Learning from the Lawn

The gardens give us one perspective of how Washington used his land: to grow crops, to plant exotic flowers, and to show off his wealth and power in different ways. We can also learn about the history of a place by studying the land with a broader view. Take Washington’s bowling green, for example.

You might wonder what a bowling green is. It’s an area of closely mowed grass. The one at Mount Vernon looks like a huge front lawn. That may not seem like a big deal. Many houses have lawns. Yet, in the 18th century, land was expensive and precious. Most people gave their land a purposemost often for farmingand few people kept large areas of ornamental grass.

Washington, however, chose to maintain a tidy lawn rather than cultivate it with crops. This sent a message. It showed visitors that he had more than enough land and money. So much so that he could set aside some land just for show. His usage of this land is yet another example of nature acting as a primary source to give us clues about a person, a place, and a period in time.

If you look more closely, the bowling green at Mount Vernon tells us something else. Think about all that grass. Today, someone would use a lawn mower to keep it neat and trim. But in Washington’s time, there were no lawn mowers. So, who was responsible for keeping it tidy?

That job fell to Washington’s enslaved laborers. They used a heavy roller to trim and flatten the grass, and then used a blade to cut it. Dragging this across the bowling green required a lot of physical labor.

Mount Vernon's bowling green is a large, manicured lawn.

a view of Mount Vernon from above

Learning from the Land

When I visited Mount Vernon, I looked closely at the gardens and learned about the history of the place through them. Yet, the gardens are only a starting point! I could also look at the forest, the fields, the orchards, and the river that make up Washington’s estate to get clues about its history.

Primary sources come in many forms. Now you know how nature and the natural landscape can be used to glance into the past. The team at Mt. Vernon is still hard at work, searching for clues about the past. I look forward to hearing about their discoveries.