Archives for October 2012

As Nineteenth Century American Home Ownership Spread, A Growing Number of Nurseries Supplied Plants

You sometimes wonder where your ideas for gardening come from  We know that marketing and advertising materials tell us a lot about what to buy for the garden.

That happened especially after the rise of mass advertising in the late nineteenth century

In the late 1900s The Florists’ Exchange emerged as a weekly trade journal  of “interchange for florists, nurserymen, seedsmen and the trade in general.”

The Rawson Company seed catalog of 1897.

The Florists’ Exchange of 1895 wrote: “A careful investigation in various lines and a direct report from the nurserymen themselves, show that, as any one section of our country becomes more thoroughly developed, cultured, and refined, that section becomes an increasing buyer for the productions of the nursery.”

So as the country expanded into towns and suburbs, and even new subdivisions, the nursery industry grew to sell trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals, and, of course, grass seed.

Notice in the cover of the 1897 Rawson seed catalog [above] the garden design resembled the English style popular at the end of the nineteenth century, including a lawn with its flowerbed of annuals in the center.

Though the seed companies and nurseries sold plants, they also sold an ideal, the English garden fashion, to a growing number of American gardeners with a new home and eager to design the landscape.


American Garden Magazine in 1884 Recommended English Book on Flowers

I remember that my early books on gardening were often written by English authors.

I sometimes wondered why I was reading a book by an English garden writer.

American gardeners have been doing so for a long time.

[This image courtesy of  Turn the Page Books.]

British horticulturalist  William Robinson wrote the book The English Flower Garden in 1883.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1884 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “Though called the ‘English’ Flower Garden it is in a great measure suited as well to America.  In fact, it is a work which should have a wide sale in our country.”

With such encouragement from the seed and nursery industries, it was no surprise that American gardeners devoured books by Robinson and his contemporary, artist and landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll.

Meehan also wrote in the same issue of GM: “We can cordially commend it [the book] to American readers, as perhaps the most profitable floricultural work that has appeared for many a long day.”

I know I enjoyed reading Robinson’s other book, The Wild Garden, written in 1870.  Why not this one?

Have you read Robinson’s book on flowers yet?


Italian Garden Design Swept Across the Estates of America’s Gilded Age

At the end of the nineteenth century when the wealthy built their country estates, it was not uncommon to incorporate an Italian design in the landscape.

America continued to reflect English garden style at that time.  By then the Victorian period had seen the demise of its carpet bedding on the lawn, but witnessed in its place an interest in the wild garden, Gertrude Jekyll’s garden designs, and even a return to a more formal garden.

Alice Morse Earle in her book Old Time Gardens, which she wrote in 1901, said, “Within the past five our six years there have been laid out in America, at the country seats of men of wealth and culture, a great number of formal gardens–Italian gardens some of them are

You can find a history of nineteenth century American gardening in the book Old Time Gardens by Alice Morse Earle.

worthily named, as they have been shaped and planted in conformity with the best laws and rules of Italian garden-making–that special art.”

In the western part of Massachusetts, home of the Berkshires, you can still see Edith Wharton’s Mount, her house and extensive Italianate landscape.  She loved the Italian garden and even devoted a book to the subject.

By 1900 American gardening was evolving into a more formal approach, along with the arts and crafts movement which enabled a newly discovered appreciation of native plants.

The formal garden look sometimes took on the Italian style.


Vick’s House Showcased the Victorian Garden Style

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) is one of my favorite nineteenth century garden writers.

I love his seed catalogs and his magazine, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.  He taught America the principles of landscape design in quite a bit of detail in his writing.

But he also practiced modern landscape gardening.

In the black and white drawing of his house below, notice the lawn, the curved entrance-way, the trees at the property boundaries, and the flowerbed on the lawn.

Vick’s house in 1871 [Drawing  courtesy of the Rochester Historical Society.]

 His home landscape illustrates the prevalent Victorian, romantic landscape,  dependent on the English garden style.

Vick’s  property on Rochester’s East Avenue is now the site of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

His readers learned not only in his words but also in the way he designed his own landscape.

He wrote from his own expereince.


Strange that Few Gardeners Had Herbaceous Borders in the 19th Century

Today we accept the perennial bed as a mainstay in our gardens.

In the nineteenth century it was not as common.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1886 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly, “Those who desire to thoroughly enjoy flowers, will have a rich treat in the herbaceous border. It is a surprise that so few have this adjunct to the garden. From early spring to winter there is a continuous succession of flowers.”

Black-eyed Susan, rudbeckia hirta, from my garden. One of my favorites.


The English garden included perennials that came from America.

It would be decades however before such plants were accepted in our gardens.

One example is Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susan, which English travelers to America brought back home in 1714.

By the end of the nineteenth century it was finally considered  a valuable plant here for American gardeners.

