The Lawn in 19th Century America Revealed Social Status

The home landscape reveals something about both the homeowner and the culture.

In nineteenth century America the lawn became a way to define the middle class.

The home landscape thus reflected the homeowner’s social status.

Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “Although the elaborate lawn would be attainable only by the wealthy in England, in the United States carefully tended grass became the mark of respectability.”

Jackson Kenneth Crabgrass NationEven before it reached America, the lawn had  become an essential component of the romantic English garden style.

Jackson writes, “The new suburban yard in the United States followed a naturalistic or romantic approach. It was inspired by the English, with antecedents in the Orient, and seemed well suited to the spaciousness of New World suburbs. The style sought to use the existing terrain, with gently curving paths, irregular groupings of trees and shrubs, and rustic pavilions.”

So when the seed and nursery catalogs promoted the importance of the lawn, it was no surprise that the green grass on the home landscape appeared from coast to coast.

Jackson wrote,  “The ideal house came to be veiwed as resting in the middle of a manicured lawn or a picturesque garden.”  It did not matter if the house was in California or Maine.

In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”


Springtime Still Means Lawn Care

The lawn remains the living remnant of the romantic English garden in America.

Though there is much talk today about reducing the size of the lawn or eliminating it altogether, Americans still spend $40 billion a year on lawn care.

The lawn is alive and well.

On Sunday the Boston Globe Magazine included an article called “7 Steps to a beautiful lawn”.

The contents of the article reminded me of what nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote in the March issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1879: “There is nothing in the whole range of American gardening that is the subject of so much solicitude as the proper care of the lawn. ”

The lawn [from Wikipedia]

The Globe article listed the stops needed for a good lawn:

  • test your soil
  • add air
  • get planting
  • feed your lawn
  • mow it right
  • water but not too much
  • control weeds and pests

That amounts to the same information that nineteenth century  garden catalogs, books, and magazines told American gardeners.   Instructions for planting a lawn have not changed much in two hundred years.  Nonetheless, we enjoy reading it every spring.

Perhaps Meehan was right when he said: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us.”

By the end of the Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Had Become Big Business

When you think of a simple seed or a single plant that would be perfect  in  your garden, the image of your ideal garden might also come to mind

That image stems from the experience of gardening or at least a desire to garden.  What could be more simple than a seed or a plant?

The business of selling seeds and plants in a consumer society took on proportions no one expected.

By the late nineteenth century with new printing technology and new methods to deliver products, along with national advertising, the garden industry became big business.  Seeds and plants, often illustrated in color, were sold in catalogs that were printed in the millions and sent from coast to coast.

By  then the business of selling seeds and plants had changed drastically through mass production and distribution.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America”, which appeared in Business History Review (2004), writes: “Between 1850 and 1880, demand for trees and flowers boomed, spurred on by worldwide plant exploration, the introduction of many new ornamental varieties, and a plethora of agricultural and horticultural publications that encouraged hands-on horticulture and delivered practical advice to would-be gardeners and orchardists.”

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

The garden industry evolved from a close-knit community of horticultural professionals who knew one another like Thomas Meehan, James Vick, and Peter Henderson  and who also knew their customers.  Businessmen  around the country sought to sell their garden products to a consumer eager to buy what the company catalog offered.

Seeds and plants in packages big and small  traveled the country on railroad, express delivery, and through the post office.  It almost seemed that everyone could have a package delivered, no matter where you lived.

As the consumer culture grew, so did the selling of products like seeds and plants. Maul’s catalog cover of 1900 [left] illustrated so well that the garden business, as depicted in the two large buildings of the Maule Seed Company in the catalog pages, had evolved not only  to fill the needs of the modern consumer but to announce to the world how big the business had become.


Monrovia Continues Tradition of Selling the English Garden

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries sold American gardeners the English garden.

That message appeared in the company catalogs, in garden magazines like Gardener’s Monthly, and books by landscape designers like Elias Long and Frank Scott.

