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To Mow or Not to Mow: History and Lawn Care

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 4, 2023 3:03 am

To Mow or Not to Mow: History and Lawn Care

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 4, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the idea of a lawn is very old, but it took a key technology to make lawns very common. Here’s “The History Guy” with the story of lawn care. 

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It's Dramos. You may know me from the recap on LATV. Now I've got my own podcast, Life as a Gringo, coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday. We'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life, Latin culture and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in.

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For cleaning tips and exclusive offers, visit slash BonaClean. This is Our American Stories, and our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages over on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here in Our American Stories. The idea of a lawn, well, it's very old, but it took a key technology to make lawns very common. Here's the History Guy with the story of lawn care. The word lawn is derived from the Middle English word lawn deck, meaning a glade or opening in the woods. Lawned then began to mean also a common area in a village where farmers could graze livestock, a place that may have looked something like a modern lawn, given the natural mowing and fertilizing. The idea of the shared lawn, however, shows the difference in the understanding of a lawn at the time, as the spaces near houses were reserved for growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The original concept of a dwelling surrounded by grass likely came from medieval castles, which would have the area around them clear to forests and or provide a clear field of vision for defenders. The area thus cleared would then naturally fill in with grasses. There is documentary evidence of the use of deliberately cultivated turf grasses as early as the 12th century in England for bowling greens.

The oldest known bowling green for target style bowling to survive to modern times was built in 1299 in Southampton and is still used by the Southampton Bowling Club. The use of lawns was most likely originally popularized as a location for sports, such as tennis and croquet courts and golf putting greens. Perhaps it was the association with castles, homes of the wealthier, perhaps it was simply as a landscaping element, but the idea of a lush, carefully cut, green grass lawn gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as part of the magnificent gardens of rich estates. The legendary landscape artist André Lenord used expanses of green grass called tapiverde in the magnificent gardens that he helped to design at places like the Chateau de Chantilly, London's Greenwich Park and of course the magnificent gardens at Bresson. But at the time the only way to keep your tapiverde cut short and smooth was with a scythe.

Cutting grass evenly with a scythe was labor intensive for the cutting and sweeping, required great skill and thus was very expensive, although even the wealthy made use of natural lawn mowing by grazing animals. But the practicality of lawns for common houses, the visceral desire for which some scientists claim may have been derived from ancient origins in Africa where expanses of low-lying turf grass allowed humans to be able to spot both prey and predators, can be credited to one Edwin Beard Butting. Born in 1796, Butting was a freelance engineer from Stroud, Gloucestershire. Working among the British textile industry, he invented several things, including making improvements on a carding machine, a machine that disentangles and processes fibers that can then be woven. Among the inventions for which he is given credit is the adjustable spanner. But his most influential patent was patent number 6081, granted August 31st, 1830 and described as, a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping and shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass plants and pleasure grounds. Butting got his idea from a cross-cutting device used in textile making that uses a cutting cylinder to trim the uneven nap from woolen cloth and give it a smooth finish.

His device which reportedly tested at night to protect the idea from being stolen, used a 19-inch frame made of wrought iron. The mower was pushed from behind. The rear roller drove gears to transfer the drive to the knives and the cutting cylinder and there was an additional roller placed in between the cutting cylinder and the land roller which was adjusted to alter the height of the cut.

The grass clippings were thrown forward into a tray like box. The patent description added, country gentleman may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise. Two of the first machines went to Regent's Park Zoological Gardens in London in the Oxford Colleges.

Mr. Curtis, the foreman at Regent's Park said of the machine, it does as much work as six or eight men with scythes and brooms, performing the whole so perfectly as not to leave a mark of any kind. Butting went into partnership with a local engineer and manufactured his device, selling around a thousand of his machines in the 1830's. The design would develop over time. Initially a handle was added to allow the motion of the machine to be assisted by someone pulling from the front. It took nearly a decade before there was a patent for a horse or pony pulled version and versions that used chains rather than gears making the device lighter came out in the 1850's.

By the end of the 19th century there were the first steam and petrol driven versions. American agronomist Dr. James Beard, who was so much an expert on grass that he was referred to among crop scientists as the Pope of Turfgrass, noted that the development of home lawns, ironically a connection to the wild, has been intrinsically linked to prosperity and development. As he explained, basically turf grasses were developed by modern civilizations in order to enhance the quality of life of humans. The more technically advanced a civilization, the more widely turf grasses are used. The legendary American landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park, designed suburbs where each house had a lawn in the 1850's. Strangely, it was the industrially manufactured lawn mower that was essential to the lawns that were the very symbol of the desire to escape the industrialized city. The lawn became indelibly a part of American culture because of developer William Jared Leavitt's Leavitt Towns. His seven large housing developments, made after World War II and designed for returning veterans and their families, became the model for suburban, and at the time almost purely Caucasian, living.

The houses built assembly line style so that they could be produced quickly and inexpensively were very popular. The houses came with instructions to maintain perfect weed-free lawns. The lawn was essential, he argued, to the charm and beauty of the individual home.

Leavitt's design so defined American living that Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Grass lawns are so central to American life that a 2017 article in Scientific American described them as a physical manifestation of the American dream of home ownership. According to estimates based on NASA satellite imagery, today there are somewhere around 40 million acres of lawns in the continental United States, making turf grass the single largest irrigated crop in the country. American lawns take up three times as much space as irrigated corn.

Fully 20% of the land area of the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey are covered in turf grass. According to a 2015 survey, American adults collectively spend more than 2.3 billion minutes and roughly $29.1 billion on lawn care and gardening annually. The average American homeowner will spend 150 hours a year on their lawn. And while 75% of the homeowners surveyed agreed that my lawn and garden are a reflection of my personality, there is a downside. A study of emergency room incidents determined that the US averages 84,944 injuries from lawn mowers annually.

And the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons determined that lawn mower accidents are the number one cause of amputations among children in the United States. There is some pushback and there is a movement among some homeowners to reduce or eliminate lawns, both out of environmental concerns and pure dislike for the chore. A CBS News poll in 2011 found that for one in five Americans, mowing the lawn was their least liked chore, ranked lower than raking leaves or shoveling snow. And the sentiments of this new anti-lawn movement might have been best expressed in a 2015 opinion piece published in the Chicago Tribune entitled, commentary, lawns are a soul crushing time suck and most of us would be better off without them. Still, lawns are overwhelmingly popular among homeowners in the United States and not just the United States. In Australia, which has faced several droughts in recent years, lawns are so popular people have simply shifted to new drought resistant strains.

And there are alternatives available, both realistic fake grass for your lawn and remote control robotic lawn mowers are transforming the very idea of lawn maintenance. And while lawns may have a distinguished history, their future might be even more interesting. And what great storytelling, the history of the lawn. And we thank the history guy for all that he does for us. And if you want more stories of forgotten history, more stories like this, please subscribe to his YouTube channel.

The history guy, history deserves to be remembered. And I can tell you this, I don't think doing the lawn is a soul crushing time suck. And I took no greater happiness than driving around in my riding lawn mower and doing my lawn once a week. And my goodness, I'm with a lot of Americans 2.3 billion minutes and $29 billion on lawn care, 150 hours a year, because for so many of us, it gives us joy, a little order out of disorder. That's what we're doing. The story of lawns and lawn care here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-04 21:32:12 / 2023-01-04 21:36:50 / 5

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