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The American backyard as we know it didn’t exist until after World War II

By Amelia Fogarty

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Lakewood Plaza, outdoor living space, Long Beach, California, 1950s. Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

With summer so close you can almost smell the mesquite smoke wafting from your neighbor’s grill, many Americans are setting their minds to clearing out long-neglected garden plots, polishing up the patio, and spending quality time with family and friends in the backyard.

That suburban outdoor living space is more of a recent phenomenon than one might think.

Before you hit the summer barbecue circuit, here are five facts about the American backyard to ponder with your patio pals, courtesy of Kate Fox and Cindy Brown, curators of  “Patios, Pools, and the Invention of the American Backyard,” from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition sheds new light on how some Americans came to claim the backyard as their private domain.

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Jim and Grace Dent’s picnic, August 1957. From the Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Backyards as we know them did not truly exist prior to World War II

After World War II, people began moving out of congested cities and into newly built suburban developments that included private backyard spaces.

The adoption of the 40-hour workweek, a shift from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs and an increase in disposable income meant people had both time and money to embark on some do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. The result: Uniform backyards were transformed into personalized havens devoted, in part, to rest and recreation.

 

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“Outdoor Living Is Really Living,” Reynolds Aluminum advertisement. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Wartime aluminum and concrete were repurposed as swimming pools and grilling tools

Wartime manufacturers of materials like aluminum and concrete pivoted production for the consumer market following the war, with new products catering to a suburban lifestyle. Everything from aluminum grill spatulas and tongs, patio furniture, and colorful and tough outdoor fabrics became readily available to the average consumer. [The iconic shape of the Weber charcoal grill is based on the design of marine buoys.]

During World War II, restrictions on chlorine and concrete once meant private in-ground pools were only accessible to the ultra-rich. Afterwards, in-ground pools became affordable thanks to the sudden surplus and availability of these materials.

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The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey, garden, 1960s. Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection.

Big brands such as Pepsi created products to leverage the popularity of outdoor living

Advertising and popular culture began depicting modern outdoor living spaces filled with turf, patios, grills and even swimming pools. Lifestyle magazines touted an idealized suburban world that revolved around outdoor entertaining. Pepsi introduced its Patio Cola, a precursor to Diet Pepsi.

Popular architecture promoted the move from sitting on the front porch to chilling in the backyard

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Eichler Model Home postcard, about 1960. (Courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, California)

Suburban tract housing and large-scale developments began popping up in the open spaces outside cities, characterized by a change in the style of houses being built. Modern ranch houses were going up quickly and inexpensively everywhere.

Front porches and stoops were stripped from the designs, fundamentally changing the focus of community interaction. Socializing migrated from the front of the house around to the backyard. Add the ubiquitous fence and more private,  invitation-only socializing became the popular norm.

Magazines and TV shows caught the backyard bug, idealizing suburban status

In 1957, an episode of “I Love Lucy” played on the comedy of building a backyard barbeque grill. People could relate to the humorous mishaps of a new DIYoutdoor project.

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Roxanne Mather, 11, with a hula-hoop in her backyard in Santa Ana, California, December 1958. Edgar L. Kanouse, photographer. Courtesy of a private collection.

Where yards had once been a utilitarian space, with kitchen gardens and sometimes even farm animals, the new backyard became a status symbol of American life. A pristine lawn and patio showed that you had both free time and extra money to make the open space behind your house a private oasis.

Share your backyard garden through Smithsonian’s Community of Gardens, a digital archive for sharing and preserving the stories of gardens and the gardeners who help them grow.

 

5 Comments

  • Diana Morgan

    Taking off the front porch and moving the action around to the back caused a lot of social change. Most houses in the small town in which I grew up had backyards where children played and where laundry was hung on the clothesline (wind and solar power anyone?) and where perennials, roses, lilacs, etc.grew. There were many vegetable gardens and a few chicken coops. Life went on in the backyard most of the time, but after dinner (supper, as we called it), life moved to the front porch, which was often fitted with a porch swing, a glider, or rockers. behind them. Cooking out was done mostly at campsites and in picnic areas of state parks. I don’t remember anyone having a grill. The disappearance of the front porch made a huge sociological impact. Or it might have been the reflection of it.

  • Lee Rowan

    Um, NO. I’m sorry. My grandparents had a house they bought in the 1920’s and they raised their kids (some of whom fought in WWII) on what they grew in the backyard garden. “As we know it” is some landscaper’s idea of what it’s supposed to be. Who paid you for this dumb propaganda?

  • I live in Canada and see this article as nonsense unless America is a 3rd world country, as I often expect it is. We had backyards and used them certainly since the late 1800s.

  • I agree with Carl Heintz, My great grandparents (Barber) house on Putnam Ave. in Brooklyn, NY had a garden house, plants, places to sit and the great uncles sat around singing in German. It was a social area. In 1907 my grandfather (Salesman), like many who had to leave Brooklyn because it was all filled up, moved to a new house in Woodhaven (80th St.). Same sort of back yard, paved area, sitting in the sun living area. Major difference? Alleyway from the backyard to the street. Also, Front porch and stoop were living spaces that the old brownstone did not have. In 1940 my parents (salesman and manager) moved out to Mineola (Moore St.) – Now there were front and side yards, backyard and a garage – again, back yard was a social area and also gardens for veggies and flowers. Late 40’s off to CT (Manager owner) – an old farmstead – back porch, screened in porch patios, lawn, etc. . I believe that the expanding back yard was due to increasing economic possibilities of the family and the expansion beyond the city, plus the availability of public transportation. Recall that the wealthy had extensive lawns, conservatories, patios etc. going way back. I’d say “as we know it” depended on social and economic class.

  • Really? The author obviously hasn’t done any “urban” archeology. Otherwise she would have seen that backyards of houses built in the period 1910 – 1950 were pretty much the same as those in later periods. I grew up in homes built in the 1920’s to 1940’s and we all enjoyed our backyards, just as the original owners did. This article is misleading and incorrect. Maybe comparing 1950’s backyards to 1850’s backyards some of what she says holds water…. but not the comparison the author makes.

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