The plant grower Monrovia now promotes the cottage garden in a new marketing campaign for its plants.

The cottage garden has a long tradition in the history of the English garden.

The English nurseryman and writer William Paul in his book The Hand-Book of Villa Gardening (1855) recommended the periodical Cottage Gardener, first published in 1850.

William Robinson (1838-1935)  recognized that we could learn a great deal from the gardening skill of the cottage gardener. He wrote in his book The English Flower Garden: “Why should the cottage garden be a picture when the gentleman’s garden is not? The reason is that one sees plants and the vegetation not set out in any offensive geometrical or conventional plan.”

On its webpage simply alled Cottage Garden Monrovia  writes, “The romantic English cottage garden is the ancestor of American country. Both were born in the spaces around ordinary homes filled with extraordinary flowers.”

Monrovia's illustration of the Cottage Garden

Monrovia’s illustration of the Cottage Garden

The essentials of the cottage garden, described in detail, include the arbor gate, white lattice, containers, and, of course, old-fashioned plants like flowering shrubs, roses, lilacs, and trees like the magnolia. Flowers from perennials add a bit of color.

The tradition of recognizing the garden skill of the English continues.

Nurseries have always been at the forefront of telling their customers that the English garden is the model.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1862 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “All of our readers have heard of the excellence of English gardening.”

In 1862 Philadlephia

New Film Captures NH Poet Celia Thaxter and her Nineteenth Century Garden

Recently I saw the new short video Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden about the late nineteenth century poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

During the summer she  lived on Appledore Island, located off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. Her family owned the hotel on the island and Celia worked there for many summers.

In the garden she loved  Celia grew annuals to decorate the hotel during the summer. Her garden measured 50 feet by 15 feet.

The new video, which runs for about thirty minutes, captures the spirit of her garden, past and present.

The house went down in a fire in 1914, but volunteers have preserved Celia’s garden.  In the garden today you see the flowers in the same spot that Celia planted them. She left the details of her work in the garden in her book An Island Garden, probably her most famous book and still worth reading today.

The video uses photographs from the nineteenth century as well video of the present garden. Several interviews of volunteer gardeners appear as well.

Celia Thaxter's island garden measures  50 feet by 15 feet.

Celia Thaxter’s island garden measures 50 feet by 15 feet.

Today the plants for the garden are started at the UNH greenhouses in Durham.

The most popular flower, and the one many people ask about, is the Scabiosa. The hop vine that Celia grew in her garden continues in the same spot.

Marigolds and Calendula were her favorite flowers, along with the blue Batchelor button.

Celia collected her seeds from friends who came to the hotel, but also from seed companies. Perhaps one of her seed sources was  the James Vick Seed Company from Rochester because she mentioned his death in a letter to a friend within weeks after his passing.  She wrote, “Old Vick has died.”

Today, as the film portrays, people visit the garden every summer from the end of June until the third week of August.  The property provides a learning environment as part of Cornell University’s  Shoals Marine Laboratory.

What astounded me was that the garden today includes every plant variety Celia details in her book. The total number planted each summer is 1600.

If you get a chance to see the video, take the opportunity and learn about one of America’s most celebrated nineteenth century gardeners.

Here is a chance for you  to check out the video.  I have included here the video’s trailer [below].  Enjoy.



Nineteenth Century Newspapers Cultivated a Practice called Puffing

When you read the newspaper, you generally know the difference between an article and an ad.

The Boston Globe, for example, in its Sunday magazine sometimes offers a section of several pages labeled at the top center simply ‘Advertisement.’  Thus the  reader knows that the organization or company behind this material paid for this insert.

Things were a bit different for newspapers in the nineteenth century.

At that time it was common to include articles in the paper about products and organizations that had agreed to advertize. The articles offered a positive evaluation of the product or organization. The practice was called ‘puffing’.

