Archives for December 2012

Nineteenth Century Nurseryman Elliott Wrote a Book on Landscaping for Lots of Any Size

Nurserymen in the nineteenth century sold plants through their catalogs, but they also often advised on landscape gardening.

Elliott BookOhio plantsman Frank Reuben Elliott went a step further.  He wrote a popular book on the subject called Hand Book of Practical Landscape Gardening.

Many seed and nursery catalogs offered it for sale.

In his 1881 magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan reviewed Elliott’s book.

Meehan wrote: “When one travels through the country and notes how poorly some farms and rural residences are in all their surroundings, which, with a very small expenditure of money and labor, might be made beautiful, any work which would suggest to these unfortunates how to do better, we feel to be doing a useful work. This is just the missionary ground for a work like this.”

Rural America needed Elliott’s book. At least that is what Meehan recommended.

The type of landscape that Elliott proposed in the book was the English garden, with its extensive lawn.  He considered A. J. Downing, America’s most famous nineteenth century landscape gardener, his mentor.



Trade Cards Became Popular in the Late Nineteenth Century

With the rise of chromolithography in advertising in nineteenth century America it was no surprise that the garden industry joined the ranks of those who used such chromos in their business.

The Boston Athenaeum houses a collection of nineteenth century chromos.  Last week I attended a lecture there, given by Catharina Slautterback, the curator of the Athenaeum’s chromo collection.

Catharina first discussed show cards, which sometimes  measured 2 by 3 feet and appeared from the mid nineteenth century, as ads for a company.  Such chromos were framed and hung in public areas to attract business.  In the later part of the century trade cards came on the scene.  Trade cards as ads  measured roughly 3 inches by 5 1/2 inches.

Trade card of 1898

Trade card of 1898

Here [above]  is a chromo trade card from 1898 that the Charlton Nursery in Rochester, New York distributed.

The image is of the rose ‘Crimson Rambler’ which came from England and swept the country, appearing in many seed and nursery catalogs of that period.  The rose was referred to as the ‘grandest rose of the century’.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ was sold well into the 1930s, when more dependable varieties appeared.

Like every business, the garden industry used chromolithography to promote its product, seeds and plants.  In the process it gave the world such stunning trade cards as this example from the Charlton Nursery.


The Classic English Garden Featured a Natural Look

The Scottish garden writer Charles McIntosh (1794-1864) in his book of 1853 The Book of the Garden provided a history of the English garden.

He wrote: “The family of the Medici revived and patronized the art of gardening in Italy, and their gardens, which were of

Charles McIntosh preferred the natural landscape garden.

Charles McIntosh preferred the natural landscape garden. An illustration from his The Book of the Garden (1853).

the geometric and architectural style, long served as models for most of Europe…until the introduction of the English, or, as it has been called, the natural style – the conception of Bridgeman, Kent, Wright, Brown, Emes, Price, Knight, and Repton.”

In the eighteenth century the English proposed the natural look to the landscape, which included the lawn, serpentine walks, and usually a lake or pond.

Strange thing was, though it looked natural, it was as well planned and executed as any formal garden. It looked, however, like it had always been there.

The landscape gardeners of that period William Kent, Capability Brown, and Humphry Repton followed this model of the English garden.

McIntosh also discussed the English garden’s influence on America.  “The English style of landscape gardening appears to be with them [the United States] the most popular.”

“Gardening,” he wrote, “as an art of design and taste in Britain, can scarcely be traced historically beyond the time of Henry VIII.”  So it was that in the late 1500s the garden first took on a formal design, also popular at that time in Europe, but in the 1700s the English introduced  the natural look of the landscape.


The Work of English Landscape Gardener Capability Brown Influenced America

The landscape at Stowe

The landscape of Stowe

I just finished reading Edward Hymans’ book Capability Brown and Humphry Repton.

The name Capability Brown (1716-1883) drew me to this title.

For a long time I had been seeing his name, but never really knew much about him.  This is now the second book I’ve read on Capability, England’s grand landscape gardener of the eighteenth century.

He received that name because when he came to advise a client, he would discuss the ‘capability’ of the site.

