New Exhibit Takes Museum-Goers Back...Yard

Jun 17, 2015

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

The 1950's marked the birth of Levittown, TV dinners, and kitchen automation--not to mention about 3.8 million babies per year. Another innovation that gained popularity in this decade was the backyard as we know it.

I toured the newest exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, "Patios, Pools and the Invention of the Backyard." It features six displays that bring viewers to the back lawn of the 1950’s through pictures, drawings and ads. 

The first display shows a picture of mother and son sitting on a front porch, a home feature that was largely left behind in the post-WWII obsession with the backyard. Rodney Kite-Powell said with more space and money after the war, families had room to grow. The backyard served as a way to bring what was inside, out.

"It's not that people were standing in the middle of their backyard that was just a big dirt patch," Kite-Powell said. "They actually wanted to make it an extension of their homes. And so they had, in essence, another living room, another dining room, and even another kitchen because grilling became a lot more popular and available."

Kite-Powell said this migration to the backyard represented a widespread desire to bring the "American Dream" out of the living room--while maintaining a little privacy.

"Once you start spending more time outside, and you start seeing your neighbor staring at you and what's going on, you put a fence up," Kite-Powell said. "And so there's even the phrase, good fences make good neighbors, and that was definitely the attitude of the time."

We stopped at a large poster that reads 'The Thrill of The Grill,' with photos of men clutching tongs as their kids play in a kidney-shaped swimming pool--yet another backyard wonder that made a splash in the 50's.

"After the war, again with a little more money available and technology allowing for costs to come down, you could have your own pool," Kite-Powell said. "Whether it be a small above ground pool or really the pinnacle of pool ownership of course would be the in-ground pool that was so coveted at the time."

Even today, a drive through some Florida neighborhoods reveals that pools, grills, and white-picket fences have maintained their allure. Any features of the 1950's backyard that have gone sour? Kite-Powell pointed to one. 

"Then there's the graphic below where there's animated farm animals and vegetables and a woman in the middle singing "DDT is good for me"--and it was good for them in the sense that it killed the bugs that were trying to eat them, but what was the long term effect?" Kite-Powell said. "And that wasn't something that they were thinking about back then."

The health and environmental effects of the pesticide DDT linger to this day. A lesson learned from the "time-saving" chemicals of the 50's.

Toward the end of the tour, Kite-Powell and I discussed the considerable number of people currently ditching suburbia for more urban areas. Even still, he's certain that the backyard isn't going away any time soon.

"There's always going to be, I think, a desire by lots and lots of people to own that little patch of land and to be able to go out after they mow the yard and have a nice cold beverage outside and just enjoy the fruits of their labor," he said. "And I think that's really what this exhibit speaks of."

"Patios, Pools and the Invention of the Backyard" opens this Saturday. For Father's Day weekend, dads get in free with the purchase of one adult ticket.