs, they emulated this model of leisure.
And from there, we reach the great sprawl of the American lawn, America’s favorite crop, and one no one eats at that. The lawn’s history stretches all the way back to the country’s founding, and it is, with its mix of immigration, borrowed and mixed culture, and emulation of wealth, about as quintessentially American as it gets.