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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Admission is free on Feb. 22 for George Washington’s birthday. Admission tickets will be distributed on-site upon arrival.
This heavy lawn roller helped shape Mount Vernon’s landscape.
Shortly after returning home at the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington embarked on a dramatic overhaul of Mount Vernon’s landscape. Using techniques gathered from books and correspondence, Washington directed the creation of English-style “pleasure grounds,” including an expansive lawn bound by serpentine paths, a geometric ornamental flower garden, and thickly planted “wildernesses.” A critical tool in the development and maintenance of the new landscape was this stone lawn roller.
Lawn rollers, or garden rollers, served numerous functions: They leveled the earth to create a pristine flat lawn, ensured that seed was properly embedded in the soil, removed worm casts (mounds of dirt deposited by earthworms), and smoothed the surface of gravel walkways. In an age before lawn mowers, rollers also aided in cutting grass. The day before a grass cutting, gardeners rolled the lawn to ensure the grass blades were even and facing the same direction. The next day, they cut the grass by hand with a freshly sharpened scythe.
Operating a stone roller required strength and stamina. Washington may have used this roller himself on occasion, but it was likely wielded more often by enslaved laborers assigned to tend Mount Vernon’s landscape. In 1799, enslaved men Harry and George served as gardeners, under the direction of hired Englishman William Spence. Work reports note that other craftsmen—such as enslaved carpenters Sambo Anderson, James, Simms, and Davy—were at times reassigned to cut the lawn. These men pulled the device using a horizontal handle, which is missing from this example. A symbol of George Washington’s wealth, Mount Vernon’s expansive lawns and winding gravel paths would have taken many hours of demanding labor to smooth.
(Yale Center for British Art)
This item was presented to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1894 by Lawrence Washington, the eldest son of Mount Vernon’s last private owner, John Augustine Washington III. The roller had likely remained on the estate until the Washington family sold the property to the MVLA in 1860, keeping Mount Vernon’s lawns and walkways uniform for generations of Washingtons and their guests.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More