Archives for November 2012

Meehan’s Garden Magazine Readers Spanned the Country

Late nineteenth century magazines, like Ladies Home Journal, enjoyed a readership across the country.

Advertising in its pages also had a national reach which was what any modern business wanted more than anything else.

The result was that LHJ became a business success through its advertising revenue, not its subscriptions. That had never happened with any publication before that time.  Subscriptions drove any mass media form like a newspaper or magazine.

Ladies Home Journal in the 1890s enjoyed the largest circulation of any national magazine.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan boasted in the March 1886  issue of his magazine Gardener ‘s Monthly that he could count among his  readers gardeners from coast to coast. He wrote: “We never forget that our readers extend from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, and that the same number which is delighting someone in Lower California, is being eagerly scanned by someone in Massachusetts or Maine.”

To take advantage  of his national readership Meehan could advertize a variety of garden products.

The time when a seed or nursery business appealed to a local customer base was long gone by the 1880s.

To reach a national audience was the way any business sought to grow.  The garden industry was no different.

The result was mass production of seeds and plants. Dozens of varieties of plants like coleus and sweet pea appeared.

More inventory for the company meant of course  more pages and illustrations in the catalogs.  It was the birth of the modern garden industry.



Newest Nineteenth Century Art Form Chromolithography Appeared also in Garden Advertising

With the rise of the steam-powered printing press after 1850, more books, magazines, and newspapers became available.

Mass education in America also increased the need for more publications.

Chromolithography as an art form soon caught on in the advertizing industry.  Seed company and nursery owners also included chromos in the catalog to feature certain plants in this new form of colored image within its pages.   Customers loved it.

A chromo of the native grape called Pocklington  in Gardener’s Monthly of 1881 [courtesy of Chest of Books].

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly of July 1881: “We are glad to note the increasing use of chomo-lithography in advertising.  Mr. Henderson, Mr. Dreer…and more recently Mr. Stone with the Pocklington grape have set an example that we are sure must soon have many followers. A plate colored to nature will tell more at a glance than a half-hour studying  of a more verbal description.”

The illustration would sell the seed or plant more quickly than any words could.

Meehan was right.

By the end of the century seed and nursery catalogs could boast of the latest colored plate to demonstrate how current the company was in its marketing.

Meehan wrote in that same 1881 issues of GM: “It is of course costly to take a page of advertising in the shape of a colored plate, but we are sure that Mr. Stone’s advertisement will pay him.”

As is the case with the growth of social media today, a new media form emerged at that time, unlike any other before it: photography.

By the early twentieth century photography would replace chromolithography .

But when chromos were popular, they were the sensation of advertising for any product, including what new seed or plant you needed to have for the garden.


Boston Nurseryman Marshall Wilder Remembered James Vick

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1883 issue of his  magazine Gardener’s Monthly included a speech given by Boston horticulturalist Marshall Wilder.  Wilder was President of the American Pomological Society when he gave the speech.

The APS meeting was  held that year in Philadelphia, home of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which Wilder recognized in his remarks.

Rochester, NY Seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)

There was a sense of community among the American seedsmen and nurserymen of the nineteenth century since they often saw one another and sometimes conducted business with each other.  When one of them died, the whole community mourned.

Rochester seedsman James Vick had died in May of 1882.

Wilder gave him this tribute in that October issue of Gardener’s Monthly: “No one has been more familiarly known to American households as a seedsman, florist, and publisher of a magazine as Mr. Vick.”

Vick had become a celebrity of sorts in the garden industry. People around the country bought his seeds and subscribed to his magazine, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Wilder concluded: “No death in this line of business has been more generally or deeply deplored.”

And so the brotherhood of seedsmen and nurserymen recognized the contributions of one of their own.  Meehan, luckily for us, recorded it all in his garden magazine.


Mass Produced Goods in Late 19th Century also Impacted the Garden Business

Just finished a great book called Sunshine, Fruits and Flowers, an 1896 souvenir book, published by the San Jose Mercury newspaper, and reprinted in 1986 by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.

Black and white photographs from California in the late 1890s appear on almost every page.

In the book you will find the four pictures below.  Top left shows the clothing department in the T W. Spring and Company store, located in San Jose.  Top right is the store’s children’s department. The bottom two are window displays for the store.

T. W. Spring and Company Clothing Store, 1896, San Jose, California

What they show is how mass merchandising became essential in buying and selling cloths.

No surprise that the big seed houses and nurseries of that period published large colorful catalogs to sell their many seed and plant novelties as well the old standards.

The mass produced goods, available in the garden catalogs, included seeds, urns, and garden accessories.

By the 1890s a new age was emerging where people preferred goods that were mass produced because they enabled the consumer to feel more modern and up to date.

The garden industry had to compete to survive. No surprise that seed catalogs would offer dozens of varieties of one flower.  The C. C. Morse and Company in Santa Clara overed more than ninety varieties of sweet pea.

By the 1890s advertising impacted  American gardening.  The modern age of consumerism had begun.


