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The American Backyard after WWII

March 15, 2017

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard” exhibit is currently travelling across the nation. The exhibit, culled from the American Garden Archives of the Smithsonian, takes a look at how World War II changed American attitudes towards landscaping and moved outdoor living from the front yard to the back. While the exhibit has a clear emphasis on the mid-Century, “this is the story of what happened after WW II," said Horticulture Collections Manager Cynthia Brown. "It made such a big change in how landscaping functioned.” 

Images culled from the archives recall the pre-World War II days, when folks put their best efforts into the front yard and roomy front porches encouraged neighbors to stop and chat. 

Following the War, returning soldiers and repurposed wartime factories influenced new trends. Families left the front porch and crafted their backyards into secluded havens, with pools and patios and grilling areas. Former soldiers, who had been exposed to other cultures and ideas, desired exotic touches such as Tiki torches and Asian-influenced gardens. Meanwhile, war factories had to find new outlets for their materials, so they turned their aluminum into garden furniture and their plastics into lawn ornaments. Factories evolved to make chemicals for destroying insects as well as weeds. “We found, in our research, ads showing that using DDT was safe. There were even ads with toddlers holding spray guns and applying the chemicals,” said Brown.

Brown pointed out that back in the 1950s, gardeners would have been amazed at the current gardening trends towards edibles, native plants, and sustainable methods. The American approach to living outdoors has definitely changed, and this exhibit points out how interesting that change has been.

To learn more about the Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard travelling exhibit, which will be at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, NC, this summer, go to the Smithsonian Institution's website.

 

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