A Brief History of the Lawn

The first written mention of a lawn (actually a laune, the word is apparently derived from Brythonic Celtic, better known as Welsh) is found in 1540 in England, but the lawnmower wasn’t patented until 1830. That is nearly three centuries of shortening grass by other means, which is staggering thought to someone like me, who grew up mowing the increasingly extensive family lawn and other people’s lawns.

Lawn at English country manor (with Madonna).
Lawn at English country manor (with Madonna).

As you might expect the first lawns were around the houses of the nobility. They were not monocultures like our modern turf expanses. They were unlikely to be entirely composed of grasses either. All sort of low-growing herbs were found in lawns right up to early 20th century.

George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak Company, kept meticulous records concerning his landscape at his East Avenue home in Rochester, N.Y. Eastman lived in the house between 1905 and 1932 and his records show that the lawns were full of clover and other non-grasses. It somewhat baffled some members of the public when, as part of the restoration of the landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this multi-species assemblage was replanted. The herbicide 2,4-D was developed during World War II in the course of covert chemical weapon research, but was marketed as a commercial product from 1946. It kills dicots, but not monocots, contributing to the development of grass-only lawns.

Before the invention of lawnmowers, livestock mowed a lawn. I have been told that sheep graze the grass the shortest, while horses and cattle leave it a bit longer and don’t tend to crop it as evenly. And of course they fertilize the lawn in their own inimitable and natural manner.

As a supplement to livestock, or perhaps if you don’t want a lot of manure lying around, there were various implement to cut grass. The sickle and the scythe make a good first pass, reducing high meadow grass and forbs to something a couple of inches high and not particularly even. Sickles have been around since the “Stone Age” (Paleolithic Period) and, after the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic, were used primarily for the harvesting of crops.

The scythe is nearly as ancient an implement as the sickle and is also used to harvest crops, but the larger blade and longer handle makes it more practical for cutting large expanses of grass and forbs.

Edwin Beard Budding's mower
Edwin Beard Budding’s mower

The earliest lawnmowers were set up something like the non-motorized push mowers that are occasionally still used on small, urban lawns. (I’ve got one in the basement that we used to use when we lived in Rochester.) There is a roller in the back and a “cutting cylinder” in the front. The motive power was transferred from the spinning of the roller to the cutting blades. The blades are curved so that they slice through the grass at an angle.

In the late 1820s in Gloucestershire, England, Edwin Beard Budding saw a machine with a curved blade that was used in cloth mills to give woven cloth a smooth finish. He realized that the same mechanism mounted on a frame and pushed over the grass would cut it more efficiently than a scythe (and leave less manure than a sheep). By the 1850s his patents had lapsed and innovations proceeded apace. Chains were used to transfer the motive force instead of gears, making a quieter mower.

The development of small gasoline-powered engines in the 1890s was quickly applied to lawnmowers. Steam engine enjoyed brief popularity, but were soon overtaken by gas engines.

Fine fescue, an introduced species in North America
Fine fescue, an introduced species in North America

When Europeans began settling North America and creating lawns on the western side of the Atlantic, they were quite dissatisfied with the quality of native grasses, and soon began importing their favorites from England. Native North American grasses include the fescues (Festuca), wild ryegrasses (Elymus and Leymus), and marsh grasses.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), in spite of its name, is native to Europe and the Middle East, and was brought to North American in the 17th century by French missionaries and spread rapidly.

I mowed lawns as a teenager. I don’t think it rose to the level of “having a business,” but I did have three or four “clients” for several years. Spending all those hours mowing lawns caused me to notice the variety of grasses in them. Nobody that I worked for used herbicides, so the lawns were not monocultures. The composition varied according to how wet, shaded, or fertile various parts of the landscape were. They simplified plant communities because they had no vertical layering, but their lateral variation was fascinating, although I confess that I never learned the names of the various grasses.


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