Pools, Patios, and the Invention of the American Backyard

Exhibit on view: March 18, 2017 - August 27, 2017
Photo: Seed catalog cover, Courtesy Archives of American Gardens

In the 1950s, America was a nation emerging from the shadow of World War II, searching for ways to enjoy its newfound peace and prosperity. Postwar trends such as the baby boom, a growing middle class, the do-it-yourself concept, and a dramatic rise in home ownership remade much of the U.S. and, surprisingly, contributed to the development of the suburban backyard.

The mid-century backyard became an extension of the house, a “room” designed for relaxing, recreation, cooking, and entertaining. Private backyard pools were an affordable luxury for many, and the patio became the perfect place for a backyard grill and patio furniture made with new materials like plastic and aluminum.

Glossy home magazines promoted the ideal of a glamorous, outdoor “California lifestyle.” The ranch house, with outdoor courtyards, sliding glass doors, and open floor plans, was considered the postwar dream home and its features were copied all over the country.

“From Maine to California and from Minnesota to Alabama, thousands of families are taking up outdoor living for many months of the year. Patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”
–Popular Mechanics April 1956

In response to the demand for postwar housing, the building firm Levitt and Sons pioneered the first mass-produced American suburb. Their successful concept was readily adopted by other builders and reproduced around the country. In these new tract home suburbs, perfectly trimmed grass lawns gave the impression of united, well-kept communities. Companies quickly responded with products designed to lessen the burden of yard work, including hybrid grasses, herbicides and pesticides, automated sprinkler systems, and newly affordable lawn mowers. Many of the chemical products used to create velvety green lawns took a toll on nature, leading eventually to the modern environmental movement.

A collaboration between the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens and SITES, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard features period photographs, retro advertisements, pop culture references, and influential landscape designs. From the beauty of postwar garden design to the history of the rise of the suburbs and the environmental movement, this exhibition is a groovy look back.

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