[These series of articles were written in 2005 and some appeared in the Kansas City Star]
What was the best “con” of the twentieth century? My vote goes to the worldwide diamond trade. Debeers and friends, who consolidated the markets in the late nineteenth century, secured a monopoly of truly remarkable proportions. Who in the world today doesn’t know that a diamond is forever and is also a girl’s best friend?
The “grass” trade in the United States may not be in the same league as the diamond monopoly, nor did it deliberately start out in its early days to convince all Americans that a weed-free, dark green lawn, of a certain height and texture was a sign of integrity and character; nevertheless, the industry eventually understood, at least by the late 1940’s, there was a lot of money to be made getting people to believe in that one “correct” way. They succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
This multi-billion dollar business, run by the chemical and lawn equipment manufacturers, and supported by the numerous lawn maintenance companies, garden furniture, etc., had not caught my attention for some time, until I came across a recent magazine article about the annual trade show for the lawn and landscaping industry, held in Orlando, Florida.
Over the past several years the industry has had some financial difficulties, because of the public’s increasing awareness of toxic chemicals, pollution, local pesticide bans, the growing natural landscaping movement and finally, cultural changes. It seems, however, that the industry has decided to fight back by attacking its favorite straw man, the “environmentalists,” while at the same time trying to revive the old time religion. Some of the same marketing strategies used fifty years ago are being employed once again.
In the 1950’s the American lawn arrived. The Garden Club of America, the United States Golf Association, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture exerted considerable sway over standards and convinced a lot of Americans they knew what was best. In How to LandscapeYour Grounds, published in 1950, wealthier Americans were told, “it is inexplicable why we have so many heterogeneous, unattractive and commonplace properties otherwise refined and cultured.” Later in the same book we learn that “those in the lower and medium income groups” want the same refinement as the upper crust.
This was also the period when the U.S. was in the “cold’ war with the Soviet Union. We had to be vigilant—toward the communists as well as our grass. Advertisements were full of words like never surrender… sure to-kill ingredients … take up arms … and slaughter by chemical warfare. Famous golfers like Sam Snead helped advertise the new power lawnmowers. Want a lawn that’s fairway-smooth? Sammy asked us. Get a Toro.
Now there was the deliberate promotion of an unnatural aesthetic conformity, which over time covered millions of acres requiring billions of dollars in equipment, chemicals and upkeep. A nice lawn was, of course, a sign of substance and gravitas. And we believed every word of this artificial—and ultimately harmful--dream-scape. This is one illusion that needs to be relegated to the ashcan of history once and for all.