Archives for April 2012

Seed Catalogs Became Early Form of Advertising

A while back I attended an all-day workshop sponsored by the New England Garden History Society.  The day amounted to listening to a  series of speakers, something I love.

Thomas A. Woods, former director at Old World Wisconsin and author of the book Knights of the Plowwas one of the speakers. His topic was “American Kitchen Gardening Traditions”.

Old World Wisconsin, one of the largest outdoor museums in America, includes 576 acres and features the gardens of  fourteen ethnic groups.

Of course my ears perked up when Mr. Woods mentioned the seed companies of the nineteenth century.

Woods said, “Nineteenth century seed catalogs became one of the first expressions of advertising.”

German immigrants flocked to Wisconsin in the nineteenth century. During most of that period Milwaukee had become a mecca of German culture in America. Breweries like Pabst gave Milwaukee its reputation as the home of the beer barons.

Rochester Seedsman Jame Vick (1818-1882)  became popular with German gardeners since he advertised in German American newspapers. He had a special floor in his seed house for German orders.

Woods said, “The availability of seeds  through catalogs and advertising encouraged and accelerated the trend of gardening with flowers and vegetables.”

Not only did the seed companies sell seeds, they also promoted a style of gardening, which was often the English fashion.

Wisconsin gardens tended to take on the same style because catalogs, like Vick’s, proposed the kinds of plants to use but also the style for American gardens, which resembled that of the current Victorian fashion.



Latest Book on Landscape Gardening Recommended in late Nineteenth Century

Buffalo landscape designer Elias Long wrote a book in 1884 called  Ornamental Gardening for Americans: A Treatise on Beautifying Homes, Rural Districts, Towns and Cemeteries.

Shortly after that Philadelphia nurseryman and editor of Gardener’s Monthly Thomas Meehan recommended the book in his magazine.

Now what author doesn’t treasure any form of book publicity, even in the nineteenth century?

Long’s book was, according to Meehan, more suitable for the middle class who wanted a less complicated way to deal with residential landscape design.

A few years earlier (1880)  the Ohio artist and landscaper Frank J. Scott had written a book called The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent.

In that same issue of GM Meehan recommended Scott’s book for  those of a refined taste in rural art.  Presumably he meant the more wealthy.

According to Meehan everybody can enjoy a beautful home landscape, no mattter what the personal resources of the homeowner.

Since both books encouraged the English garden style, Meehan thus proposed the same style, including the lawn, for the American gardener.

In his book Long wrote: “The lawn, to be most satisfactory, should present a green velvety appearance throughout the season.”

The nineteenth century middle class homeowner and wealthy estate owner were both encouraged to design their landscape  in the English garden fashion.


A Moongate Built Because the English Favored This Chinese Garden Feature

One of my favorite public gardens is Blithewold in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Thousands of daffodils bloom under the trees at Blithewold.

Yesterday I drove down to see the thousands of daffodils that greet you in the bosquet, near the house. This is a shaded, low area where spring bulbs put on a show beyond belief.

In the rose garden at the end of a walkway you see the Moongate, a circular stone entrance into the garden.   The sign there describes the origin of this structure: “In 1907, Landscape Architect John DeWolf designed and supervised construction of the Moongate, the most notable feature of the Rose Garden. Circular stone entries similar to this were popular in English gardens of the same era, and were originally derived from the gardens of China, representing the full moon, or happiness, in Chinese philosophy and tradition.”

The Moongate, built in 1907, in Blithewold's Rose Garden.

Henry Shaw’s garden in St. Louis, now called the Missouri Botanical Garden, built in the second half of the nineteenth century also has a Moongate.

I was amazed that the reason to construct it was that the English at that time were doing this same design for their gardens.

Late nineteenth century American gardeners, rich as well as middle class alike,  looked in awe at the English garden.



Robert Buist Catalog Cover Represented Changes in the Industry

I spent an afternoon recently at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank in Wellesley,Massachusetts.The Library had made available to me  a selection from their amazing collection of seed and nursery catalogs.  I wanted to see the catalogs by  the Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880).

Buist 1844 Seed Catalog Cover

What amazed me is how much the cover of the catalog changed over a period of fifty years from 1828 when the company was founded.  Over that

Robert Buist Catalog Cover 1898

time more printing and publishing innovations entered the culture.  By the 1890s it was a different world.  The mass media culture, especially through advertising in magazines and newspapers, impacted every business.

In the early years of the company the catalog cover featured mostly text, and by the end of the century the cover became a blast of color chromolithography.

As with any business, the seed and nurseries industries like Buist had to keep up to date in order to attract customers.

By the end of the century the companies were mailing out hundreds of thousands of catalogs.

Bigger catalogs with more color followed, as did of course more merchandise for the American gardener.


Why Should Not America Grow American Plants?

Since the 17th century, American plants formed part of the English garden.

American gardeners however preferred exotic plants, rather than native varieties, well into the end of the 19th century.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of  February 1882 recognized the English garden tradition, but felt sad that Americans were behind the English in cultivating our own plants.

