With the rise of the suburban neighborhood at the end of the 19th century and its explosive growth in the years that followed World War II, maintaining a "perfect" lawn became the new standard. Manufacturers promoted a whole set of specialty equipment to support this American obsession. / THF620523
A quintessential icon of modern American suburbia, the “lawn” has roots as deep as America itself. In the early days of the nation, the importation of European taste highly influenced the architecture and interior decoration style of the wealthy—which included the adoption of the green spaces that began appearing in French and English landscape design during the 18th century.
During his time representing the young United States in Europe, Thomas Jefferson witnessed the “tapis vert,” or “green carpet,” at the Palace of Versailles, as well as the large green swaths of closely mown grass that were common to English country estates. Both impressed upon Jefferson a grandeur that he tried to emulate at Monticello, his plantation. This European influence also extended to George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, where Washington hired English landscape gardeners to help create his own versions of English lawns and gardens.
These plantation sites were heavily enmeshed in the American psyche as Washington and Jefferson became mythologized over time. During the 19th century, inexpensive and easily acquired prints made both of these plantation homes, including their grounds, some of the most famous buildings in America, and gave wealthy Americans images of what they could aspire to.
A toy picture puzzle, dating to 1858–1863, featuring a picture of George Washington’s Mount Vernon on the right. The dissemination of Mount Vernon images in the 19th century showed Americans an idyllic version of the grounds. / THF168885
In the mid-19th century, citizens of increasingly industrialized cities with growing populations sought respite from the urbanization of their landscape. A solution to their problems came in the form of advocacy by prominent landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing for the creation of suburbs outside cities, as well as public parks. When Downing died unexpectedly in 1852, Frederick Law Olmsted stepped up to deliver on Downing’s visions—and bring to life some of his own.
Often considered the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted started his career in the 1850s when he co-designed New York City’s Central Park with architect Calvert Vaux. He’d go on to design parks in Boston, Chicago, Montreal, and many other places. Olmsted not only popularized the use of green spaces in public parks, but also co-designed suburbs with Vaux—like Riverside, Illinois, in which each residential home had its own lawn or “green space.”
An early watercolor drawing of New York City’s Central Park, featuring the design work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. / THF221839
Riverside, Illinois, marked the beginning of the migration that lawns took from city parks and wealthy estates to individual yards. By the 1890s, they were becoming a fixture of the suburban landscape as improvements in transit allowed city suburbs to grow.
With this new hobby came new technology. Enhancements to mass-production procedures over the course of the 19th century meant new machinery, like mechanical mowers, could be manufactured at a relatively low cost to help homeowners keep their lawns trimmed (no more sheep or servants needed!). While sprinklers would require cities to invest in and build municipal water systems, the ability to own a home with a lawn was slowly becoming possible for more and more Americans as infrastructure advanced in the early 20th century. Over the next 50 years, what was once uncommon would become synonymous with suburban living.
Trade Card for the Clipper Mower, Made by Chadborn & Coldwell Mfg. Co., 1880-1890 / THF297561
The mid-20th century saw the maturation of modern American lawn culture—a culture that remains relatively unchanged today. The unprecedented economic growth of post–World War II America brought a need for inexpensive housing to accommodate returning GIs and their young families. An early solution to this problem was Levittown, New York, one of the first “cookie-cutter” affordable-housing suburbs, built between 1948 and 1952 by Abraham Levitt on Long Island. The easy-to-manufacture homes of Levittown came with a lawn—along with rules on how it should look—and represented the suburbanization that was taking place across American cities at the time.
A photo of a 1955 Ford Fairlane Town Sedan, possibly used in advertising, captures the idealized 1950s “American dream”—a house, a car, and a nice lawn. / THF116716
Today’s lawn standards arise from the scientific and technological developments of the post-war period, when rotary mowers were introduced along with a number of pesticides and fertilizers now needed to keep a lawn “healthy.” Since then, the lawn has become ubiquitous in suburban living and a symbol of the middle-class American dream, as well as a big business. While the pursuit of a perfect lawn remains a pillar of identity in America, shifting cultural perceptions around how environmentally sustainable lawn culture is continue to shift the conversation on this icon of American communities.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Working in his small home shop in the mid-1950s, Norman Swanson built a new style of lawn mower. He’d set out to tackle a personal problem, but his solution had universal appeal. The mowing system Swanson devised would revolutionize an industry.
Norman Swanson was born in central Wisconsin in 1919. A self-described tinkerer from an early age, Swanson cultivated his skills through a range of experiences as a young man—including enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school, working at a machine shop, and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—before landing a job producing motion picture film projectors for an Illinois-based production company in 1946. There, Swanson displayed his ability to not only visualize creative technological solutions, but implement them. Swanson developed a new timing device for film projectors that was so impressive, a mentor suggested he apply for his first patent.
Norman Swanson first patented technology he developed for film projectors after World War II. / Image from Google Patents
Swanson set up a small shop in his garage where he could work on overtime jobs for the production company. His operation included a lathe, milling machine, band saw, welder, and other equipment for building film projectors—and, it turned out, just about anything else Swanson could think up. So when he conceived an idea to improvethe irksome chore of mowing his property, Swanson was well-equipped to bring it to life.
