The hissing of summer lawns, that line by Joni Mitchell succinctly conjures up summer in the suburbs. Of course the lawns don’t hiss, it’s the water sprinklers that make that sound and we all remember hearing them, and playing in them, over many hot summers.
Vintage lawn sprinklers are becoming hot collectables too, one particularly rare figural example sold for $9,000 at auction recently. Other garden variety sprinklers from the 1940s and 50s can fetch $50 to $100 in the right setting. The market for them crosses over from the very robust demand for vintage cast iron objects, such as door stops, the folk-art craze and the current fascination with vintage industrial items.
Sprinklers are a product of modern industrialization as well as our society’s love of lawns, which is more primal than you may think. Back in ancient times, when most humans were still in Africa, it was very important to be able to see around you in order to avoid being dinner so having a large area of low-cut grass around your home was a matter of survival. Usually the grass was kept low by grazing cattle but the wealthier could have it cut by hand using a scythe so a big patch of cut grass that wasn’t used to produce food became a status symbol very early on in human history.
It’s no surprise then that the aristocracy in Europe took to lawns as a show of wealth. The word “lawn”, which originally meant barren land or clearing, began to be used around 1540. At the time lawns were pretty similar to pastures, the modern lawn began in France with the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. The palace was a pet project of Louis XIV beginning in 1661. The gardens, designed by André Le Nôtre, featured large expanses of meticulously manicured lawns and reached full flower, so to speak, early in the 18th century. King Louis meant this to be the height of civilization, which usually means cutting things. The gardens must have cost a fortune; the lawns were cut by hand. The royal family had to abandon the palace in 1789 when the French had enough and revolted but in the meantime Versailles gave us the French Garden style that still influences us today.
It certainly influenced the English. Like the western part of France, England has a very damp climate so grasses flourished and the nobility could show their wealth with ever larger expanses of lawns maintained by their servants, no cattle grazing here. In the early 1800s William Kent and Lancelot Brown defined the English Garden style which involved a lot of lawn and not much garden, they designed numerous parks, estates and open areas in the new style. Their efforts also changed the word “lawn” to mean closely cropped grass.
By this time increasing mechanization was changing things for everybody. In 1830 British inventor Edward Beard Budding was granted a patent for the first lawn mower. He was inspired by a machine that was used to smooth the surface of woolen cloth using a cylinder of rotating blades and applied the idea to cut lawns. He intended it to be used for sporting events, cricket, soccer, golf and others that worked best on grass. His device wasn’t perfect but besides its intended use it did allow the rising middle class to have lawns that they could cut themselves.
Soon afterward a steam driven lawnmower appeared, not a steampunk dream but a real thing. Not long after the internal combustion engine was invented, it was plunked on to a lawn mower, which makes the power lawnmower as old as the motorcycle. Ride it with pride.
Lawn culture was also spreading on this side of the Atlantic. Even in the U.S., where they purportedly rejected everything English, the English style was adopted by those who wanted to appear wealthy. The native grasses, basically hay, were considered less than adequate so English settlers were encouraged to bring their own seeds, including a strain that eventually became known as Kentucky bluegrass, now the most popular grass in North America. However the climate here is much drier and lawns require a lot of water. Crops also require a lot of water so a whole new industry of irrigation developed that used pressurized water lines to deliver water to where it was needed. Once that was in place, the same system could be used to water lawns.
It’s recorded that a man named J. Lessler of Buffalo, NY patented the first lawn sprinkler in 1871. His invention was based on current irrigation technology, but designed for lawns.
The first sprinklers were a bit crude and are collected for their historical value but after World War Two lawn culture really exploded as returning soldiers married and moved to the suburbs, where there was space for a lawn which was part status symbol and part playground for the kids.
Joni Mitchell’s song is not about nostalgia for those days, it’s actually a story about a woman in a loveless marriage where she, like the lawns that surround her, is just another status symbol for her husband to show off. She could leave, but she chooses not to. We have that ambivalent relationship with lawns and watering too.
According to the National Wildlife Association, 50 to 70% of clean, drinkable, residential water is used for landscaping, mostly to water lawns. NASA estimates there are at least 32,000,000 acres of irrigated lawn in the U.S., three times the area of irrigated corn. It has also been estimated that more herbicides are used per acre of lawn than most farmers use to grow crops. For these and other reasons, lawns have been getting a reputation as being useless, vanity projects that waste valuable resources. But we mostly keep them, we may cut down on pesticides and water more carefully but look down any residential street and you will see a lawn of some sort in front of most houses. They all need watering and while newer sprinklers are more efficient, old ones are more charming.
Vintage lawn sprinklers are pretty simple devices; you can have a basic shower head kind or the more complex impact sprayers that give the hiss. In order to get an edge in the market, some manufacturers made fanciful, figural sprinklers out of cast iron. You could get all kinds of animals or, if you were culturally insensitive, black farm boys to water your lawn, because that’s what the gentry do. The period didn’t last long; prime examples are rare and are at the top end of the sprinkler collector market.
For the rest of us there are the cast iron and brass pieces we can still occasionally find at yard sales. If you have some to sell, they are not worth a fortune and usually need some fixing up but don’t give them away. Usually all they need is a thorough cleaning, new washers and a drop of oil and they will work fine, and look good, for years to come.