Designers such as Brown imitated seventeenth-century paintings by Poussin, Claude and others in designing views for the landscape.  In the eighteenth century a new form of the landscape developed because the English considered painting, poetry, and the landscape linked as art forms.

Thus Brown sought to create a picturesque view in the landscape.

What makes him  important in the history of the English garden is that he focused on creating for the property the sweeping lawn, along with the addition of some water source like a lake. Wyans wrote that “level ground had to be given new, gently rolling contours.”

At the age of twenty-four Capability began his landscape garden career with the distinguished garden designer William Kent.  They worked on the classic landscape garden of Stowe.  Thus began Capability’s career.

Brown created a bit of resentment during his lifetime because he often recommended to his noblemen clients to rip out established gardens.

By the end of his life Brown left one hundred forty great country estates.

Thomas Jefferson visited Stowe because he admired the English garden.

Wyans wrote, “It was as a result of what he saw in these places [like Blenheim and Stowe, both the work of Capabiity Brown] that in 1806  Jefferson decided to landscape Monticello in the style of English parks.”



Boston Athenaeum Hosts a Chromo Exhibit

This past week I attended a lecture on the chromolithography exhibit currently showing at the Boston Athenaeum.

I knew that chromos played a key role in advertising in the nineteenth century and wanted to learn a bit more about them.

A chromo is a colored illustration in which the artist used a flat limestone for each color of the image. He drew the image on a stone, but applied only one color per stone. One chromo could take many stones. It was quite time-consuming, but became an art form that captured nineteenth century America with its life-like colors, something people had never seen.  Most Americans could not experience original artwork like painting since there were few art museums or galleries.

The chromolithrogarphy exbhit right now at the Boston Athenauem.

The colorful invitation for the chromolithography exhibit now at the Boston Athenaeum.


Boston introduced the first  chromos in America in 1840.

Books, newspapers, and, of course, catalogs, had used mainly black and white engravings before that time.

Soon businesses used chromos to show off their products and even their buildings.  The Athenaeum’s collection includes a chromo commissioned in 1873 by the Walter Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Mass. to feature their new building.

The garden industry also used chromos in the seed and nursery catalogs.

According to Charles Van Ravenswaay, former librarian at Winterthur in Pennsylvania,  in 1864  the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) was the first to use a chromo in his catalog. In it Vick illustrated the double zinnias which had only been developed four years earlier.

Several chromolithography shops set up business in Rochester at that time, largely to meet the advertising needs of various businesses, including the seed and plant trade.  At the end of the 1880s a magazine called  The Horticultural Art Journal began in that city

But it was Boston, as I learned, where chromolithography began.

The Boston Athenaeum’s exhibit, called Chromo Mania, is certainly worth visiting.  It continues until January 12.


Nineteenth Century Seedsman B. K. Bliss Pioneered the Mail Order Business

I always wondered when seed companies first  started to send seeds across the country in the U. S. mail.

The Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1873 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly included an article entitled “The Father of the Postal Seed Business” written by fruit-grower, landscape gardener, and writer Franklin Reuben Elliott.

The B. K. Bliss and Sons  seed catalog of 1879. [Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society]

Elliott wrote: “B. K. Bliss, formerly of Springfield, Mass., now of New York, was the first to make a specialty, and so draw attention of the public to the value of transmission by mail at a cheap rate, of seeds, plants, etc.”

Bliss deserves the recognition, of course.

The genius of the seed and plant industries was as a pioneer in the use of the catalog to sell their products, and then to use the mail to deliver them.  Their customers lived mainly in rural America.

I spent several weeks looking at the seed and nursery catalog collection at the Special Collections at the Library of the University of Delaware.

The website of the UD Seed and Nursery Trade Collection  also agrees that “B. K. Bliss is credited with introducing mail-order marketing to the seed industry.”

The Bliss’ catalogs  date from the  1850s.

So when Sears and Montgomery Ward entered the catalog business in the late nineteenth century, they reaped the experience of the garden industry’s many decades with the catalog as their primary sales tool.

The nineteenth century garden industry sold not only seeds and plants but a new way of marketing and sales.  Mr. Benjamin K. Bliss was  there.