Norman Swanson lived on five acres with an apple orchard of 21 trees, each surrounded by a little mound of earth. By combining components of several conventional mowers, Swanson had devised a makeshift machine that could cut a swath of about 6 feet—but it was no match for the undulating landscape, which was peppered not only with stationary tree trunks, but often also loose tree limbs. During one frustrating mow around 1956, Swanson said to himself, “This is crazy. I’m going to do something about it.” Inspired by a Montgomery & Ward mower with a single rotating blade, Swanson acquired and cut down three mower blades, arranged them, and attached the system to his walk-behind garden tractor to create his first prototype "multiple cutter power mower." He also designed a deflector above the blades to better pulverize the grass clippings. For the next iteration, Swanson mounted a multiple-cutter system beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor. He recalled being “so pleased with the results.” Three small blades required less horsepower than one big one, and he “could go right up to the trees and around. It was unbelievable.” Swanson applied for two patents on these lawn mowing innovations and received them in 1959.
Norman Swanson mounted his innovative multiple-cutter system to his walk-behind garden tractor (see image at very top of post) and then beneath his International Harvester Cub Lo-Boy tractor to create his first prototype lawn mowers. /THF175803
Patent drawings illustrate Swanson’s multiple-cutter system (top) and deflector (bottom), which helped pulverize grass clippings. / Images from Google Patents
Swanson wasn’t the only one impressed with his new lawn mower design. A neighbor requested a multiple-cutter system for his own tractor and then introduced Swanson to a farm equipment manufacturer, Pennington Manufacturing, who supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Bradley line of lawn and garden equipment. Swanson contracted with Pennington, building a successful demonstration prototype for Sears and a second prototype that became the basis for the Bradley mower manufactured by Pennington and sold through Sears from 1958–1960. Unfortunately, a conflict over royalties ended Swanson’s arrangement with Pennington, and he settled without receiving full payment or credit for his patented designs—even though they remained central to mowers sold by Sears and other major manufacturers.
Norman Swanson built and demonstrated a prototype (top) for Sears executives, convincing them to use his design (bottom) for the company’s Bradley line of lawn mowers. / THF175758 and THF175760
Though somewhat dismayed, Swanson pressed on. He explored the possibility of producing a new riding mower, called the Wil-Mow, with a metal parts manufacturer in Michigan. Though the Wil-Mow never went into production, the partnership was not fruitless. Along the way, Swanson collaborated with a fellow lawn mower enthusiast to design and patent supports to secure a mower’s blades and keep them from damaging turf. The Wil-Mow prototype—manufactured in Michigan with a transmission built by Norman Swanson and his son, Curtis—included this patented feature.
Having weathered troubled partnerships for nearly a decade, Norman Swanson decided to try going into business for himself. He and his son built and sold 50 mowers under the Swanson name before ultimately deciding to step away from lawn mower manufacture.
Though the “Wil-Mow” (top) never went into production, and only fifty of Swanson’s mowers (bottom) were ever sold, these machines represent the lasting technological change Norman Swanson contributed to lawn mower manufacture. / THF175761 and THF175759
Curtis Swanson poses with one of his father’s prototype lawn mowers in November 2018. / Photo by Debra Reid.
Norman Swanson didn’t gain fame or fortune, but he understood the lasting importance of his contributions to lawn mower development. In an interview conducted by Debra Reid, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, in November 2018—less than a year before his 100th birthday—Swanson acknowledged that “the whole industry [was] operating” with the basic ideas he patented. Indeed, the technological improvements Norman Swanson developed remain standard on many lawn mowers sold today. The machines he built, now in the collections of The Henry Ford, continue to tell his story.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was based on the research and writing of Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment.
In this late 1800s trade card, a young girl in her Sunday best demonstrates the ease of operating a Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing Co. lawn mower. (Object ID.89.0.541.430).
A large expanse of manicured lawn was once something only the wealthy could afford. It was necessary to have full-time gardening help to cut the grass evenly by hand with a scythe and then roll the grass flat to achieve a perfect look.
The introduction of a practical automatic lawn mower in the 1870s made it much easier for the average homeowner to maintain his or her own neatly trimmed lawn with minimal labor. Soon, a flawless lawn became a sign of the arrival into the middle class.
Keeping a lawn lush and green in the hot summer months could be accomplished with a range of sprinkling devices. Sprinklers were very popular when they first became common in the late 1800s. Of course, only people living in cities and towns that had water systems could use these “lawn fountains,” since they required constant water pressure to operate. By the 1930s, lawn sprinklers came in a variety of imaginative shapes. The iron figures helped to anchor the device, while being amusing as well as decorative.
This American fascination with a well-kept, velvety green lawn would develop into a near-obsession after World War II, as suburban homeowners spent many weekend hours and much money on fertilizers and herbicides—trying to create the perfect lawn.