Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Lawn grumble


Awhile back, as I pushed my little 22-inch mower around the 1-acre lot I live on, it suddenly occurred to me that the "lawn" is probably a fairly modern development based on emerging "middle class" types wanting to be "like" British aristocrats. A little reading confirmed that yeah, that's pretty much it.

Up until at least the 1930s, and mostly until after World War Two, typical middle- or working-class Americans didn't have "lawns." They had "yards."

What's the difference, and what changed?

A "lawn" is a carefully manicured, prettified piece of land with grass cut off to a uniform height. Upper-class Brits could afford staff (and large herds of sheep) to cut and maintain their "lawns" so that they could have parties, go for strolls and play croquet, tennis, etc. (they had leisure time, see).

A "yard" is just the space around a non-aristocrat's dwelling. Until the 1930s or so, it was usually either ignored, or used to grow vegetables or as space for a few "yard birds" (chickens). I also seem to recall hearing that even in urban Chicago in the 19th century, it wasn't that unusual to keep a milk cow in the back "yard."

So, when and why did regular people get "lawns?"

In 1915, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Golf Association began collaborating on research into the types of grasses that a) made for good golf course fairways/greens and b) could be grown in North America.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the automobile was making "suburbs" into viable living arrangements, and "planned developments" with uniform yard sizes (and restrictive covenants for maintenance) began springing up. People moving into these developments had yards, but without the freedom to raise livestock and with the obligation to keep their homesteads looking almost exactly like the ones next door.

After World War II, the average American had a 40-hour work week (which left some leisure time), some disposable income, and access to small, inexpensive power mowers. Things just kind of took off from there -- Americans now spend $50 billion a year on "outdoor home improvements," presumably mostly of the "mow and landscape the lawn" variety.

So of course, these days small municipalities have pages and pages of ordinances specifying maximum grass length, minimum grass coverage area, required/prohibited plant types, etc. Because once something becomes popular, it must be required, right?

I don't live in such a municipality, but I do have a lease with some language on the subject of lawn maintenance. So I mow, probably two hours a week on average, eight months out of the year. Personally, I'd like to eventually get a place I can just fence off and turn some goats loose in.

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