A beautiful undulating carpet of fresh green grass was an essential luxury on 19th-century country estates. Today, that idea may seem fairly obvious, but why? And how did the landed gentry plant and maintain their expansive (and expensive) lawns in the days before modern equipment?
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy Americans followed English models of architecture and landscaping, which they learned about from books, engravings, paintings, travel, and immigrants. This was a period when British landscape designers embraced the Romantic picturesque elements of an idealized natural style and rejected the formal, geometric aesthetic of French and Continental gardens. The new fashion was popularized by the great British landscape gardeners of the age—including Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783), Humphry Repton (1752–1818), William Sawrey Gilpin (1762–1843), and John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843)—and their followers in the United States, such as Irish-born Bernard McMahon (ca. 1775–1816), Belgian émigré André Parmentier (1780–1830), and American wunderkind Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852). These American gardeners created a new national style that was suitable for the North American climate.
Irregularity, curved lines, varied surfaces, unexpected views and vistas, meandering walks, majestic trees, interesting groupings of shrubs and plants, and, yes, lawns (especially dotted with a few choice trees), characterized the modern natural style. These elements were expected to work in harmony with architecture and the surrounding landscape. Although the look was natural, the design was contrived. In the 1844 edition of his treatise on landscape gardening, A. J. Downing writes that “in the grounds of a country residence,” natural beauty can be enhanced by “conducting all our improvements with an eye to picturesque expression.” British and American advocates of the modern style, however, varied in their interpretations of the ideal landscape, and writers such as Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) had strong opinions on the differences between the “beautiful,” the “picturesque,” and the “sublime.”
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington followed the latest gardening trends and were among the first wealthy Americans who planted lawns as part of a larger landscaping scheme in the natural, English taste. On June 2, 1798, the Polish writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon, where he admired a grove of locust trees planted on “a green carpet of the most beautiful velvet.” In his book George Washington’s Eye, Joseph Manca shares an account of Washington’s gardens written about 1788–89 by the military officer, writer, and gentleman farmer David Humphreys, who describes “a lawn of 5 acres in front & about the same in rear of the buildings. . . . On the north-end it subsides gradually into extensive pasture grounds; while on the south it slopes more steeply . . . and terminates with the coach-house, stables, vineyard & nurseries.”
What defined a lawn, exactly? In 1830, according to Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, it was “an open space between woods, or a plain in a park [i.e., the land surrounding a country house] or adjoining a noble seat.” To be clear, a lawn was not the same as a meadow, pasture, or clearing. Lawns—which were extremely labor-intensive—were expensive to plant and maintain. These costly status symbols were the perfect way to showcase a handsome mansion on a gentleman’s country estate.
In the 19th century, well-to-do Americans were keen to own a country seat, partially as a means to escape urban and industrial areas, which were becoming more crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden. As part of this movement, on April 25, 1836, Robert Bartow and his wife, Maria, paid $40,000 for 233 acres of waterfront property in the countryside just north of New York City—land that had once belonged to his Bartow and Pell ancestors—and made plans to build a splendid mansion. Naturally, new landscaping in the current taste would have been part of that scheme.
Robert and Maria Bartow were among the wealthy New Yorkers who owned country houses on Long Island Sound in the picturesque area that is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Here, lawns, gardens, and orchards joined pastures, farmland, marshes, and woodland on idyllic estates. The Bartows’ neighbor Elisha King hired noted horticulturalist André Parmentier to lay out the grounds at Hawkswood, King’s fine 1829 Greek Revival mansion designed by Martin Euclid Thompson near City Island. In “Landscapes and Picturesque Gardens” (1828), Parmentier advises: “The front of the house ought always to be uncovered” and “open to public view; otherwise the taste and expense are, in a great measure, thrown away.” He also says that “it is desirable that a grass-plot should naturally present itself.”
