This volume, addressed to a general readership, chronicles the origins, the development, and the significance of the tended lawn in the official and domestic landscape of the United States from the last century to the present and paints a picture of the interaction of social, cultural, and economic forces that have influenced the American love affair with the lawn's managed monoculture. While this portrait is entertaining because of a lively historical narrative drawn from such diverse sources as government scientific papers, agriculture industry documents, and the contemporary popular press, it is at the same time a deeply disturbing one because of its examination of larger social and environmental issues precipitated by the essentially unnatural character of public and private lawns.
In her introduction Jenkins proposes the basic topics she will investigate. Foremost among these are the lawn aesthetic itself and its promotion, the social significance of the lawn, the growth and influence of the lawn industry, and the ecological impact of the newly created "savannah from coast to coast" (p. 5). Divided into two parts, the seven chapters that follow organize and examine these subjects in detail both individually and in relation to each other in wider historical, social, and cultural contexts.
In Part One (Chs. 1-3) Jenkins recounts the introduction and acceptance of the lawn aesthetic in American culture. Here appear her perceptive accounts of the introduction of alien grasses into America, of the conceptual development of the lawn in early America, and of the growth of lawn maintenance technology. Especially important, too, for an accurate understanding of the symbolic significance of the lawn is the importation of the English estate ideal into America and its subsequent influence. At first deriving its cultural ancestry from such an ideal and then vigorously promoted to a growing and prosperity-conscious middle class in the late 19th century, the front lawn became publicly symbolic of economic and social success by proclaiming as a virtue the ability to remand and consume material wealth. This continuing idealization and the concomitant nationwide promotion of the lawn aesthetic sprang from three main sources: the local, regional, and national beautification programs and their sponsoring associations, the continuing research at the United States Department of Agriculture, and the activism of the resource-rich United States Golf Association. Each in its own way contributed substantially to the establishment of the lawn as an important bearer of cultural, social and commercial symbolism. Finally, during the last century the pervasive influence of advertising and marketing has enabled the producers of lawn seed and related products to increasingly dictate the terms of compliance with an ever-elusive lawn care aesthetic, and Jenkins offers not a few examples of targeted marketing based on class, race and gender stereotypes. This network of imagery commercializing the ideal lawn and the products to maintain it properly can be seen as paradigmatic for consumer goods overall.
Part Two of the work (Chs. 4-7) examines in close detail the wider effects of the lawn aesthetic in contemporary American society. Premier among these stands the modern lawn care industry, whose origins lie in numerous smaller enterprises operating in the earlier part of the century but whose growth and influence in the years after World War Two have shaped the modern concept of the lawn. Aided by a proliferation of suburban development and by the rise of the internal combustion society, the industry itself now both defines and sells the lawn aesthetic. The commercial representation of this ideal was (and remains) crafted to appeal primarily to male concerns, while using the imagery and rhetoric of power and control on one hand and of that of home, family, and leisure on the other to foment a desire to achieve the ideal lawn aesthetic. The masculinized impetus to control the natural world, morover, has been marketed as a conflict with Nature itself and has increasingly depended upon a mechanized army of power tools replete with a chemical arsenal of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Concerns about the inherent dangers of widespread application of these latter products, coupled with reaction to the warfare ethic of the former, have modified current approaches to the presentation and maintenance of the domestic landscape, and horticulture has become increasingly characterized by innovative systems and technologically sophisticated products intended to interact more benignly with the environment (cf. "1,000 Ways to Tame a Lawn (Weed Whackers Included)," The New York Times, July 28, 1994, p. C2) As is emphasized in the conclusion, fresh attitudes toward the natural world and changing concepts of community in the late 20th century, in fact, have prompted reconsideration of the traditional concept of a lawn and the redirection of domestic activities away from the increased vulnerability of public view and toward the secure privacy afforded by walls, fences, and the attached rear deck.
In addition to its historical account of the American lawn aesthetic, the book also addresses significant social and cultural issues that resonate beyond the specific contexts of domestic landscape architecture. In the case of the active promotion of the preferred landscape ideal, for example, Jenkins demonstrates that the widespread success of the managed lawn (and of its associated industry) is attributable to two basic factors: the technological and material capacity to cultivate a lawn and the desire, largely externally generated, to comply with ever loftier cultural or social standards. As a result examples of advertising, those "cultural artifacts that can be used to determine the products and services available during a given period" (p. 64), come under close scrutiny; and many of the book's salient points about class, racial and gender-specific marketing strategies may be readily noticed elsewhere in the larger consumer society. According to Jenkins, moreover, such traditionally expressed American ideals as moral purity, civic unanimity, and social conformity become reinforced by and transformed into tangible reality with the public presentation of the lawn seen both as an extension of interior domestic space and as a visually-scripted living commentary on the character of its owner.
There is, then, much to praise in this volume and little to censure. As supportive evidence for her observations, for instance, Jenkins provides a wealth of researched information, some from technical sources and much of it from advertising copy in the popular press, all presented in an engaging narrative. The annotated black and white illustrations have been well-chosen, helpful, and, most of all, interesting on several levels. The book's overall organization is good, and the subject matter of each chapter is clearly delineated with the chapter itself well structured and clearly focused.
On the other hand, the book is not entirely flawless. For example, the reader becomes aware of a kind of repetitiveness in the narrative account at some points, perhaps because of the close interrelationship of the various elements contributing to the modern in the lawn aesthetic and because of the frequency with which the same or similar aspects of the whole subject are reexamined. One such example is that both lawn chemicals themselves and the industry that relies on them come under intense and frequent attack throughout the book - though not undeservedly as we are only now beginning to learn - , and this lends a tone of preachiness to some sections. From a scientific point of view, too, the work could be improved by the inclusion of the Linnaean names for all (not just some) of the grasses discussed in order to facilitate botanical identification for those readers (like the reviewer) so inclined. Nonetheless, despite these oversights The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession stands as an interesting, informative, and thought-provoking look at an ubiquitous American cultural phenomenon, its past, and its future.