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Hearth & Home August 2018

Lakewood Plaza, outdoor living space. Long Beach, Calif., 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Backyard Evolution

By Lisa Readie Mayer

PhotoS COURTESY: ©2018 SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY.

The Smithsonian Museum has created exhibits – both static and traveling – that celebrate barbecue and the American Backyard as formative elements of our lives.

Along with Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Archie Bunker’s chair, the Apple computer, and other iconic artifacts of American history and culture, the Smithsonian Institution is paying homage to the all-American barbecue and backyard in two separate but related exhibits.

Grills, tools, cookbooks, and barbecue-themed kitsch are among the nearly 300objects featured in “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000,” on display through the end of the year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The FOOD exhibit explores major food and cooking trends and influencers of the second half of the 20th Century. It is supported by artifacts such as Julia Child’s kitchen, fondue pots, Bundt pans, microwave ovens, wine barrels, and barbecue gear, that help tell the story of food and cooking in postwar America, and explain how immigrants, gender roles, working patterns, and social, political, and cultural movements, have influenced what we eat and drink today.

“The “Backyard Cookout” story is included as part of the “Resetting the Table” section of the FOOD exhibition, because it is part of the major changes in (food and cooking) in the postwar period,” according to Smithsonian curator Paula Johnson. “With outdoor grilling now so widespread…we wanted to highlight the early years of the modern practice of cooking over a flame,” to show the origins of Americans’ love affair with grilling.

The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey garden, 1960s.
Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection.

Butterfly chairs and bonsai plants on the patio of Crestwood, Kansas City, Missouri, 1968.
Roche Photography. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Roche Collection.

“The (barbecue) story (is part of) how our tables were ‘re-set’ in different ways after 1950,” she adds. “As more and more Americans moved to the rapidly developing suburbs in the 1950s and onward, they had more room for leisure activities, and the outdoor patio became a new kind of space for American families.” According to Johnson, backyard cookouts linked food with recreation and relaxation, and cemented Americans’ desire for char-grilled flavor.

“The cookout also defined a special role for men in meal preparation: Men ‘manned’ the grill to cook the meat for the main course, while women made the side dishes in the kitchen,” she notes. “This ‘masculine’ work environment involved open flames, meat, a grill, and the outdoors, so it was okay for ordinary guys to cook (outside).” Accoutrements such as “Daddio of the Patio” or “Hail to the Chef” aprons further distinguished grilling from kitchen-cooking and women’s domestic realm, she adds.

Featured magazine articles, cookbooks, and advertisements with photos of men cooking thick steaks and other hunks of meat over the fire, show how grilling gender roles and the tastes of a “postwar meat-mad America” were reinforced, according to Johnson.

Ford House, New Canaan, Connecticut, about 1967.
Edward Winter and Russell Ford, architects. Friede Stege, landscape architect. Molly Adams, photographer.

One article, “America Bit by the Barbecue Bug,” from the July 12, 1955 issue of Look magazine, notes, “It takes just one summer season to turn a caveman into an outdoor chef in full 1955 regalia. A man takes over with a few more tools than a primitive hunter: a fire, a stick or an old fork, some meat. After one bite of a frankfurter he has personally charcoal-charred, he is hooked as a cook. Spurred on by his family, he pores over grill ads as avidly as a gardener studies seed catalogues, voraciously collects barbecue recipes, and splurges on the fanciest cook-out equipment he can find…. From little picnics, elaborate barbecues grow and grow.”

The exhibit also includes some of the outdoor cooking products first introduced to serve this growing group of backyard enthusiasts. Portable hibachis, open braziers, and covered kettle grills were considered modern and practical, and were easily obtained by the masses. Vintage barbecue tools, outdoor serving ware, and barbecue-themed clothes also are represented in the display.

Besides steaks, cookout menus of the period often featured tropical-inspired fare. Servicemen had experienced the exotic foods of the South Pacific, and postwar civilians, who had newfound means and ability to travel, were exposed to grilled foods and fruity drinks while visiting places such as Mexico, California, Hawaii, Florida, and the Caribbean. When they returned home, they grilled kebabs, teriyaki, and spareribs, served tropical rum and tequila drinks, and decorated their suburban backyards with tiki torches and pink flamingos.

Carol Holloway, 14, in her backyard in Jefferson Heights, Los Angeles, June 1961.
Phyllis Kelson Holloway, photographer. Courtesy of a private collection.

A Traveling Tribute to Outdoor Living

A second, parallel exhibit, “Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard,” is making its way across the country as a traveling tribute to the Outdoor Room in America. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES) in collaboration with Smithsonian Gardens, the exhibit uses vintage photographs, home and garden magazines, product advertisements, and landscape architectural plans, to trace the emergence of the American backyard as an extension of the house for relaxing, entertaining, and enjoyment.

“The exhibit is a peek into the sociocultural aspects of the backyard living space and its important role in American life,” says Smithsonian Gardens curator Kate Fox.

According to Fox, as the nation emerged from World War II into a period of peace and prosperity, mid-century homeowners began to look at the backyard not just as decoration to be admired, but as a place to be lived in and enjoyed – even going so far as to turn it into a country-club-like resort.

Fox says that Thomas Church, author of the 1955 book “Gardens Are For People,” was one of the originators of the Outdoor Room concept, espousing that a home’s interior should interact with its outdoor spaces, flowing freely as part of an overall integrated design. He also proposed developing multiple distinct “rooms” within the overall outdoor landscape.

