Seven workers lowered their scythes and posed for a picture outside the Capitol. In the 19th century, a well-manicured lawn symbolized stability and righteousness—exactly the image of the nation that Congress wanted to project. But it took a lot of work to keep the Capitol’s grounds photo ready. It was a real case of lawn versus order.
The photographer caught the Capitol groundskeepers on a balmy summer day in the 1870s. Their long pants and shirts were a stifling necessity because the men labored in the public eye. Although scythers were unusual subjects of a Capitol stereoview, they were a common sight from the 1820s into the early 1900s. The greensward was a point of national pride, and men labored year-round to keep it that way.
Lawns became symbols of American civic values early in the nation’s history. Popular engravings of George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s grand homes and rolling lawns made greenswards seem patriotic. And just as the Founders belonged to all Americans, so did spaces that echoed the broader rhetoric of America as a new paradise. Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson articulated the national ownership of the scenery: “Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape.” The Capitol grounds, in particular, belonged to all Americans.
If the Capitol lawn symbolized the order and moral righteousness of the nation, it required the same meticulous care and attention. As any suburbanite can attest, there was an endless battle against the grass itself. When the stereoview was taken in the 1870s, it took three men an entire day to mow an acre using only scythes. With more than 30 acres to tend around the Capitol, workers cut the grass most days each summer.
A Capitol lawn with order often seemed an awaited, distant plan. Repeatedly, officials emphasized that future landscaping “will present a spectacle at once grand and imposing, and every way worthy of the great nation.” Eventually, America’s great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted drew up plans in the 1870s for a comprehensive design to show the Capitol to its best advantage and make the surroundings a public garden for the citizenry. At last, the grounds began to resemble the Founders’ idea of America, the new Eden.
Jump forward 50 years, and another worker from another generation stepped before the stereoview camera . By the 1920s, new technology assisted in the House’s efforts to keep the Capitol grounds orderly. On the Capitol’s East Front, before Olmsted’s curving drives, a gas-powered lawnmower got a refill. The man wore the same outfit as his predecessors—pants and shirtsleeves, with a hat to ward off the wilting midday sun. The machine stopped right in front of the photographer, and the line marking where it had already trimmed zoomed off to the left. In the background, automobiles sizzled in the Washington sun, waiting for the Representatives baking in the un-air-conditioned House Chamber.
The two lawn mower images in the House Collection are rarities. Capitol stereoviews seldom immortalized workers. Images usually focused on the grandeur of the Capitol, not the toil required to keep it looking stately. But the men in these photographs were part of America’s preoccupation with the moral and civic good of lawns. The Capitol’s grounds symbolized the stability of the nation, and as these stereoviews show, it took a lot of work to keep America’s front lawn in order.
Sources: Georges Teyssot, ed. The American Lawn (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999); David Schuyler, Apostle of Taste, Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852 (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Virginia Scott Jenkins, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1994); New York Times, 30 April 1863; Daily National Intelligencer, 30 August 1837.Follow @USHouseHistory