English Garden Catalog Served as the Model for American Catalogs

Dreer’s catalog of 1885


I just came across the book Pages from a Garden Note-Book by Mrs. Francis King, written in 1921.  It’s focus is American gardening at the beginning of the twentieth century.

King included a wonderful chapter on seed and nursery catalogs.  Many well-known seed company and nursery owners are mentioned like Childs, Henderson, Lovett, Vaughan, and Dreer.  Originating in the nineteenth century, these companies had been in business for decades by the time this chapter saw the light of print.

The chapter title is “A Review of the American Seed Catalogue”, which was originally written by  Miss Mildred Howells in 1916, and included in this book.  King credited Howells in her introductory section called “Note”.

Howells’ essay said: “When the small blue-bound list [catalog] of Chester J. Hunt, of Montclair,[New Jersey] appeared on the gardening horizon, it was as if a new star had arisen. We look, and with reason, to the best English lists as our models of what the seed, bulb, or plant list should be; and this list of tulips and daffodils, in its completeness, its careful descriptive text, its excellent prefatory notes, and its color sense, is head and shoulders above most that we have–much more like an English list.”

Thus she compared the American seed and nursery catalog with English lists or catalogs, and seemed most content only when American gardening catalogs resembled those published by the English.



An English Park Inspired Olmsted’s Central Park’s Design

In  1826 the English gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) became head-gardener at Chatsworth, an early classic English garden, still visited by thousands every year.

Paxton also designed England’s first public park, Birkenhead Park, which opened in 1847.

America’s Frederick Law Olmsted visited Birkenhead in the spring of 1851,  before his design of  Central Park would take America by storm.

Bill Bryson wrote in his book At Home: “Olmsted was enchanted. The quality of landscape design ‘had here reached a perfection that I had never before dreamed of,’ he recalled in Words and Talks of an American Farmer in England, his popular account of the trip. At that time, many people in New York were actively pressing for a decent public park for the city, and this, thought Olmsted, was the very park they needed.”

Central Park in New York

Today Central Park stands as America’s premier public park, designed along the lines of the picturesque, romantic English park style of the nineteenth century.




Victorian Garden Fashion Included a Banana Plant

New plants have always been fashionable in the garden.

The nineteenth century was no exception.

When plant explorers to Africa, Asia, and South America brought back new plants, sometimes tropical, it was not unusual for them to appear in the gardens of England, and then America.


The Dreer catalog of 1888 included this image of a banana in a landscape.

The Deer catalog  [above] promoted the Victorian landscape fashion, with carpet beds on the lawn, but also the new Musa plant, or tropical banana.

Musa  ensete, in the words of the catalog “the noblest of all plants”, became the latest fad.  The catalog said, “During the hot summer, when planted out, it grows rapidly, and attains gigantic proportions, producing a tropical effect on the lawn, terrace, or flower garden.”

In the late nineteenth century the gardens of both England and America displayed the new banana plant.

What are your favorite new plants?


Carpet Bedding Became More Popular in America than England

Rochester, New York  seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) often wrote in both his catalog and magazine about carpet bedding. In fact, outside his seed company offices he had a bed of annuals on the lawn that formed the name ‘Vick’.

As a popular form of Victorian gardening, carpet bedding swept the country.

Flowers and plants with colorful leaves, like the coleus, had to be clipped regularly to maintain the necessary height and width for the design of the carpet bed.

It was more popular in America than in England.

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly 1878

The English literary magazine Quarterly Review wrote in 1898: “Carpet-bedding, when it first came into fashion, was said to be there [at Kew Gardens] shown off to great advantage.  In England carpet-bedding is not now extremely popular, but in America and on the Continent a frequent amusement in gardening is to produce pictures, portraits, or inscriptions in this kind of bedding-out, and wonderfully elaborate designs of arches, pillars, or erections in the shape of people or animals are made in wire thickly planted with lower-growing foliage plants; but, perhaps fortunately, this amusement has not been much tried in England.”

You might say that nineteenth century American gardeners became more English than the English.  Americans clearly preferred this older garden fashion, rather than perennial borders, with native plants, that became popular in England towards the end of the century.


Nineteenth Century Seedsman Peter Henderson Believed in Advertising

Peter Henderson (1822-1890)  was a seedsman who wrote several popular garden books in the nineteenth century.

He also believed in the power of advertising for his company.

In 1884 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly a speech that Henderson had given that year at the Chicago Convention of Nurserymen.  He quotes Henderson as saying, “Advertising is rapidly becoming a fine art, and the more it advances as a fine art, the more advertising will be done and the more profit will result from it.”

As a business, the seed industry had its share of competition.  The amount of advertising sometimes distinguished one company from another.

For example, this illustration [left] from Henderson’s seed catalog promotes the company as modern and progressive.

Meehan wrote the following in another issue of that same year’s magazine, “Perhaps in no other country is the press so liberally patronized by seedsmen, florists, and nurserymen as in the United States. In their advertising seasons, which cover most of the months of the year, we can rarely pick up a periodical that does not contain some of their advertisements.”

Henderson was not alone among his Brothers of the Spade, fellow garden merchants.  He believed in advertising for a modern business.