Ever wondered who’s responsible for Americans’ fascination with lawns?
One apocryphal tale suggests it was steel magnate Andrew Carnegie who popularized lawns in America. Rumor has it that he missed the rolling hills of green from his childhood in Scotland.
Carnegie is credited with giving away some $350 million (the equivalent of billions in today’s dollars) of his money earned in his investments in Pittsburgh steel mills. He funded 2,500+ public libraries, donated 7,600 organs to churches and gifted $1.1 million for the land and construction costs of the magnificent Carnegie Hall that opened in 1891.
It wasn’t Andrew, but Thomas, the younger brother, who built a 59-room Scottish castle on Cumberland Island, Georgia, surrounded by fields of green and even a golf course. The property was tended by some 200 servants including the lawns. A daughter was married at Dungeness castle in 1929, the last family event on site. The family mansion remained vacant for 30 years until it burned in 1959. The ruins still stand surrounded by natural green lawns.
Lawns first gained popularity as status symbols among the American elite in the early nineteenth century. They sought to copy the style of European aristocracy. Across the pond, aristocrats employed the practical fashion of surrounding castles with meadows of short grasses (to make it harder for invading armies to sneak up on them). At this time, before modern lawnmowers existed, it was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to keep a lawn manicured. A swinging arm and scythe wouldn’t cut it.
While Andrew Carnegie was certainly wealthy enough to own a magnificent lawn (being the second wealthiest man in the world at one point), lawns didn’t truly take off until well after Carnegie’s death, during the post-war expansion into the suburbs.
During the post-war boom, as millions of Americans were leaving cities behind and establishing new lives for themselves in the suburbs, the platonic ideal of a big yard and a white picket fence was born. People had grown to love the grand parks found in cities in the late nineteenth century, and they wanted to bring a slice of those parks with them when they left. When homeowners found themselves in the middle of planned communities, owning a house in a sea of identical cookie-cutter houses, they quickly realized that the primary way to differentiate themselves was through their lawns. In this way, a person’s lawn became a reflection of themself. Thus began a lawn care arms race.
The race for a perfect lawn spawned an entire industry to help homeowners in their quest. Money was pumped into research departments to develop new and better tools to keep yards looking beautiful. It’s easy to take it for granted now, but effective fertilizers, pesticides, and weed control products are modern miracles of science. If you walk the aisles of a lawn care section at your local hardware store, you can find thousands of products that make maintaining your yard much easier. There are combination fertilizers and weed-control products formulated to best help your lawn at specific times of the year, specially designed to slowly release the nutrients your grass needs over a period of a few weeks. Modern grass seeds have been individually coated in layers of fertilizers to help feed young seedlings, medicines to prevent against diseases, and mulch to help keep the seed moist. These technologies may seem over the top to some, but they make it easier than ever to grow and maintain a beautiful yard.
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