Early lawn care: unappreciated when unheard?
By Julia Poetain
Lawn care in modern times is hard work, but just imagine maintaining the Frick’s grounds without power tools. Although their landscaping included gardens and a greenhouse, one of the most labor-intensive features of the property was the lawn. Frick groundskeeper George Doerr oversaw a team of landscaping employees, who maintained the lawn with lawn rollers which kept the ground uniform and flat. This was followed by grass cutting, using a lawn scythe, a tool with one large blade attached to the end of a pole. Eventually, the team would use a reel mower, a human-powered cutter that is the predecessor to modern mowers. The lawn required frequent rolling, watering, and mowing, all of which took an extremely long time to complete on the Frick’s 10-acre property. Yet, despite the tremendous effort, early lawn care was incredibly quiet work, as you will hear in the sound clip below:
Sound clip created by Julia Poetain
At the beginning of the clip, you heard the blade of a lawn scythe being sharpened, followed by a gentle swishing sound of a scythe slicing the grass. Afterwards, you heard a reel mower and raking noises as the grass cuttings were collected.
Having a luscious, well-kept lawn was a symbol of status in the Frick’s era. According to historian Margaret Highland lawns were a status symbol in the 19th century, noting that “These costly status symbols were the perfect way to showcase a handsome mansion on a gentleman’s country estate…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 .” Since the lawn was clearly a high-value feature of a property, it is surprising that the Fricks cut the budget for landscaping when they moved New York in 1905, thus antagonizing their relationship with the gardeners. Could it be they did not realize the amount of labor it took to maintain such a large property? Perhaps they did not hear the groundskeeping work, and therefore did not notice the tremendous labor involved in lawn upkeep.
The author's great grandfather was groundskeeper for the Mellon family's Pittsburgh estate on Millionnaire's Row. This personal history inspired the focus of her SoundSite.
Today, it is hard to ignore the sounds of lawnmowers and powered lawn tools. Motor mowers, leaf blowers, clippers, and other power tools may not be “appreciated,” but they certainly alert listeners that lawn care is labor intensive and requires routine attention. These power tools changed lawn care by giving more people the means to maintain a high-status lawn. Yard work could be done quicker and with fewer laborers. Homeowners no longer needed a gardening crew. The middle class could grow a luxurious green carpet around their houses which they could easily maintain themselves.
Sound clip created by Julia Poetain
Lawn care continues to evolve today. There is a return to quieter lawn care, a renaissance of reel mowers and lawn scythes. Scythes can even be found at hardware stores and online, such as the “Razor-Back Grass Hook with Wood Handle” that costs $50 at Home Depot. This change parallels the rise of self-sustaining lawns with sprinkler systems using on site water reservoirs, of wildflower beds that sustain bees and butterfly pollinators , and of moss cover replacing grass lawns. All these require less water and less chemical intervention. They also can be maintained without motorized tools which in turn decreases sound pollution. In this age, it seems that protecting the environment has become a higher priority than rolling out green carpets.