“He was a driving force of the time and he helped people begin to look at the yard and garden differently,” says Fox. “He played a key role in developing Americans’ outdoor lifestyle.”

Although Fox notes that Sunset magazine was promoting this outdoor lifestyle as far back as the 1920s, the trend was confined mostly to California and other western states because of weather. It was only after World War II that the concept of outdoor living expanded nationally. In fact, a 1956 article in Popular Mechanics, featured in the exhibit, notes, “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 backyards throughout the nation.”

A game of shuffleboard in the Bolte garden, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1957.
Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection.

Cover of Popular Mechanics, October 1955.
Courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

This transformation was led by a growing, postwar middle class moving from farms to mass-produced tract homes in the suburbs. Most tract homes lacked front porches because developers considered them expensive and impractical. But changing employment trends meant homeowners had a shortened work week with time off on weekends, so they wanted more outdoor recreation amenities at home. As a result, the backyard evolved as a modern, bigger, and better alternative to the porch that provided a place for fun and also answered a growing desire for privacy.

Perry Wheeler, a landscape architect who created the White House Rose Garden and designed projects for the U.S. National Arboretum, National Cathedral, and the JFK gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, designed backyard landscapes that incorporated “activity-specific areas for recreation, entertainment, dining, and conversation.” He visually separated the “rooms” within the overall outdoor living space with different elevations, hardscape patterns, or other landscape elements, a radical idea at the time.

Lakewood Plaza, exterior and family. Long Beach, Calif., 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Not just a concept for the wealthy, Wheeler promoted the “Brides First Garden: A Five Year Plan,” in a 1953 issue of House & Garden magazine highlighted in the exhibit. It guided young homeowners on how to personalize a cookie-cutter house by creating an outdoor living space in phases. A featured 1960s article credited Wheeler with helping to change the role of the garden in American culture, noting, “The mid-century phenomenon called ‘outdoor living’… is a national preoccupation without parallel…It has changed the face of the American garden, shifted the focus of the house from the front yard to the rear terrace, inspired a totally new concept of cooking and entertaining outdoors, and satisfied a host of other needs for the 20th-century American – more living space, a yearning for sunlight and shade, a place of retreat from an encroaching world.”

Other factors contributed to the evolution of the backyard, according to the exhibit curator. Construction materials such as aluminum and concrete, once scarce during the war, were readily available, giving rise to a do-it-yourself movement. DIY, how-to, and home and garden magazines touted projects such as building a backyard patio, or a brick barbecue pit, as ways to individualize a home with enjoyable amenities.

Swimming pools, accessible only to the wealthy in the 1920s, were easier to install and more affordable after the war, and new sliding doors opened interior spaces to the outdoors. “Also, in the 1950s, aluminum furniture was introduced,” says Fox. “It was lightweight, moveable, easier to care for, and considered modern compared to traditional wrought-iron patio furniture.”

Dozens more photos in the exhibit depict average Americans enjoying their backyards during the postwar period and give testament to the rise of a barbecue as a favorite way to entertain family and friends. “A cookout on the patio was a huge cultural symbol of summer and it crept into popular culture,” says Fox. “Outdoor living was part of the zeitgeist, and outdoor motifs popped up everywhere. There were images of barbecues on aprons, men’s shirts, women’s dresses, and tableware. We even found wallpaper from 1955 with graphics of brick barbecue pits, watermelons, 1950’s patio furniture, and a man grilling. Pepsi created a diet soda called Patio, around 1963, which was supposed to reinforce the idea of relaxed outdoor living.

Benton House, Phoenix, Arizona, 1940s or 1950s.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

“In addition, the use of green carpet indoors was very popular during this period,” she continues. “It was seen as an extension of the lawn and a way to bring outdoor living inside. Often, homes had built-in planters inside the house – even the ‘Jungle Room’ at Elvis Presley’s Graceland home had built-in planters, waterfalls, and green carpet. Corporate architecture also incorporated areas with built-in planters, Japanese gardens, water features, and outdoorsy furniture. Outdoor living became such a part of popular culture. Something about it grabbed Americans’ imaginations.”

Like the permanent exhibit, this one also acknowledges that “gender lines were clearly drawn when it came to life on the patio,” says Fox. “Dad was outside grilling in his Hawaiian shirt or barbecue-motif apron, while mom was in the kitchen prepping the salad and side dishes. The ad messages about grills and grilling at the time were all very directed to men. Men grilled, and women made the Jello salad. It was the cultural narrative of the time.”

Although the traveling exhibit does not include three-dimensional objects, locations hosting the display often supplement the museum’s loaned photo panels with additional photos and artifacts collected from their local communities. Some, according to Fox, have even created vignettes with period grills and patio furniture.

Exhibit visitors have thoroughly enjoyed walking down memory lane, according to Fox. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I remember doing that! Or, ‘We had patio furniture like that!’” she says. “Everyone can connect to the concept. The backyard is a window into history. The shift in thinking about the backyard, and its evolution in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, shapes how the backyard is today.”


The National Museum of American History’s “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” exhibit will end in January 2019. Check out www.americanhistory.si.edu/food or call (202) 633-1000 for details. The “Patios, Pools and the American Backyard” traveling exhibit is at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum, in Temple, Texas, through August, 2018 before heading to the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford from Dec. 18, 2018 through Feb. 24, 2019. It is scheduled to make stops in Milton, Massachusetts; Park City, Utah; and Chandler, Arizona, in 2019, as well as several other locations to be determined in 2020. For information visit www.SITES.si.edu.

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