John Hunter’s Pelham Bay estate—modeled after those of the English nobility—was on its own island, which A. J. Downing describes in his Treatise. “The whole island may be considered an extensive park, carpeted with soft lawn and studded with noble trees,” he observes. Downing was also impressed by Robert Bolton’s Pelham Priory, which embodied the Romantic notion of the picturesque and was surrounded by lawns and woods, a faux ruin, and a gazebo.
How were these lawns achieved? Downing discusses the subject in the November 1846 issue of The Horticulturalist (which he edited). “We love most the soft turf which, beneath the flickering shadows of scattered trees, is thrown like a smooth natural carpet over the swelling outline of the smiling earth,” he writes. But growing a lawn and keeping it green wasn’t that easy. The American climate, “so bright and sunny” with the “summer searing” of July and August, made it harder to maintain “the perpetual softness and verdure of an ‘English lawn.’” But Downing had good news. “Fine lawns” could be had “in all the northern half of the Union” if people followed three important rules—“deep soil, the proper kinds of grasses, and frequent mowing.”
First, the soil must be prepared. Downing recommends doing this in the autumn or early winter so that the ground has time to settle before it is seeded in the spring. “Large lawn surfaces are only to be managed (unless expense is not a consideration) with the subsoil plough . . . worked by two yoke of oxen” to turn up the soil two feet deep. Then a harrow should be used to break up clumps of dirt, and the area must be cleared of all stones. “It is quite impossible to mow a lawn well that is not as smooth as ground can be made,” he warns. Manure may be applied while subsoiling, but it is not needed “if the land is strong and in good heart.” “The object in a lawn,” he reminds us, “is not to obtain a heavy crop of hay, but simply to maintain perpetual verdure. Rich soil would defeat our object by causing rank growth and coarse stalks, when we wish short growth and soft herbage.”
In early spring, Downing says to stir the soil “lightly with the plough and harrow, and make the surface as smooth as possible—we do not mean level, for if the ground is not a flat, nothing is so agreeable as gentle swells or undulations. But quite smooth the surface must be.” When it is time to sow the seeds, Downing recommends a mixture of red-top (Agostis vulgaris) and white clover (Trifolium repens), “which are hardy short grasses” that “make the best and most enduring lawn for this climate. . . . The seed should be perfectly clean; then sow four bushels of it to the acre; not a pint less as you hope to walk upon velvet! Finish the whole by rolling the surface evenly and neatly. A few soft vernal showers and bright sunny days will show you a coat of verdure bright as emerald.” Hopefully nature cooperated.
How did gardeners mow and maintain these velvety green carpets? “After your lawn is once fairly established, there are but two secrets in keeping it perfect—frequent mowing and rolling,” Downing advises. Scythes were used for cutting grass, sometimes even after the lawn mower became widely available in the late 19th century. Downing recommends using an “English lawn scythe” with a broad blade “of the most perfect temper and quality, which will hold an edge like a razor.” “Of course, a lawn can only be cut when the grass is damp, and rolling is best performed directly after rain.” Lawn rollers—preferably made of iron—ensured that the ground remained smooth. “The English always roll a few hours before using the scythe. On large lawns, a donkey or light horse may be advantageously employed in performing this operation.”
Gardeners used rakes and brooms to remove grass cuttings. Specialized tools included edgers for trimming borders. For grassy areas away from the “dressed portions of the estate,” Downing’s friend Henry W. Sargent suggests using sheep to keep turf short and “diminish the amount of lawn now kept under the scythe . . . increasing very much the charm of the landscape” (The Horticulturalist, November 1849).
Finally, how were lawns watered? Deep tilling helped keep roots moist. Water barrels—on wheelbarrows or horse-drawn—and eventually rubber hoses and sprinklers were among the systems that were used. Water sources could include cisterns, wells, reservoirs, streams, and ponds. In any case, it was probably easiest to hope for rain.
At first, lawns were only for rich country gentlemen, but with the advent of the suburban front yard, anyone could have a private carpet of velvety green.
Margaret Highland, Historian