It is difficult to think of something as ubiquitous and emblematic of suburban America as the lawn. There are over 40 million acres of lawns in the continental US (!) making it the single largest irrigated crop in the country. It’s bonkers! But…why lawns? It may seem like an irrelevant and insignificant question to ask, perhaps akin to asking, why cheese?
There were two reasons, scholars believe, why humans gravitated to and incorporated lawns in their dwellings: 1) For survival. An area without trees is easy to detect both predator and prey, and 2) For leisure and sport (and by extension, status). A nicely trimmed lawn is just—well, fun to play on, and we can prove humans have thought this since at least 1299 (yeah, the year). Why 1299, you might ask? Because of the continued existence of the Southampton Bowling Green in England. There is documentation that suggests people have been bowling outdoors on trimmed grass there since 1299, which suggests, also, that people have been cutting grass since at least then, and probably before.
It is likely they cut the grass with a scythe (you know, that scary looking knife thing the grim reaper holds), and this method stayed unchanged until 1830, when Edwin Budding observed a textile machine that trimmed off stray fabric in order to give it a smooth finish. He applied this technology to build the prototype of the first lawn mower, which was a push-from-behind device built of wrought iron, and it’s rumored he tested the device at night in order to prevent people from stealing his idea. The result was a bulkier yet eerily similar version to the manual lawn mowers that still exist today.
After Budding patented his device, the lawn mower underwent—and continues to undergo— steady and continuous improvements. Within a decade, the lawn mower was being pulled by horses; before the end of the century, John Albert Burr patented a mower with enhanced rotary blades; James Summer patented the first mower powered by steam; and in 1914 Ideal Power Model Co. patented the first gas-powered mower. It’s curious to wonder how the United States would have developed—suburbia in particular— had it not been for such an invention. It is not hyperbole to suggest that we have, in part, the lawn mower to thank for shaping and informing how we live and perceive status. So, next time you’re walking down the street and you see someone mowing their lawn, consider that this invention has done more than just simplify a chore and beautify a dwelling: in a very real sense, it is the lawn mower we have to thank for creating and enabling the “Physical manifestation of the American dream.”