In the newest Downton Abbey film, the magnificent photography showcases the grass.
Then and now, grass is about more than a lawn.
Some Lawn History
Visiting 17th and 18th century English and Scottish manors, we would have seen acres of sumptuous lawns that give off one message. They tell you that the owner has the affluence to maintain something that is useless. They bespeak a life of abundance.
Leaping across the ocean to George’s Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, again we have the lawns. Thomas Jefferson was copying European aristocracy when he grew the first U.S. lawn in 1806. Labor intensive, the grass thrived because of the enslaved people that cared for it.
From here, we can name mid 19th century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Called the Martha Stewart of his era, Downing let us know that, as a part of our home, our grass symbolizes our values. Moving to the 1920’s and the initial heyday of golf, we even have the USDA developing the sturdier year round green grass that golf courses display. And finally, we have the Levittowns that were built after WW II. Each of the 15,000 homes in a typical Levittown community had a lawn, They reinforced a culture of conformity that included the well-manicured lawn.
At this point, we should add that we needed fertilizer and law mowers and hoses and sprinklers. The fertilizer came from repurposed explosives factories that had produced nitrogen for bombs during the Second World War. Do look at this video (that I was surprised to have enjoyed) for some lawn history that includes the invention of the lawn mower and the sprinkler:
So, we have our land and capital. We got our labor with the shorter workweek that left us with the leisure time to care for our lawns.
Our Bottom Line: Conspicuous Consumption
One of my favorite economic thinkers is Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). The first to explain and stigmatize why we conspicuously consume, Veblen said it was all about status.
Through his description of conspicuous consumption, Veblen made fun of us in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Saying that more wealth leads to more wastefulness, he explained that the upper class has servants to wash, to clean, and to cook for them. The affluent spend their time engaged in sports and politics. To advertise what they have, they surround themselves with jewels, with cars, with art. And then the rest of us copy all of that through wasteful, aspirational purchases and activities that display our own ascent.
And that could indeed take us back to our lawns.
My sources and more: Thanks to the Smithsonian’s podcast, Sidedoor, for reminding me it was time to return to lawns. Please note that we copied today’s Thorstein Veblen section from previously published econlife posts.
Veblen was doing more than making fun of us when he invented the term ‘conspicuous consumption’. He was very clear that modern conspicuous consumption is a vestige of the predatory warrior ethos of barbarian ancestors, in which any activity which is economically productive, or which doesn’t have the flavor of warfare or the hunt, is disdained as fit only for villeins or women.
This, incidentally, is a biologically influenced reason why prejudice against dark-skinned people is so prevalent in Europe and Asia. In our not-so-distant past of agricultural societies, dark skin was a mark of doing actual work in the fields (i.e., of the peasant class). It was abhorred by both aristocrats and by aspirational bourgeois gentilhommes. When such societies came into contact with people who were intrinsically darker, the attitudes carried over.
Thanks, Rick, for adding to my Veblen discussion