Archives for March 2012

New Mass Media Impact Late Nineteenth Century Seed and Nursery Trade

This past weekend I attended a conference called The NarrativeArc at Boston University.  The focus was on narrative nonfiction, helpful for a writer who wants to tell a story rather than impress a reader with facts.

Loved the experience.

Media critic and Professor at Columbia Journalism School Dean Starkman, one of the speakers, said at his morning session: “The mass market is dead.  It is now a market of niches.”

Burpee's colorful image in the Company's 1893 catalog

The idea of “niches” refers to today’s social media like Twitter. Facebook, and LinkedIn which provide interaction with individuals.  Blasting  a message to a mass audience in print or broadcast is a thing of the past.

That made me think of a pivotal period in the seed and plant industry in this country: the 1890s.

I had been reading about the emergence of mass culture at the end of the nineteenth century. The invention of new communication technologies made it possible to print for a mass audience.  Newspapers, magazines, and, of course, garden catalogs, like Burpee’s [above], were printed in the hundreds of thousands for a national market.

That had never happened before, though we had books, newspapers, and magazines.  It was the ability for the first time to reach a mass audience that made that period a pivotal time.

Businesses used that technology to create a mass market.

American gardening would never be the same, because after that companies like seed firms  and nurseries sought to attract a national market with their products.  Gardeners had more choices for plants, garden accessories, and anything else garden-related than ever before.

The world of the gardener had changed forever.

That is, until social media came along.


Nineteenth Century Pittsburgh Seedsman Elliott Encouraged English Garden Style

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a renewed interest in perennial borders.  English garden writer William Robinson was at the forefront of that movement.

Pittsburgh seedsman Benjamin Elliott wrote in the 1890 issue of his catalog: “We wish to acknowledge our obligation to Mr. William Robinson, of London, England, who has very kindly allowed us to use many of

The Chicago Botanic Garden's Walled English Garden features perennial borders.

the beautiful engravings made for his most delightful of books, The Wild Garden.  We are also indebted to this great champion of hardy flowers for some of the ideas advanced here, culled from his numerous works on gardening, which have done much to make English gardens what they are—the most beautiful in the world.”

In the same catalog Elliott included a landscape plan for a perennial bed that would bloom from spring until fall.  The scale of the plan was a bed 70 feet by 9 feet.  Named varieties of plants that Elliott sold were included as well.

He wrote: “Bedding plants are useful, but their place is a secondary one, and they should be so used that they would not exclude the beautiful hardy plants that cheer us from the early morn of spring until December.”

Today the Chicago Botanic Garden features perennial beds as part of its Walled English Garden.

Clearly Elliott proposed that the English garden style was the ideal landscape for Americans, but he also made it clear that the seed company would help the gardener with landscaping issues.  The company sold more than plants.



Elliott’s Perennial Borders Reflected English Garden Style

The Pittsburg seed company owner Benjamin A. Elliott  gave a considerable amount of space in his seed catalog of 1888 to  instructing the homeowner about the details of the landscape.

Elliott wrote: “ Our object is to show how the most beautiful garden can be made, and indicate the material to be used and the manner of arranging it, giving incidentally such cultural directions as our space will admit of.”

Robinson's Wild Garden, recently reissued by Timber Press

His  discussion of landscape art was based on the ideas of the famous English garden writer William Robinson.  Robinson, in his book The Wild Garden, reissued by Timber Press, had proposed hardy plants as an important feature in the landscape.

Elliott said, “We know that the writer [Robinson] has expressed in words what many of us who are interested in plants have experienced, and all who will give attention to the cultivation of hardy plants may enjoy sensations of pleasure never realized in the cultivation of the few sorts of tender plants that are usually planted by the thousands.”

The catalog encouraged the use of perennials over annuals, a theme Elliott borrowed form Robinson.

Elliott thus portrayed the English garden fashion as the model for the American gardener.


Nineteenth Century American Garden Magazine Illustrated Ideal Home Landscape

While reading the December, 1885 issue of Gardeners’ Monthly, I came across a story and illustration about the home of George W. Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia newspaper Public Ledger.  He called his estate Wootton.

The estate called Wootton, outside Philadelphia, in GM's 1885 issue.

The estate included a two-story home high on a grassy hill.  Childs named the property after one of the seats of the Duke of Buckingham in England.

The Duke had entertained Childs and his wife on a visit.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan, editor of GM, wrote in that issue: “The landscape beauties of the spot made a great impression on the honored guests, and it was a nice tribute to the hospitality of the entertainers that Mr. Childs should buy and name a country place in memory of the good time enjoyed in the old world.”

Notice the elements of the English style garden in Wootton.  You see the lawn, of course, but also a curved road and groupings of trees and shrubs.  Two urns sit at the bottom of the entrance stairway to the front door, and two more urns also at the top.  The urns are filled with tropical plants which was a garden element loved by Victorian gardeners.

Meehan made the point in his article that this landscape was installed in 1880 so the plants, at the front of the house, had not filled in yet.

He did however include  the story and illustration as an  example of American landscape gardening at its best.



Nineteenth Century Nurseries Linked to Development of Horticulture in America

In the nineteenth century the seed and nursery industries had seeds and plants to sell. They needed a market.

By the end of the century that market had spread from coast to coast.  In the process these businesses also fostered the development of horticulture.

The growth of horticulture in America owes a lot to the seed companies and nurseries of the nineteenth century.

