A Brief History of the American Front Lawn

Like many Americans, I recently suffered the great inconvenience of pulling weeds from my lawn due to social mores.  Is the cost of pulling weeds really worth the aesthetic benefit?  Perhaps, but this belief of mine could stem from something other than aesthetics.  If so, why is it exactly that I care about whether or not my lawn is full of weeds?

Here’s an interesting fact: before the Civil War very few Americans had lawns.  Today, in the continental United States alone, it is estimated that an area larger than the state of Iowa is covered in grass, the supposedly visually pleasing Poa pratensis (Kentucky Blue Grass) kind.  To the culturally literate American suburbanite, owning a home without having a well kept lawn has become something of a taboo.  Accordingly, many modern homeowners are burdened with spending their precious weekends mowing and maintaining theses lawns in hopes of adhering to this cultural norm.  Trying to figure out where exactly this norm came from is the type of thing that’s, well, damn interesting.

According to The Online Etymology Dictionary the word “lawn” can be traced back to the 1540’s. It’s important to note that the definition of the word “lawn” has changed over the centuries. In the sixteenth century “lawn” meant an open space or glade in the woods. In the seventeenth century it referred to land that wasn’t tilled, but yet was still covered with grass. In the eighteenth century it had become a term for part of a garden or grounds that were covered with grass and kept neatly mowed, which is where the American notion of a front lawn originates.  In her book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Viriginia Scott Jenkins notes: “The notion of a front lawn began to take shape at the end of the eighteenth century, borrowed by a few wealthy Americans from French and English aristocratic landscape architecture.” [1]

In addition to being costly to maintain, an individual had to have land in order to have a lawn.  Not just anyone owned land back then either.  Given these facts, the origins of the lawn have more to do with signaling theory than any aesthetic or practical reasons.  Another way of putting this is to say that the lawn’s origins have more to do with sexual appeal than any utilitarian appeal.

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Signaling theory is a body of theoretical work which examines how individuals communicate different things to each other. For humans, it has useful applications in behavioral sciences, particularly in evolutionary psychology.  The fundamental problem in evolutionary signaling games, however, is that dishonesty or cheating is encouraged.

The process of courtship and mating are the perfect examples of evolutionary signaling games.  Due to the process of sexual selection, a lesser known Darwinian idea, the male peacocks tail exists not for any utilitarian purpose, but because of female sexual choice.  If evolution were driven purely by natural selection, then the male peacocks’ tail would be a mystery because it’s a hindrance that does not produce any survival advantage.

The peacocks’ tail is by far the most hackneyed example within the field of evolutionary psychology, but it still makes for an interesting case study about sexual selection, signaling, and lawns.  The creations of sexual selection, however, are sometimes disastrous for the species as a whole.  For example, it has been suggested that the giant antlers of the Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) were a sexually selected hindrance that ultimately caused the species to become extinct in Pleistocene Europe.  It turns out that what makes one sexually attractive to one’s own species can make one an attractive meal to another species.

In the evolutionary game that is mating, males want to signal that they possess the traits that females find attractive.  However, it’s important to note that there are two types of signals: honest signals and dishonest signals.  An honest signal must, by definition, be costly and thus difficult to imitate.  If peacocks with bigger tails are preferred by peahens, then one should expect that all peacocks would want to display large and lavish tail feathers.  What makes the peacocks’ large and lavish tail feathers a valuable and honest signal is that not every peacock can have them and that they are difficult to imitate.

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For human males, wealth and social status are important indicators of a male’s genetic fitness, hence it should be expected that males try to signal these traits.  In this sense, then, lawns are analogous to the peacock’s tail.  Since owning a lawn required land, and was costly in terms of maintenance, it served as a signal of being wealthy, and it was an honest signal at that since it was difficult for peasants to fake.  Parading into town and verbally announcing that one is wealthy would have also been a signal that some males may have used, albeit it reeks of cheapness.  That just any old chump could do this speaks to its reliability as a signal.

That lawns were costly is precisely what made them an honest signal.  This well known fact about the multitude of costs that come with lawn ownership explain where their sexual value comes from.  Lawns came into existence, nor for any utilitarian purpose, but simply to signal waste.  As many homeowners are well aware, lawns are similar to the Irish Elk’s antlers because they are a sexually selected hindrance to having fun on the weekend.

Lawns, then, are the perfect example of what the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption, which is a type of consumption used strictly for signaling rather than intrinsically utilitarian purposes. [2]  That only a select class of people, who were part of the landed gentry, would be able to waste resources on something with no utilitarian purpose, like a lawn, is precisely what made lawns a reliable signal and precisely what brought them into existence.

The important lesson here is this: if weeds ever become difficult to cultivate, then the lawns of the future will likely be filled with weeds instead of the green velvety carpet.  Instead of spending a weekend picking out the weeds, I may just find myself picking out the grass.

Notes:

[1] See The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession

[2] See The Theory of the Leisure Class