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Great Garden Inventions: A Smithsonian Exhibit Traces the History of the Backyard

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Great Garden Inventions: A Smithsonian Exhibit Traces the History of the Backyard

March 18, 2016

The Smithsonian Institution could not have chosen a more fitting place to open its new traveling exhibit on the history of the American backyard than my hometown of Elmhurst, Illinois.

I wonder if people growing up now in the heart of Chicago’s western suburbs—as the sign at the edge of town declared in my day— still spend their summers engaged in the idyllic pastimes that marked my childhood: swinging heels to the sky in the backyard, crawling through secret passages in the hedges, chasing fireflies at dusk. Mine was a generation that benefited from the post-war prosperity that turned the backyard into what the Smithsonian describes as “an extension of the house, a room designed for relaxing, recreation and entertaining.”

The history of the backyard is a story that the Smithsonian’s Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard tells through romantically colorized photographs, vintage advertisements, and period drawings, on view at the Elmhurst History Museum from today until May 30. If I were home, I’d ride my Stingray over to see it:

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Above:  Lakewood Plaza in Long Beach, California in the 1950s. Photograph by Maynard L. Parker courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

“The patio became the perfect place for a backyard grill and patio furniture made with new materials like plastic and aluminum,” notes the Smithsonian.

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Above: Lakewood Plaza, Long Beach, California. Photograph by Maynard L. Parker courtesy of The Huntington Library.

“Companies produced an increasing number of products designed to lessen the burden of yard work,” notes the Smithsonian. “Imported and hybrid grasses, herbicides and pesticides, automated sprinkler systems, chemical sprayers, and newly affordable lawn mowers began to appear in sheds and garages around the nation.”

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Above: House of the Four Winds in Lake Forest, Illinois. Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

The exhibit will travel to museums around the country through May 2020. For more information, see Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

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