An  article in the  magazine Gardeners’ Monthly of 1885 said: “The country has arrived at a high state of progess in horticulture, much of which is due to the writings of the Downings, Wilder, Barry, Meehan and many other noted men, combined with the work of the American Pomological Society.”

The men listed in that GM article were in the business of selling plants. They owned nurseries, but they also wrote books, magazines,  articles, and of course, the company catalog to spread their word.

The Johnson and Stokes catalog cover [above] of 1887 showed an array of vegetables a gardener could grow from the Company’s seeds.

The same article in GM  then points out the catalogs as the source for that growth: “Not fogetting the aid afforded by descriptive and illustrative catalogues spread broadcast over the length and breadth of the land by the almost innumerable nurserymen and florists found in every section of our diversified and fertile country.”

The nineteenth century leaders in the seed companies and nurseries provided both the plants for the garden but also instruction on how to garden, following in many cases English garden writers like John Claudius Loudon and later in the century William Robinson.



Winter Aconite Appeared in both the English and American Garden of the Nineteenth Century

The weather here in New England rose to an unusual 60 to 70 degrees a couple of times this past week.

One morning I woke up to see on the lawn my favorite little yellow welcome to spring, the winter aconite. I love that flower. It just pops up. Many years ago I put a couple of bulbs in the lawn. They’ve been there growing in numbers over the years.

Winter aconite on my front lawn last week.

The nineteenth century gardener, according to Thomas Meehan, Philadelphia nurseryman and editor of Gardener’s Monthly, was unfamiliar with this plant.

Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1885: “The winter aconite. It is a matter of surprise that this lovely flower is not more common in American gardens. It is not much in love with the common flower garden, but loves to take care of itself in woods or thickets, or other places where it can go on for years without being disturbed.”

That’s exaclty what happened in my own gaden. I just leave it alone so I can enjoy it in early spring.

Meehan encouraged his readers to plant it because, as he wrote, “The yellow flowers are prettier than any buttercups and are open frequently before the snow has wholly gone away.”

English garden writer William Robinson also wrote about spring aconite in his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870 and recently reissued by Timber Press.

The winter aconite, or  Eranthus hyemalis, reminds me of a true friend, always there.


Nineteenth Century Communication Inventions Encouraged a Media-Driven Garden

The story goes that a few years ago right after Martha Stewart wrote about hydrangeas in her magazine, garden centers around the country couldn’t keep the plant in stock.

Garden fashion according to the media inspired those gardeners who wanted that hydrangea.

The media-generated garden is a product of late nineteenth century America. Seed and nursery catalogs were printed in the hundreds of thousands.  The audience  became a national readership.

Clifford Edward Clark, Jr. author of the book The American Family Home, 1800-1960 wrote : “The inventions of the typewriter, linotype, photoengraving, and the sextuple printing press led to a revolution in communications at the turn of the century.”

More people could receive the catalog and read about new plants.  Garden magazines featured new plants as well.  More books on gardening appeared than ever before.

All made possible by the new media technology emerging in the late nineteenth century.

Gardening would never be the same: seeds, plants, lawn mowers, tools, urns, sprinklers, rollers, statuary – to name just a few of the products  sold to the modern American gardener right before 1900.

A media-generated garden appeared for the first time.  People gardened according to what the media told them was important. And they bought garden products.

Today’s scenario for the gardener continues although with more information than ever. We read books, magazines, newspaper articles, and catalogs. We watch HGTV. We search online for garden information and even garden blogs.  All so that we can learn the latest and the newest in gardening.


A Nineteenth Century California Landscape Featured Two Urns on the Lawn

I found another amazing photo of a ninteenth century California garden in Maureen Gilmer’s book Redwoods and Roses.  It too shows how nineteenth century California landscapes reflected the English garden style.

I have included the illustration here. Notice the two urns at the entrace from the sidewalk.  By the end of the century the cast iron garden vase, or urn, on the lawn had become a sign of status for the middle class.

Reminds me of the advice from Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882).

Vick  recommended in his seed catalog called Floral Guide of 1873 that on the lawn the owner place two vases, filled usually with annuals: “Of all the adornments of the lawn, nothing is more effective than a well filled and well kept vase. All the ornamental-leaved plants are appropriate for the top or center of the vase, while a few drooping plants should be placed near the edges and allowed to hang or droop at least half way to the ground. For this purpose the verbena or the petunia will answer.

“We often see several small vases scattered over the lawn, but the effect is bad. It is best to have one or two that command attention by their size and beauty.”

So in the nineteenth century the west coast followed the English garden fashion from the east coast, including the number of urns to place on the lawn.


Nineteenth Century California Gardens Looked like the East Coast

I have often written here how the garden style of the nineteenth century resembled the English garden.

Maureen Gilmer in her book Redwoods and Roses includes this image of a house in Nevada City, California, near the Nevada border. The time is right after the Gold Rush of the 1840s. The scene reminds me of a garden on the east coast.

A home in Nevada City just after the Gold Rush.

Mainly because of the marketing of seeds and plants through catalogues, magazines, and books that promoted this English garden style, we experienced a similar landscape across the country, even though the plants would be different.  Horticultural historian Denise Adams mentions that as well  in her book Restoring American Gardens.

Adams wrote: “Victorian gardens in California resembled gardens in the East, with emphasis on strategic placement of trees and curvilinear paths in the Downingesque mode, as well as implementation of the gaudy ribbon bedding style of brightly colored annuals.”

Advertising to a national audience was powerful in its reach clear across the country.  How strange it is that even in different garden climates gardeners wanted the same plants.