In the 1950s, America was a nation emerging from the shadow of World War II, searching for ways to enjoy its newfound peace and prosperity. Postwar trends such as the baby boom, a growing middle class, the do-it-yourself concept, and a dramatic rise in home ownership remade much of the U.S. and, surprisingly, contributed to the development of the suburban backyard.

The mid-century backyard became an extension of the house, a "room" designed for relaxing, recreation, cooking, and entertaining. Private backyard pools were an affordable luxury for many, and the patio became the perfect place for a backyard grill and patio furniture made with new materials like plastic and aluminum.

Glossy home magazines promoted the ideal of a glamorous, outdoor "California lifestyle." The ranch house, with outdoor courtyards, sliding glass doors, and open floor plans, was considered the postwar dream home and its features were copied all over the country.

“From Maine to California and from Minnesota to Alabama, thousands of families are taking up outdoor living for many months of the year. Patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”
–Popular Mechanics April 1956

In response to the demand for postwar housing, the building firm Levitt and Sons pioneered the first mass-produced American suburb. Their successful concept was readily adopted by other builders and reproduced around the country. In these new tract home suburbs, perfectly trimmed grass lawns gave the impression of united, well-kept communities. Companies quickly responded with products designed to lessen the burden of yard work, including hybrid grasses, herbicides and pesticides, automated sprinkler systems, and newly affordable lawn mowers. Many of the chemical products used to create velvety green lawns took a toll on nature, leading eventually to the modern environmental movement.

A collaboration between the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens and SITES, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard features period photographs, retro advertisements, pop culture references, and influential landscape designs. From the beauty of postwar garden design to the history of the rise of the suburbs and the environmental movement, the exhibition is a groovy look back.

 

Exhibition specifications

Contents Six free-standing exhibition units with graphics, photographs, ads, and text
Supplemental Educational and promotional resources
Participation Fee $5,500 per 10-week slot plus outgoing shipping
Size 1,000-1,500 square feet
Category History & Culture
Weight 2,500 lbs., estimated, 4 crates
Security Limited
Shipping Outgoing
SITES Contacts Ed Liskey, 202.633.3142 (scheduling)
Kathrin Halpern, 202.633.3109 (content)
Tour Through May 2020

 

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Tour itinerary

Opening Closing Host Institution Status

March 21, 2015 - May 31, 2015*

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, KS
Booked
June 20, 2015 - August 30, 2015 Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa, FL Booked
September 19, 2015 - December 19, 2015 Louisiana Old State Capitol, Baton Rouge, LA Booked
March 18, 2016 - May 30, 2016* Elmhurst History Museum, Elmhurst, IL Booked
June 18, 2016 - August 28, 2016 Glen Ellyn Public Library, Glen Ellyn, IL Booked
September 17, 2016 - November 27, 2016   REDUCED FEE: $2,750
Call for Availability
December 17, 2016 - February 26, 2017   REDUCED FEE:
$2,750
Call for Availability
March 18, 2017 - May 29, 2017* Cape Fear Museum, Wilmington, NC Booked
June 17, 2017 - August 27, 2017 Cape Fear Museum, Wilmington, NC Booked
December 16, 2017 - February 25, 2018   Call for Availability
March 17, 2018 - May 28, 2018* Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum, Temple, TX Booked
June 16, 2018 - August 26, 2018   Call for Availability
September 15, 2018 - November 25, 2018   Call for Availability
December 15, 2018 - February 24, 2019   Call for Availability
March 16, 2019 - May 27, 2019*   Call for Availability
June 15, 2019 - August 25, 2019   Call for Availability
September 14, 2019 - November 24, 2019   Call for Availability
December 14, 2019 - February 23, 2020   Call for Availability
March 14, 2020 - May 25, 2020   Call for Availability
*Exhibit slot includes National Garden Month in April    

 

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Related publications

None listed at this time.
   
 
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Press release

Media only: Andrew Holik (202) 633-3122; holika@si.edu
Media website: http://newsdesk.si.edu

Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit Celebrates the Invention of the American Backyard
These are the perennial signs of a suburban summer: the smell of hot dogs on the grill, the sound of a mower on a Saturday afternoon, pool parties and get-togethers on the patio. The Smithsonian explores the evolution from the front porch to the outdoor living room in “Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard.” The new traveling exhibition will be on view at the Elmhurst History Museum in Elmhurst, Illinois from March 18 through May 30. This is the fourth venue of a 20-venue tour expected to run through May 2020.

Through rare photographs, historic drawings and period advertisements, “Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” explores the mid-century backyard of the 1950s from the rise of the suburbs and tract houses and the beauty of postwar garden design to the birth of the environmental movement. Drawing from the collections and research of the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens, the exhibition is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

In the 1950s, America was a nation emerging from the shadow of World War II, searching for ways to enjoy its newfound peace and prosperity. Postwar trends such as the baby boom, a growing middle class, the do-it-yourself concept and a dramatic rise in home ownership remade much of the U.S. and contributed to the development of the suburban backyard. The mid-century backyard became an extension of the house, a room designed for relaxing, recreation and entertaining. Private backyard pools were an affordable luxury for many, and the patio became the perfect place for a backyard grill and patio furniture made with new materials like plastic and aluminum.

Companies produced an increasing number of products designed to lessen the burden of yard work. 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. Many contemporary backyards still boast the pristine lawn, low-maintenance plantings, patios, outdoor furniture, grills and play equipment that first emerged after World War II.

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 60 years. SITES connects Americans to their cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play.

Smithsonian Gardens care for living plant, artifact and archival collections. Its Archives of American Gardens collects and makes available for research use images of and documentation relating to a wide variety of cultivated gardens throughout the United States. In this way, AAG strives to preserve and highlight a meaningful compendium of significant aspects of gardening in the U.S. for the benefit of researchers and the public today and in the future.

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EXPLORE and LEARN
» Exhibition Specifications

» Tour Itinerary


» Smithsonian Gardens

» Exhibition Prospectus

» Educational Resources

» American Gardens SI Collections Search

» Archives Alive! Learning from Landscapes Past, Cultivating Garden Memories for the Future

 



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