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Traveling Smithsonian exhibit highlights American backyard
Jill Odom | March 23, 2016

An outdoor kitchen could fit any budget, from a simple store-bought grill to a permanent stone hearth with space for tool storage and food preparation.
Photo: The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Enjoying a backyard cookout is synonymous with summer for most, but where did this lifestyle come from?

The Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit is celebrating and exploring the history of the American backyard in a 20-venue tour that will run through May 2020. The exhibit is currently at the Elmhurst History Museum in Elmhurst, Illinois, through May 30.


In the 1950s, a luxurious lawn was a symbol of prosperity. Rows of green, perfectly trimmed front lawns gave the impression of a united, well-kept community.
Photo: The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

“Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” features rare photographs, historic drawings, and period advertisements showing the rise of the concept of the backyard as an outdoor living space.

It was in the post-World War II 1950s that people began to focus on leisure and relaxation. Building firm Levitt and Sons produced the first of the ubiquitous suburbs found today as the demand for homeownership rose.

Along with mass-produced homes came the well-manicured lawns that created a sense of unity and prosperity. Not far behind these green symbols of wealth came the industry of lawn maintenance, which focused on easing the burden of tending the yard. Sprinkler systems, affordable lawn mowers, hybrid grasses, herbicides and pesticides all came about around this time.

Pools were glamorous luxuries, while patios represented excellent opportunities to cook outdoors.

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

As 2016’s trends are obviously showing, outdoor living has been popular ever since.


Few suburban developments had extensive public amenities. Residents turned instead to their own backyards for entertainment.
Photo: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

This exhibit was created as a collaboration between the Smithsonian Archives of American (AGG) Gardens and the Smithsonian Institution of Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

The AGG has documented over 7,500 gardens throughout the United States and collects images of gardens from the 1870s to the present. Its goal is to preserve and highlight the significant aspects of gardening to show the wide variety of cultivated gardens in the United States.

For a list of the exhibit’s future venues, click .


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