“Back when I was a kid, there wasn’t a single blade of grass growing in our front yard. Between us kids playing all day and my mamaw sweeping the front yard on a daily basis, grass didn’t stand a chance at growing,” recalls one reader.
But why? Where did this classically southern tradition come from and why would women take the time to painstakingly sweep their yards each day in generations past?
A 1993 article that first appeared in the New York Times set out to answer this question, with writer Anne Raver stating, “Blacks here, descendants of slaves brought mainly from West Africa to work the cotton fields in Georgia’s hard clay, are carrying on the traditions that their ancestors brought from the Gold Coast… And the swept yard was the most important ‘room’ of the household, the heart of the home. Slave quarters were cramped and hot. So you washed and cooked outside, and when the meal was over, everything could be swept into the fire.”
According to the article, the custom quickly grew into mainstream throughout the South and soon, “Almost everybody had swept yards, including the plantations, which were swept by slaves or servants…”
Turns out, the idea of lawn sweeping grew out of practicality as much as anything. In an era long before Cub Cadet and John Deere, keeping one’s lawn free of overgrown weeds was a tall order.
With heavy populations of venomous snakes ranging from the Appalachian Mountains to the South Carolina low country, the fear of having their homes (which weren’t sealed off very well to begin with) invaded by an unwelcomed serpent led the nation’s inhabitants to take some pretty drastic measures — sweeping their yard.
By sweeping their yards down to the dirt, early homesteaders were able to establish a perimeter around their homes which would ensure a safe play area for their children, as well as provide an indicator as to whether their dwelling places had been visited by a snake.
Often, it was the job of the children to go outside and circle around the house each morning, checking for snake tracks. If the tracks led to under the home, the entire family would put everything they were doing on hold until the snake was found.
This was common practice throughout most of America’s history, in fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that many Americans started keeping lawns, and even then, it was done only by the very wealthy as a status symbol — a practice that was adopted from European royalty.
“At first, only the wealthy could afford the labor provided by hired staff to maintain lawns so of course, this further cemented the idea of lawn as a status symbol,” writes The Garden Diva.
So if you can remember the sight of mamaw sweeping the front yard, count yourself fortunate, knowing that she was doing so out of a love for you and for your protection!
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