Open grassy areas around medieval castles were kept free of trees so no one could approach unnoticed, but the grass lawn deliberately kept short and green for aesthetic purposes seems to have originated in England during the 1600s. These early lawns were quite large and had to be mowed by hand with a scythe. Only the wealthy could afford to devote a large piece of land to useless grass, not to mention the expense of paying workers to maintain it, so a lawn was a status symbol.
Another factor in developing the lawn was the popularity of “lawn” sports like bowling and golf. Again, the wealthy enjoyed playing these games near their homes and needed a level playing area. Cultivating grass for a flat, even turf rather than for grain became common.
When European immigrants came to North America, they brought with them the idea of a lawn. People wanted to implement in their new lives what they had seen the wealthy do. With industrialization, the spread of suburbs and new inventions like the cylinder mower, lawns were easier and less expensive to maintain, and therefore more feasible for the average person.
By the early 1900s, lawns were fairly common but still a sign of a well-to-do household. During the Great Depression cultural standards associated with lawns began to change; people who had been able to afford fancy lawns had to cut back while those with more modest yards where able to maintain their standards. Then during WWII, people were encouraged to keep their lawns neat as a sign of endurance and patriotism.
The modern lawn is said to have been truly established with the development of Levittown, NY, the first subdivision built with already existing lawns. From the late 1940s to early 1950s, Levitt and his sons built more than 17,000 homes and each one had its own lawn. These homes were largely built to accommodate returning GIs and their families. And so the green lawn, once only available to European aristocracy, became the standard for every American home.