Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America

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Pop culture meets pop reference in this irreverent tour of twenty unlikely events, innovations, and individuals that forever changed the way we live. Veteran journalists Smith and Kiger make the offbeat their beat, offering fascinating explanations for the perplexing mysteries of modern life:

Lawns: If most homeowners hate yard work, why does every home have a lawn?

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Overview

Pop culture meets pop reference in this irreverent tour of twenty unlikely events, innovations, and individuals that forever changed the way we live. Veteran journalists Smith and Kiger make the offbeat their beat, offering fascinating explanations for the perplexing mysteries of modern life:

Lawns: If most homeowners hate yard work, why does every home have a lawn?

The Sexual Revolution: Was it really sparked by the disastrous honeymoon of a science geek?

Convenience Food: When did convenience become more important than the food?

Diets: In the best-fed country on earth, how did thin become "in"?

Entertaining and always enlightening, Poplorica ensures you'll never look at a disposable diaper or a black-velvet painting the same way again.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
[Smith and Kiger trace] the people and fads that have constituted American popular culture over the years.
Entertainment Weekly
Poplorica is a thought-provoking book that guarantees you’ll never look at a velvet Elvis the same way again. A-
Los Angeles Times
Razor-sharp humor. . .a witty history of offbeat cultural phenomena.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A snappy look at 20 things that changed America, or at least mutated it.. . .Smith and Kiger aren’t the guys you want on the other side of the Trivial Pursuit board.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Riveting. . .Like all compelling nonfiction, you can’t make this stuff up.
San Gabriel Valley newspapers
“American pop culture trivia without the trivialities.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The authors look at everything from. . .lawn care to. . .baby boomers’ love affair with golf.
USA Today
The best part is [their] lighthearted approach and love for their subject: the enthusiasm... Americans bring to improving their lives
Wall Street Journal
In this offbeat omnium-gatherum,…the delights are in the details.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060535322
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/12/2005
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin J. Smith is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor. He is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and lives with his family in southern California.

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Read an Excerpt

Poplorica
A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America

Chapter One

Frank J. Scott's Great Green Manifesto

In 1870, a little-known landscape architect published a book that changed the face of America—and continues to ruin weekends.

Nothing so vividly underscores the peculiar American fascination with the lawn than the Dixie Chopper Jet. At its debut, that custom mower was equipped with a 150-horsepower jet engine designed to help power a Chinook helicopter. It could reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. With its fat rear tires and massive power plant, which juts off the back like the business end of an overweight bumblebee, the Dixie Chopper Jet could mow an entire football field in fourteen minutes. It remains the envy of every member of the seven-hundred-member Illinois-based United States Lawn Mower Racing Association.

In any other culture, the mere existence of such a machine would seem like a demented fever dream. In the United States, though, where 46.5 million acres of grass are under cultivation, the Dixie Chopper Jet achieved a hallowed place among those dedicated souls to whom lawn care is less a duty than a lifestyle choice. Word of it spread not only through news media reports, but the jetpowered mower became somewhat of a celebrity because of its appearances on television shows such as Good Morning America and a memorable season finale of Home Improvement.

One can't help but wonder what impression the Dixie Chopper Jet would have made on Frank Jesup Scott, the obscure nineteenth-century landscape architect at whose feet we must lay much of the credit,or blame, for the American lawn obsession. How would Scott react to this mower on steroids, or to the stunning reality that, according to the Lawn Institute, a Georgia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the promulgation of turf, more grass is under cultivation in the United States than any single crop, including wheat, corn, or tobacco? What would he make of Americans' willingness to spend between $25 billion and $30 billion a year on do-it-yourself lawn and garden care, or of the estimated $750 million a year they shell out for grass seed to perpetuate the Sisyphian cycle of mowable new growth? Could the author of a landmark Victorian gardening guidebook ever have imagined that American communities would someday fine or prosecute homeowners whose lawn care was considered inadequate, or that in 1998 the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal would mount a massive exhibition about the American lawn that would open with Scott's galvanizing call to arms in the battle to civilize the landscape: "A smooth, closely shaven surface of green is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house."

Scott, an Ohio-born student of famed New York landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, wasn't pushing a new idea when he published his book in 1870, just pushing it into new places. Grass had been used as a design element since the walled gardens of ancient Persia, and turf areas were part of the Chinese emperor's gardens as early as 100 B.C. The idea spread into Europe, and by the seventeenth century formal gardens featured large stretches of turf, including those at Versailles. Golf began catching on in the British Isles about five hundred years ago, and it's impossible to overestimate the importance that sport played not only in the research and development of grass as a commodity, but in promoting the pastoral ideal through vast stretches of green.

Immigrants brought June grass seeds to the new world, but they did so for strictly utilitarian reasons. They'd brought sheep and cattle as well, and the animals needed pastures to eat. To them, the notion of planting grass to prettify the grounds surrounding a house would have been no more acceptable than the notion of putting earrings on their cows. Well into the late nineteenth century Americans considered lawns a luxury of the upper classes, in that having one required constant tending by scythe-swinging workers or a large flock or herd of ruminants. George Washington, "the father of the American lawn," may have put in a humdinger at Mount Vernon, but then, he had the money and slaves to pull it off.

Frank Scott's book, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent, brought the grandiose notion of the lawn to the masses at a time when the masses began moving to the suburbs, a movement propelled by urban congestion, improved transportation, and the back-to-nature sketch fantasies of the nation's enterprising real-estate agents, among other things. "To this group, Scott offered principles of design that he believed would achieve the greatest amount of landscape beauty at minimal cost," wrote David Schuyler, a scholar who penned the introduction to an edition of the book reissued more than a century after it first appeared. "Perhaps no other cultural artifact so accurately reflects 19th-century American values than the home, and Suburban Home Grounds is an important document of the Victorian era because it celebrates domesticity."

In short chapters and dozens of neat illustrations, Scott imagined the suburban home as the centerpiece of a neatly framed picture. With careful attention to the grounds surrounding even the most modest home, he believed urban refugees could enjoy the same "charms of Nature" enjoyed by emperors and presidents by including a lush carpet of green grass, if on a smaller scale. He also believed—and here's where Scott comes off as a bit of a nineteenth century Big Brother—that for the greater good neighbors should help enforce a social code that required each homeowner to dote slavishly on the grounds surrounding their little corner of paradise.

Scott's career before writing the book was, to be kind, undistinguished. After studying with Downing in New York, he returned to Toledo, Ohio, in 1852 and tried to make a go of it in his chosen field. He apparently practiced there until about 1859, but then joined his father's real-estate business . . .

Poplorica
A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America
. Copyright © by Martin Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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