Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit Celebrating the Invention of the American Backyard Coming to Railroad and Heritage Museum

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

A new traveling exhibit at the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum celebrates the perennial signs of 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 exhibit “Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” explores the historic shift from enjoying the outdoors on the front porch to creating an outdoor living space in the backyard. The new traveling exhibition will be on view in Temple, March 17 through August 25.

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.

Popular Mechanics Magazine

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

“Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” can be viewed with regular admission to the museum, Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and is part of the regular schedule of changing exhibits at the museum.

About SITES:

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for 65 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.

About Smithsonian Gardens:

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.