Film Club: ‘The Great American Lawn: How the Dream Was Manufactured’

Announcer: “Pretty important stuff, grass. Behind every blade there’s one of the biggest stories in the world.” Here’s a big story for you: the history of the American lawn. Those rows of small green plants that require endless upkeep, host countless communal rituals, and, for many, symbolize the pride of homeownership. All this has made grass the most irrigated plant in the country. But pursuing the perfect lawn has led Americans to dump millions of pounds of pesticides onto their grass, some of which can potentially leach into water supplies. Gas lawnmowers and other equipment have emissions that contribute to climate change. All of this to create land that has limited habitat potential. But check this out. Most of this grass wasn’t always here. It’s not native to the United States. So how did all this begin? How do we get from pristine wilderness to identical rows of manicured nature? Let’s start in the 1600s. Europeans are colonizing America. They bring farm animals. Those animals love the local grass. They love it so much, they consume it all. There’s no more left. The animals start to starve. So the colonists import foreign seeds to grow new grass for the animals to eat. Example: You know that famous Kentucky Bluegrass? It covers sports stadiums and countless lawns — not from Kentucky. It’s actually native to places like Europe and North Africa. So the new foreign grass grows. The colonies grow. Tensions between the colonists and Britain grow. Then there’s a revolution. And what’s General Washington doing a month after independence is declared? He’s writing home to his estate manager about landscaping plans. He’s talking about things like flowering shrubs and planting locust trees, making groves. See, Washington and Thomas Jefferson are die-hard fans of European landscape architecture. The rich in Europe are building great, sprawling laws that have no agricultural value. They’re purely status symbols. So Washington and Jefferson help popularize these great lawns in America, but only for those who can afford it. And these laws come on the backs of slaves. Tools like these keep the grass groomed. It’s grueling, endless work. Time goes by. It’s the early 1800s when there’s a big mechanical innovation in lawn care. An engineer in southwest England is working on machinery for a clothing mill when he gets an idea. Maybe the same mechanics at the clothing mill could work for cutting grass. He’s right and files a patent for the first lawnmower in 1830. Lawnmowers reached the US about 40 years later. But for most of America, lawns still aren’t all that common. In her book “The Lawn,” author Virginia Scott Jenkins uses this painting as an example. The ground where these boys play is covered with wildflowers and packed dirt. There’s no manicured lawn. But by the 1870s, we also see American culture slowly start to embrace lawns for the privileged masses. Suburbs had begun to grow after the Civil War. Some are designed with large, grassy areas. They’re inspired by new urban parks with their own sprawling lawns. Then there’s the cultural impact of this highly influential book from 1870, “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds.” It tells wealthy suburbanites what needs to be done to have the perfect lawn, in detail. It also tells them that having the perfect lawn is part of what makes a model citizen. After all, the spread of railroads and streetcars means more people are on the move for greater distances, gazing out windows and possibly judging the neighborhoods they travel through. Then just before Christmas in 1871, a man from Buffalo, NY gets some good news. His name is Joseph Lessler and his patent application has been approved. It’s for the first sprinkler that connects to a garden hose. And garden hoses are only possible because cities can now pipe water into individual homes on a grand scale. This is when the lawn care market becomes big business. We see ads for mowers that are “easy to operate,” “self-sharpening.” The effectiveness of ads gets a boost from advances in color printing and the advent of these so-called trade cards. They’re basically like business cards. They pop with color. They advertise the hell out of lawn and garden products. And as more people get flashier ads, those ads change from simply selling tools to selling ideas about the lawn’s place in society. Take a look at this trade card from around 1880. What’s it telling us? It’s selling a lawnmower, that’s obvious enough. But look in the background. There’s people playing lawn sports. It’s a subtle hint that a well-kept lawn can lead to good times, especially for the wealthy, who can afford clothes like these and a house like this. In 1914, The Times publishes a short piece about former President Teddy Roosevelt. The news is he’d just possess his lawn for a day to take a break from politics. It just goes to show that even back then, this idea of ​​yard work as a relaxing pastime is already becoming part of the culture. By the 1920s, something else is becoming a big part of American culture — golf. The US Department of Agriculture develops tougher, lower-maintenance grass spurred by demands of golf courses. So the grass gets better and more people have laws because many returning World War II veterans get low-cost home loans. And there’s more access to suburbs because the interstate system is expanding. Historian Ted Steinberg calls these rows of tidy lawns an “outdoor expression of ’50s conformitism.” But that conformity isn’t meant for everyone. “I moved here because it was a white community.” “And we understood that it was going to be all white and we were very happy to buy a home here.” People of color often faced discrimination when buying in these new suburbs. Lawns become iconic symbols of an American dream that’s recognized by most, but attainable only to some. Those who can, continue to chase the dream. This graph, published by historian Virginia Scott Jenkins, shows the number of lawn care articles appearing in popular magazines over time. The post-World War II lawn boom is here, the beginning of the modern lawn care era. Better technology brings more ways to spend time and money to achieve the perfect lawn. And so it continues. So that’s how we got here. If you’ve ever had to spend your Saturdays mowing lawns, there’s a long list of characters you have to thank. About five minutes into the video, I mentioned this Times article about Teddy Roosevelt cutting grass. It’s kind of wild that Roosevelt’s lawn care was considered news fit to print. So just in case you’re curious about this front-page news, let me read part of it to you. “Colonel Roosevelt refused to discuss politics today. He got in a lot of good vigorous exercise. For three hours he pushed a lawnmower about on the lawns at Sagamore Hill, and the exercise did not seem to tire him at all.”

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