Historic New England hosts Smithsonian traveling exhibition on American backyards

Jan 3, 2019

Exhibition opens at the Eustis Estate this March

Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard, an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), will be on display at the Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts, from March 16 to May 26, 2019.

Using vintage photographs, historic drawings, and period advertisements from the collections of the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the mid-century backyard from the rise of the suburbs and tract houses, to the beauty of postwar garden design, and the birth of the environmental movement.

In the 1950s, America was emerging from World War II and 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 nation 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. 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, 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.

Backyard items in Historic New England’s collection

To complement the exhibition, Historic New England created a playful mid-century vignette to highlight pieces from our collection. The display includes mannequins modeling swimwear and enjoying croquet in a backyard setting complete with AstroTurf, aluminum patio furniture, and a white picket fence. Historic New England is featuring a portion of its archival collection as well, including advertising ephemera.

Share your home movies

As part of the exhibition, we are looking for film footage (transferred to an MP4 file or uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo) showing families at leisure in their backyards, whether it be at cookout with family and friends, playing games, swimming in the pool, etc. The footage will be displayed on touchscreens and tablets during the run of the exhibition, and may be used on HistoricNewEngland.org and in publicity for the exhibition. Submit your video clips here.

Mark your calendars

Join us for an opening reception on Thursday, March 14, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Admission is free for Historic New England members, $15 for nonmembers. Advance tickets are required. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is on display from March 16 to May 26. The Eustis Estate is open Fridays through Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.


Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is presented by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archive of American Gardens. SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than sixty-five 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.