Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is currently visiting Canada. Whenever the media mention her, I cannot help but picture tea parties or croquet games in Victorian gardens.
I then remember growing up in a suburban town, south of Montreal, where every house sat on a perfectly manicured lawn. On Sunday afternoons, men mowed in unison while children played. Women hung the clothes to dry in a wavelike choreography of dancing sheets.
A short film by the National Film Board of Canada explores the games children played in their respective communities. Interestingly, the same games, stories and daily routines took place everywhere. Communities that hardly even knew of each other’s existence shared the same customs, hung the clothes with the same rhythm and pampered their lawns in the same manner.
There are so many things we do automatically. From generation to generation, we repeat the behaviors of our parents and neighbors. We do not question any of this anymore than we question how we hold our fork at dinner. Incidentally, I had an interesting experience with eating implements at a Scotland Pub, a few years ago. But I’ll save this for another post.
We love our lawns. Or is it curb appeal that we love? Why do we mow the lawn? Really. Let me rephrase that: why do we manicure the lawn? Is it some sort of ancestral ritual, acquired through our European roots? Victorian times have come and gone and, no offense but the majority of us are not exactly royalty.
I did a bit of research. The following is adapted from an American-Lawns.com overview of the history of lawns and the history of mowing.
Sheep on the White House lawn? Presidents Washington and Jefferson both used sheep to keep their home lawns at manageable heights. Green, weed-free lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door was typically packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden.
In England, however, many of the wealthy had sweeping green lawns across their estates. Americans with enough money to travel overseas returned to the U.S. with images of the English lawn firmly planted in their imaginations. Try as we might, it wasn’t as easy to reproduce a beautiful English lawn. Grasses native to America proved unsuitable and our extreme climate was less than hospitable to the English grass seeds.
By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass that would create a lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in America. Fifteen years later, we were off and running, to find the most suitable pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
It wasn’t easy hauling a bucket of water out to the yard during the summer droughts. Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens.
Mechanical mowing came about early in the 19th century and there is a general agreement that an Englishman, Edwin Budding, an engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder, or reel-type mower. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.
Yet there wasn’t a real big demand for green lawns in the front yard. It wasn’t until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced home owners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn was “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mowed at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” America thus entered the age of lawn care.
Ha! The aroma of fresh cut grass!