Late Nineteenth Century Mass Production of Plants Made Dozens of Varieties Available

By the end of the nineteenth century seed company and nursery catalogs would offer for sale many varieties of one plant.

That was possible because of the new system of mass production of seeds and plants.  Like any business, the garden industry sought ways to incease its inventory and market share.

The growing conditions of California where the nursery business could continue all year enabled new plants to reach the market much more quickly.

Illustration of the coleus in the 1893 Burpee seed catalog

The  book Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers, first published in 1896, featured the California seed business  C. C. Morse and Company with its fields of sweet peas. The book said, “Particular attention is given to the sweet pea, one of the most popular of all flowers.  Of these they [Morse] aim to grow every variety the sweet pea specialist can name, and more than ninety varieties are now cultivated.”

The W. R. Shelmore Company in Avondale, Pennsylvania offered more than seventy-five varieties of coleus in its 1895 catalog.  The catalog said, “We have one of the best collections in the country.”

When industrialization met the gardening industry, the number of plants available for the American gardener increased.

Then hybridizers would produce many varieties of one plant, as in the case of the coleus and the sweet pea.

Not much has changed today.  Each spring the garden industry continues to feature new plant varieties.

And, of course, American gardeners buy up the newer varieties.


America Loves the Landscape of TV’s Downton Abbey

Next month the TV period drama Downton Abbey, which provided PBS its highest ratings in several years, will  begin its third season.  It’s the story of an aristocratic Edwardian English family and their servants who try to make sense of a world undergoing change like no other time in history including a world war.

Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey, is about 70 miles southwest of London.
(image by Mike Searle, via Wikimedia; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Americans love this TV drama with no small thanks to the landscape, a true star in its own right. In some strange way the classic English garden with its green lawn continues its hold on the American psyche.

The success of Downton Abbey here confirms that the landscape of sheered grass still ranks high among the hopes and dreams of American homeowners. That affection for green grass outside the home developed over the past 200 years, no small thanks to the garden industry in the nineteenth century, who sold America the English garden in their desire to forge a profitable business to a growing suburban population

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1868 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly  wrote: “A well set and well kept lawn is to the grounds what the tapestry is to the parlor.”  In 1900 New York nurseryman Samuel Parsons wrote, “Leave no stone unturned and unfertilized in order to secure a satisfactory open lawn.”

No surprise that the English garden with its signature lawn appeared from Maine to California.

Are you looking forward to the new season of Downton Abbey?



Eighteenth Century English Landscape Gardener Capability Brown Encouraged the Lawn

Just finished reading a wonderful little book Capability Brown and the English Landscape Garden by Laura Mayer.

The book won art historian Mayer an award. I can see why. In clear crisp writing she has included quite a bit of detail about Brown, the eighteenth century landscape gardener,  and what was happening in England during that time period.

Brown achieved quite a bit of fame.  Toward the end of his life the King made him the Royal Gardener at Hampton Court

My goal in reading the book was to learn something about Brown.  I had read biographies of other important figures in the history of the English garden, but never anything about Capability.

Timing is everything, and when he appeared on the scene in the mid-eighteenth century, it was the period when Arcadia, a love for nature, was at its peak. That school of thought, promoted by English writers, poets, and artists held that the garden should resemble nature, and not be designed in a formal, cold system of straight lines and symmetry.

When Brown (1716-1783)  appeared on the scene, the English had already espoused the Arcadian look.

Brown sought to take landscape gardening in a new direction. His design for the landscape  centered on the lawn, or parkscape, as Mayer called it in her book.

Brown recommended to his many clients that they rip up their gardens and replace them with lawn.  He did a great deal of grading of the contours of his client’s property, creating just the right ups and downs, to provide a soothing view of the lawn from the manor.

He worked on  famous classic English gardens like Stowe, Chatsworth, and Blenheim.

Brown inspired a new generation of ‘natural’ landscape gardeners who came after him.  His lawn, the center of his design,  continued well into the nineteenth and twentieth century, influencing even American gardening.

Highclere Castle, site for the filming of the current PBS hit ‘Downton Abbey’, was one of his landscapes.  You can see his work especially in the shots of the lawn surrounding the house as the TV program opens.