When early humans roamed the African savannas, the short grasses there allowed them to spot both prey and predators from far away. It’s for this reason that some now believe our obsession with manicured lawns actually comes from our genetics – we’re instinctively drawn to surround ourselves with areas of short grass for survival and protection. There could be some truth to that, but for now it’s just stipulation. The more accepted explanation for our well-kept lawns is much, much younger and much more in line with the reason many major trends become norm – status.
In Europe during the 17th century, lawns became widely embraced by royals as a great way to show off their magnificent castles, palaces and manors from afar, and to flaunt their wealth. While today, the sheer size of a lawn can speak to a measure of wealth due to upkeep alone, in those days there was another level to it. In the 1600s, a large lawn told everyone around that the owner was extremely wealthy, not simply because they owned all that land, but because they could afford to keep it essentially unused, rather than farming the land for food. It was this idea that kept lawns in the realm of the wealthy only for a long time; members of the lower classes used their lawns as gardens to help provide for themselves and their families.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that lawns began to become more desirable in America. Magazines and books brought images of lavish European lawns back across the Atlantic, and they were soon essential for any truly beautiful home. While still only affordable to the wealthy, advancements in technology soon changed all that.
The push mower, invented in 1870, allowed anyone who owned property to create a lawn of their own. By the time American suburbs exploded in the 1950’s, lawns had fully transitioned from being a status symbol of the wealthy and powerful to the standard for homes everywhere; the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” made a well-groomed lawn the expectation, not a luxury, for families everywhere.
Lawns continue to be the norm for home landscapes in America today, with almost $30 billion dollars a year spent on lawn care. Even in rural areas, it’s not uncommon to see houses surrounded by a manicured lawn. And just as our ancestors kept fit by running at and from wild animals through the short grass, we too use it for fitness, playing the majority of our sports on fields of grass.
It is safe to say, no matter where it came from, that our obsession with grass and lawns is just a strong as ever.
Eric Palmer is a writer and designer living in Denver, CO, he writes on various topics including lawn care and landscaping.