After that the plant appeared in seed and nursery catalogs.

Rudbeckia could then become part of the herbaceous border that was finally catching on in America as well.


America’s Lawn Meant Open Space with No Fences

One difference in the nineteenth-century American version of the English garden style was the lack of fences in our landscape.

American democracy impacted the homegrounds as well.

Democracy means we are all equal. One property is as valuable as another because it’s ‘home’.

The English created a boundary around the landscape or garden with fences, whether by planting shrubs or installing man-made barrriers of whatever materials were available.

In nineteenth-century America the lawn was to be open to view and thus connect one property with another.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1886 Gardener’s Monthly: “In suburban landscape gardening there has been a tendency of late years to abolish all line fences and especially those which separate the front yards from the street.”

He included this image [left] from Frank J. Scott’s book, written in 1870 and reissued in 1885,  The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds.

Notice how one property’s lawn just flows into the neighbor’s.

Thus Meehan encouraged the open space in the landscape both in his essay and in this illustration he included in his garden magazine.



Burpee Believed in Advertising

In 1890 W. Atlee Burpee launched a contest that invited his seed catalog readers to come up with the best advertising slogan for his company.

The second place winner proposed “Burpee’s Seeds Grow” which has remained the trademark phrase for Burpee ever since.

Burpee was a firm believer in the need to advertise.

Burpee’s 1899 Seed Catalog

Advertising in American magazines and catalogs changed at the end of the nineteenth century.

No longer was the ad simply information about a product.

Catalogs had always been a form of advertising, but changed because of the mass printing made possible by new presses and  cheaper paper in a consumer-driven society.

Illustrations, often in color as the 1899  Burpee catalog cover shows [above], jumped out at the reader as if  to say “Buy me. You need me.”

Notice  the  sweet peas are as tall as the building that housed Burpee’s business.

At that time in American gardening, sweet peas had become the garden sensation, just as in England.

Burpee called his catalog the “Silent Salesman” because its primary duty was to sell the company’s seeds.

By 1915, the year of his death,  the Burpee Seed Company was sending out over a million catalogs a year.

After his death, the trade journal, Who’s Who in Advertising, included an article about Burpee.

The article said that Burpee  “had become a seed company leader, all the while embracing modern advertising.”


Nineteenth-century Garden Catalogs Made People Wild

The chapter eleven title in Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature reads “Made Wild by Pompous Catalogs.” The title originated in the nineteenth century.

In 1850 the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) said, “Be not made wild by pompous catalogs from florists and seedsmen”.

He was protesting the proliferation of posters, seed boxes, trade cards, and catalogs with lavish illustrations.

What made the catalogs such a source of temptation?

More recently Susan Jordan is quoted in a Jenkins Group Real Estate blog post.  She said, “Spend a few quiet winter nights with these not-so-quiet catalogs, and you begin to see that, just beneath its placid surface, the garden is buzzing with social and political controversy.”

She implies here that advertising like a catalog sells social values and ideas as well as goods and services.

Cover of the 1859 catalog from the Robert Buist Company in Philadelphia. [Courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.]

 Still I do not know what Beecher was complaining about in 1850.

Certainly the bright colors of chromolithography popular in the last third of the century were not there.  In fact,  James Vick’s catalog cover of 1873 became an early example of a catalog that used the new chromolithography.

Above is a 1859 catalog from the Robert Buist Seed Company in Philadelphia.

Notice the simple black and white engraving.

We see nothing seductive in the illustration, but we did not live in 1859.

The catalogs, even in the nineteenth century,  sold seeds and plants, but also class and social status.

Perhaps that is what Beecher was addressing. His intention was to preserve moral values in a society experiencing threats of one sort or another on the home or the family.

The garden catalog today continues to be a statement about the culture, not just a listing of seeds and plants.

Advertising embodies cultural myths to sell a product that in some way will improve the consumer’s life.  The merchant must therefore tell a story in the advertising.

Sometimes the stories told in image and word make us wild.


Last Week the Cover for the New Book Surprised Me

I could not believe my eyes when last week on Tuesday afternoon I saw it on my cellphone.

The cover for my book appeared in front of me in an email.

The title change from the book’s original, which was Seduction of the English Garden, speaks to the content of the book.

Notice that there is no subtitle on the cover.

The cover itself reveals the subtitle, if you look closely.

The cover design visually tells the reader this is a story from America’s seed and nursery catalogs of the nineteenth century.

I love that feature in the cover’s design.

The bones of the design come from the cover of the 1873 catalog of one of my favorite seedsmen, James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York.

The 1886 catalog from the Rawson Seed Company in Boston included the illustration that is here in the center.

The cover takes us one step closer to the book in print.

I am happy to tell you that Ohio University Press will publish the book next spring.

What do you think of the cover?