Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit Celebrating the Invention of the American Backyard Coming to Cape Fear Museum

Posted March 3, 2017 at 11:59 am     Category: NewsMuseum

WILMINGTON, N.C. – These are the perennial signs of a suburban summer: the smell of hot dogs on the grill, the sound of a mower on a Saturday afternoon, pool parties and get-togethers on the patio. The Smithsonian explores the evolution from the front porch to the outdoor living room in Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard. The new traveling exhibition will be on view at Cape Fear Museum March 18 through August 27, 2017.

Through rare photographs, historic drawings and period advertisements, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the mid-century backyard of the 1950s from the rise of the suburbs and tract houses and the beauty of postwar garden design to the birth of the environmental movement. Drawing from the collections and research of the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens, the exhibition is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). The exhibit will also feature images and artifacts from Cape Fear Museum’s collection including period outdoor furniture, serving pieces, swimsuits, games, as well as seed packets and homeowner magazines.

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 contributed to the development of the suburban backyard. The mid-century backyard became an extension of the house, a room designed for relaxing, recreation 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.

Companies produced an increasing number of products designed to lessen the burden of yard work. Imported and hybrid grasses, herbicides and pesticides, automated sprinkler systems, chemical sprayers and newly affordable lawn mowers began to appear in sheds and garages around the nation. Many contemporary backyards still boast the pristine lawn, low-maintenance plantings, patios, outdoor furniture, grills and play equipment that first emerged after World War II.

Cape Fear Museum Associates is hosting a Patio Party on March 23, 2017 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. to celebrate the opening of Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard. Enjoy retro cocktails, thrill of the grill cuisine and mid-century era tunes in Cape Fear Museum Park. Tickets are $15 for members and $30 for non-members and can be pre-purchased at

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 60 years. SITES connects Americans to their cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play.

Smithsonian Gardens care for living plant, artifact and archival collections. Its Archives of American Gardens collects and makes available for research use images of and documentation relating to a wide variety of cultivated gardens throughout the United States. In this way, AAG strives to preserve and highlight a meaningful compendium of significant aspects of gardening in the U.S. for the benefit of researchers and the public today and in the future.

Photo: Carol Holloway, 14, in her backyard in Jefferson Heights, Los Angeles, June 1961. Phyllis Kelson Holloway, photographer. Courtesy of a private collection

After restrictions on building materials were lifted at the end of World War II, aluminum goods flooded the consumer market. Fashionable and lightweight patio furniture made from aluminum was easy to care for and move around.



814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382
Skip to content