Ellen Gruber Garvey writes in her book The Adman in the Parlor: “Puffing meant touting products or businesses in what appeared to be editorial matter in magazines and newspapers, and was a long-standing if sometimes controversial practice.”

Stephen Fox The Mirror MakersPatent medicines like Lydia Pinkham advertised extensively in nineteenth century newspapers and magazines. Stephen Fox in his book The Mirror Makers writes: “Newspapers might print editorials or news stories about the remarkable Mrs. Pinkham in the hope that she would renew their ad contracts.”

Thus there were was little separation between news stories and advertising.

The garden industry of that time took part in this practice as well.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness writes in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth -Century Horticultural Boom in America” that editors sometimes “puffed” the  products from seed companies and nurseries.

The division  between advertising and news articles is not always clear even to this day, but in the nineteenth century when readers were sold goods in news columns, that division was even more difficult to discern.

The goal, of course, was to entice the consumer to buy a particular product.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries participated in the practice of puffing, much like other businesses of that time.


Harvard Business School Sponsors Exhibit on Nineteenth Century Advertising

Thursday we had a warm sunny day here in New England.

That morning I drove over to the Harvard Business School in Cambridge to see the Baker Library exhibit called “The Art of American Advertising 1865-1910.”

The exhibit, which runs until this Friday, April 4, is filled with examples of ads for the many mass-produced and mass-distributed goods that appeared on the market after the Civil War.

The ads, most of them in beautiful chromolithograph colors, illustrate the extension to which companies went in order to familiarize the consumer with their products.  What amazed me were the many different kinds of ads including trade cards, slogans, pop-ups, posters, and trade catalogs.

19th century ads from the Harvard exhibit at the Baker Library, Cambridge, Mass.

Nineteenth century ads that appear in the current exhibit at Harvard’s Baker Library, Cambridge, Mass.

Noted copywriter and author Nathaniel C. Fowler wrote in 1899, “Advertising is a distinct art, as much as the art of coal mining or of engine building.”

The admen of the day were serious about advertising, and even began to call it a modern science.

Though there were no seed company or nursery examples in the Harvard exhibit, the garden industry also took part in this colorful advertising, especially in the catalogs that appeared in the 1890s.

One of the earliest chromolithographs in a seed catalog appeared in the autumn 1867 catalog of B. K. Bliss. The illustration showed popular garden bulbs, like the hyacinth, the tulip, and the lily. At the same time Henry Dreer also included a chromo of bulbs in his 1867-68 catalog.

The garden industry was one of the many businesses that early on used chromos in  advertising.

In the process American gardeners could enjoy the chromolithograph catalogs and illustrations that the companies sent them through the mail.

Hats off to the Baker Library at Harvard for a fascinating look at the history of the art of American advertising.


English Garden Writer William Robinson Disliked Formal Gardens

The design of the landscape falls into two broad categories, natural and formal.

The natural style allows for a landscape that looks like it was always there.  Its signature features include such elements as native plants, perennial borders, woodland planting of bulbs and, of course, a lawn.Whereas the formal look, which includes symmetry and straight lines, clearly shows the handiwork of the architect or designer with its rows and intricate patterns of plants, used more for their color, shape, and size than for any other reason.

William Robinson, author of The English Flower Garden (1883), disliked the formal garden.


Robinson’s popular book that appeared in several editions

Richard Bisgrove in his book William Robinson: The Wild Gardener wrote, “Formal gardening is not merely a matter of bad taste; it is an evil to be vanquished, and William Robinson is the chivalrous young knight who will vanquish it.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, when there was a renewed interest in the formal garden,  Robinson took up a battle of words with Sir Reginald  Bloomfield, the architect who wrote The Formal Garden in England (1892).

In his book Bisgrove describes the battle that Robinson undertook against formal garden design. Bisgrove said, “Throughout its fifteen editions, as it expanded and evolved to make his case ever more forcefully, The English Flower Garden served as one of Robinson’s most important weapons in his battle against formal bedding and architect’s gardens.”