Meehan wrote: “It is often a matter of surprise that the English should grow what they call ‘American plants’ better than we can. These plants form the greatest attraction of their grounds. Why should not America grow American plants? Now, what they call American plants are only those chiefly which belong to the

Rhododendron catawbiense, Native American shrub

Ericaceous family. These are Rhododendron, Azalea, Kalmia, and Andromeda, and such well-known beautiful flowering shrubs in which America abounds.  But it is not generally known here that they could not grow them there if it were not for the garden art and garden skill at the back of their culture…There is no reason why, with a little study to adapt our circumstances to the wants of these plants, we should not have as good ‘American plants’ as they have in England.”

Eventually our native plants would play a greater role in American gardening.

To this day however you still hear about the need for more extensive use of native plants.


Garden Fashion Influenced the Nineteenth Century English Garden

Defining the English garden depends on the garden fashion at that particular time.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden, wrote: “For most of the first half of the [nineteenth] century garden planners used flowers as part of the overall design which included trees, shrubs, lawns, and gravel walks–a recognizable English style had evolved.”

Carter gives us some idea of what the English garden meant for a good part of the nineteenth century.

Much of that definition of the English garden endured into the next century as well.

By the end of the century its meaning would include garden fashions like carpet beds, the wild garden, Gertrude Jekyll’s herbaceous borders, the arts and crafts movement, and a return to the formal garden.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries,  like any business, supported garden fashion, which for American gardening turned out to be the English garden in its various forms.




Nineteenth Century Advertising Called Seduction

In the late nineteenth century for the first time new technologies in printing, publishing, and distribution of newspapers and magazines for a national market enabled a new kind of advertising.

The Yale Review in its November 1899 issue included an article called “The Philosophy of Modern Advertising”.  The article said, “Modern industrial conditions have radically changed the character of advertising and the part it plays in the modern economy of a people.  To advertise is no longer strictly synonymous with to ‘inform’.”

Advertising in the nineteenth century changed with the promotion of products like patent medicines, and other bottled health remedies sold around the country. There was no control over what business owners could illustrate and say in their advertising.  It was the wild west period for advertising.


Selling  became like seduction, according to  cultural historian Jackson Lears in his book Fables of Abundance.

Lears said: “Perceptions of trickery were ambiguous enough; what may have been ever more disturbing [in advertising] was the tendency to see selling as seduction.”

That is still the way advertising works.  Lears wrote, “That imagery has persisted down to our own time: selling is still equated with seduction; advertisers were seducers, women were their prey.”

The seed and nursery industries at the end of the nineteenth century appealed largely to middle class women.  The colorful lithographs in the catalogs made it difficult to say no to the newest plant.

That was how advertising worked for selling any product.

American gardening in the late nineteenth century meant the seller could use any means to persuade the buyer.  Words and illustrations described a flower, a vegetable, a shrub, the lawn, and trees as essential to an emerging middle class.

The gardener had to have the latest in garden fashion including the style of garden and whatever went with it.


Mosaic Beds Decorated the Lawn during the Victorian Period in America

The mosaic bed, or carpet bed, was popular during the Victorian period in America which was after 1850.

A mass planting of flowers or colorful foliage made up the mosaic bed. You planted it on the lawn. The bed’s  design featured intricate patterns one might see in a carpet.

Annuals were generally used, sometimes hundreds of them.  In the Northeast they had to be cultivated over several weeks in the greenhouse.  They were  planted only when frost no longer threatened the garden.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan  included in the 1886 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly  the  image below:


An illustration of a mosaic bed from Gardener's Monthly of 1886.


Notice the intricate detail of the design.  The  plants were carefully pruned over the summer months to keep the shape of the design.  The name of the game was  high maintenance.

The Victorian era in America which lasted  into the 1890s  loved such a display of colorful flowers.

The fashion in American gardening for the middle class from coast to coast meant mosaic beds on the lawn.



Boston Ivy Featured in Nineteenth Century Garden Magazine

To add a vertical dimension to the garden, nineteenth century gardeners treasured vines.

In 1884 American landscape architect Elias A. Long wrote in his book Ornamental Gardening for Americans: “As growing wild, the hard-wooded climbers and trailers afford some of the most delightful bits of natural scenery to met be with. Many of these serve valuable purposes for embellishments in ornamental gardening.”

The dilemma. of course, for any gardener, then and today as well, is to choose one plant rather than another. Which vine was a gardener to grow?

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan gave some direction when he included the Boston Ivy in an illustration for his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1886 [below].

Long wrote in his book that this vine, “from Japan, possesses great merit as a hardy climber, and particularly for covering brick and stone walls.”

Boston Ivy covers the walls of this house in Gardener's Monthly of 1886

In 1869, the old Veitch Nursery Company, in London, introduced the Boston Ivy. The plant came from Japan, a country that had just opened its doors to the West. It was a time when English botanical gardens and botanical societies supported plant collectors, some sent also by the Veitch Nursery, who traveled to Asia as well as the United States to provide new plants.

As it turns out, Boston Ivy is also the vine I chose to cover a stone wall in my own garden. Below is an image of that wall as it now appears, after several years.


Our house is built on a hill, divided into two level plateaus at the front. The house is on the top level.  This stonewall ten feet in height and about forty feet in length holds up the upper level.  Several years ago, my sister-in-law suggested I plant something on that stone wall. Shortly after, I planted a small pot of Boston Ivy from a local nursery.  Today that Ivy covers the wall.

Vines were popular in the nineteenth century for the Victorian garden, and particularly the Boston Ivy.

Even today this vine proves a worthwhile cover for a wall.