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The History of Lawns

Edwin Budding and Lawn Mower History

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The emergence of two giants must be considered in discussing the history of lawns in America. Their names are Frederick Law Olmsted and Edwin Budding. Olmsted is much better known, but Edwin Budding holds a unique place in the history of lawn mowers -- and, consequently, how the lawn tradition developed in America. For in the love affair between Americans and their lawns, mowers played the role of the indispensable matchmaker.

As David Quammen humorously points out in "Rethinking the Lawn," the history behind the American lawn is more complex than one might think. On the one hand, there is an element of democratization. When pioneering American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out the Chicago suburb of Riverside in 1869, open, monotonous lawns linked the homes of the community together into something that smacked of collectivism. But at the same time, an opposing dynamic was also at work.

In 1830 Edwin Budding had invented a gadget for mowing lawns. It was the dawn of lawn mower history, and the grass-eating beast continues to evolve to this day. Prior to this invention, only aristocrats could maintain lawn grass, so lawns were rare. When the lawn mower came along, suburban homeowners seized the opportunity thereby created for having a lawn of their own, thus elevating their social status (until everbody else did the same, that is). Consequently, it is fair to say that the American lawn has elements both of democratic and elitist tendencies.

I suspect, however, that there's something more basic behind America's obsession with lawns than is accounted for by either of these historical trends. Once again, our desire to impose our will on nature would seem to be the predominant factor behind the hegemony of the lawn. As with the examples of formal garden design previously discussed, the lawn is meant to showcase the diligence of the person who owns it, not the plants themselves. It's form over content all over again. Indeed, a blade of grass is about as boring as the plant world ever gets, so there is little chance of any of the components in this arrangement stealing the show at the expense of the arrangement as a whole. Unlike the playfully helter-skelter style of the cottage gardens discussed on Page 3, lawns represent the rule of law and reason. And we thumb our noses at nature by extending the indoors outside, rolling out a green "carpet" that will allow us to transition freely between outdoors and inside without even tracking dirt into the house!

Furthermore, the lawn is another landscaping composition with a satisfying bit of geometry in it, however simple: it is the poor man's answer to a formal garden with neat lines of boxwood-hedge. For what is a carefully manicured lawn supposed to represent, after all, if not a horizontal plane? No one would brag about a lawn whose grass was 5" tall on one side of the driveway, and 2" on the other. The whole point behind a lawn, aesthetically speaking, is its uniformity. It should be uniform not only in height, but also in composition (no "weeds") and in color. The more precision, the better.

Which school of thought do you agree with, formal or informal? And what's your impression of the chore of lawn mowing? Do you consider lawn mower history to be a tale of progress or the story of a noisy beast that you'd rather not have to push around? Before undertaking a landscaping makeover, it is helpful not only to answer these questions, but to consider the reasons behind your answers -- which is the thrust of Page 5....

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