Robinson wanted a plant lover to oversee the garden design, not an architect. He once wrote, “We want the spade of the forester and the eye of the artist.”



The Government Encouraged the Lawn

In nineteenth century America homeowners expected a lawn as part of the home landscape.

Encouragement came from seed companies and nurseries, of course, but also from the Government.

In 1897 the USDA published the Yearbook of Agriculture which included a chapter on the lawn.  The report said: “A perfect lawn consists of the growth of a single variety of grass with a smooth, even surface, uniform color, and an elastic turf which has become, through constant care, so fine and so close in texture as to exclude weeds,’ which, appearing, should be at once removed. Briefly, such a lawn may be secured by thorough preparation of the soil and the application of suitable fertilizers; by seeding with pure seed of the highest quality; by proper attention to irrigation and the maintenance of fertility; by the prompt removal of weeds, and, finally, by the frequent and intelligent use of the roller and lawn mower.”

In nineteenth century America the lawn appeared from coast to coast.

In nineteenth century America the lawn appeared from coast to coast.

With such support, and detailed instructions, it was no surprise that the perfect lawn became the goal of every home owner across the country.

The lawn took on the role of symbol for social status as people moved to the suburbs where real estate agents promised  there would be enough space for a lawn in front of the house.

The USDA report included an example of where one could have seen an example of a ‘perfect lawn’.  It said, “Among the finest lawns in this country are some of those at Newport, R.I.”

The estate gardens of the Gilded Age, as at Newport,  showcased the kind of lawn that was also ideal for any American homeowner.

The Hosta, Native to Asia, Traveled from Europe to America

Over the years I have found the hosta a superb plant for the shade. Today I grow over one hundred varieties in my garden.

Since in a couple of weeks I am talking about my book to the New England Hosta Society, a group which I joined in 1989, I decided to research the history of this plant.

In the nineteenth century the name for the plant was funkia, plantain lily, Japan lily, and even day lily.Vick’s seed catalog of 1889, called Vick’s Floral Guide, wrote this about the hosta: “The Funkia, called the Day Lily, is a very superb autumn flower, very desirable for planting on the side of a lawn or at the edge of shrubbery. It will increase in size and beauty every year. The plant has very showy foliage, prettily veined.”

According to plant historian Denise Wiles Adams the hosta first came to England in 1784.  In her book Restoring American Gardens she writes that the first American reference to hosta plantaginea appears in  the Landreth Seed Company catalog in 1828 in Philadelphia.

The plants are native to China and Japan.  Sometimes they traveled, with the help of plant collectors,  to England and then to America, but also directly to America, notably with the New York nurseryman Thomas Hogg (1819-1892)  in the 1880s.

According to  W. George Schmid’s book The Genus Hosta Hogg, whose father had once held the position of head gardener to English landscape gardener William Kent, imported hostas from his travels to Japan.  But Schmid claims, with the exception of the Hogg plants, all of the hostas in the United States around 1900 originated from European stock.

English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) wrote about the hosta in his book The Wild Garden.  He said: “The Plantain Lilies [or Hosta] are plants for the wild garden.”

An illustration from The Wild Garden, 1870

Groups of Siebold’s Plantain Lily, an illustration from The Wild Garden, 1870 [reissued by Timber Press]

The Missouri Botanical Garden plant directory gives the origin of the name ‘Hosta’  It says, “Genus name of Hosta, in honor of Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host (1761-1834), was first established in 1812. The genus was subsequently renamed in 1817 as Funkia in honor of botanist Heinrich Christian Funk under the belief at that time that Hosta was an invalid name. Hosta was finally reinstated as the genus name in 1905 by the International Botanical Congress.”

Today hundreds of cultivars, or varieties of hosta, are available.  Many of them in fact resemble one another.

Though certainly not a native plant, the hosta continues to play a role in American gardens.