Archives for January 2014

Gardeners Still Love the Latest Plants

I continue to read garden magazines that I stored for a time when my work slowed a bit.

What I learned from one magazine reminded me of what I had seen in the dozens of nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs I read at the Smithsonian, researching the book America’s Romance with the English Garden.

The garden industry continues to offer new plants for the gardener.

The November/December 2013 issue of Horticulture magazine included an article simply called “New Intros” which featured photographs and descriptions of twenty-five new plants.

The color  photographs certainly make the plants quite enticing to any reader.

The growers number among the most recognized in the country, including Proven Winners,  North Creek Nurseries, Colorblends, Skagit, Monrovia, Terra Nova, and Bailey Nurseries.

I grow plants from each of them in my garden.

The thirst for new varieties of plants never ceases. That of course drives the garden industry each new year to roll out its novelties or as we now call them “new varieties.”

The article serves also as a bit of advertising for each of the nurseries.  With the help of the grower the magazine gets an article and the companies in turn showcase their own plants in the pages of the magazine.

The new 'Crimson Rambler' rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog

The new ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog

In 1901 economist Emily Fogg-Meade wrote an article called “The Place of Advertising in Modern Business” which appeared in the Journal of Political Economy.  She wrote: “Advertising is indispensable to a producer to: (1) to increase the consumption of goods, and (2) to introduce novelties.”

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs also offered novelties for the gardener. In its 1896 seed catalog the Peter Henderson Comapny [above] included a colored lithograph of the newest rose variety called ‘Crimson Rambler’.


Olmsted Designed the Landscape for Quincy’s Library in Massachusetts

The nineteenth century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace in the romantic English garden style, also designed the landscape for the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy, Mass.

I wanted to know more about that connection so I sought out the Olmsted Archives in Brookline, Mass.  What I found surprised me.

There were two references to Olmsted’s involvement with the Library. The Frederick Law Olmsted archives include a land survey of the Library property, dated around 1881, by Whitman and Breck Surveyors from Devonshire Street in Boston.  Though it is possible that Olmsted commissioned the survey, what is important is that it is among the Olmsted documents.  The survey is an integral, early step in landscape design.

The second reference, twenty-two years later, in 1913, long after the death of the senior Olmsted, happened when the city of Quincy contracted with the Olmsted Brothers on certain minor landscape changes.  The Olmsted archives from that period include several  letters, drawings, and planting lists.

The Thomas Crane Library, built in 1881, in Quincy, Mass.

The Thomas Crane Library, built in 1881, in Quincy, Mass.

A letter from the Olmsted firm to officials of Quincy dated April 22, 1913 include these words: “since we laid out the Library grounds in 1881.”  The same letter encouraged the continuance of the extensive lawn surrounding the Library: “The character of the grounds would be much more pleasing and suitable if they should be confined to turf and a few dignified trees with the exception of the shrubbery at the corner of the library and along the east boundary against private properties.”

Today the Library, Boston architect Herbert Richardson’s classic stone design, built in Quincy granite, seems just to emerge from the earth, as if from out of the extensive lawn that surrounds it.  The lawn plays an important role in the landscape design. Another letter from the Olmsted firm dated April 25, 1913 said: “Your Trustees cannot be too careful to avoid decorating the Library Grounds and making them fussy and out of harmony with the surroundings by scattering shrubs, trees and flower beds about the grounds as might perhaps be appropriate under different local conditions.”

The extensive lawn is the signature contribution of Olmsted who treasured the romantic English garden style.  Even after his death, his firm encouraged the Thomas Crane Library Trustees to keep the lawn.

To this day one of the treasures of Quincy is its Library surrounded by a classic English style lawn.


Women Often Featured on the Cover of Old Seed Catalogs

Did you ever wonder why women appeared on the cover of seed and nursery catalogs in the late nineteenth century?

It certainly was not by accident.

In 1901 economist Emily Fogg-Meade wrote an article called “The Place of Advertising in Modern Business” which appeared in the Journal of Political Economy. She said, “Women constitute the large body of consumers. This is especially so in the middle class. The housewife chooses the home, selects the furnishings, provides the menus; she buys her own, her children’s, and often her husband’s clothing, and plans the festivities.”

Fogg-Meade believed in advertising as a means of driving up the purchase of consumer goods.

To depict a woman in an ad was therefore essential.

She wrote, “The attention of such people [women] can only be attracted to new articles by the strongest possible stimuli.”

In the same article she said, “The dealer or manufacture who caters to these people must supply strong incentives and inducements…He must excite desire by appealing to imagination and emotion.”

Fogg-Meade spread her ideas  when modern advertising emerged as essential for any business.

She concluded, “All this can only be done by extensive advertising.”

The Maule Seed Catalog of 1900, courtesy of Christine Faller on Pinterest

The Maule Seed Catalog of 1900, courtesy of Christine Faller on Pinterest

Thus it was no surprise that seed and nursery companies used the image of middle class women both on the cover and in the pages of the catalog they sent around the country. [left]

To appeal to American gardeners meant that women, as major consumers for the home, needed to see themselves in the ad and on the cover in the catalog that sold seeds and plants.


Nineteenth Century Nursery Owners Taught America How to Garden

I remember the day as if it were yesterday.

In downtown Philadelphia the Pennsylvania Horticultural  Society office includes a library of a substantial size, filled with books, periodicals, and other assorted material.  Since the Society has been around since 1827, the collection includes much for a researcher to explore.

The morning I spent there was my first encounter with the writing of New Jersey book seller Elizabeth Woodburn, who started her company in 1946.  She specialized in books on the history of gardening.

In an essay she wrote in 1976, which I found that morning, Woodburn said: “Horticulture in this country was developed and taught by U. S. Nurserymen. They grew the plants. They issued the catalogs. They wrote the books. They wrote all but a few of the gardening  books from the earliest through the middle of the nineteenth century. It was simple cause and effect. If they wanted to sell seeds and plants they had to tell people how to grow them.”

Henderson catalog coverThe directness of her statement still strikes me as so powerful.

This is a woman who knew a great deal about garden literature.

Her conclusion was one that has stuck with me even after several years have passed since I first read those lines.

Peter Henderson (1822-1890) from New York embodied the nineteenth century seedsman and writer that Woodburn referenced.

He sent out regular catalogs, but he also wrote several books that became quite popular during the late nineteenth century.  His book titles included Gardening for Profit and Gardening for Pleasure in which he proposed English garden design as essential for the home landscape for American gardeners.

The title of his 1889  seed catalog [left] said it all: “A Manual of Everything for the Garden.”


Only Aristocrats Acknowledged as Gardeners in Eighteenth Century England

In America we are familiar with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, both launched in the early nineteenth century.

England, however, gave America the model for such a society of gardeners who banded together to promote gardening.

In the eighteenth century when any discussion of the ‘English garden’ appeared in print, whether in journals or books or even poetry, it was usually the garden of the aristocrat.  Today you can still see examples of gardens from that time in the grand landscapes of Chatsworth, Stourhead, and Rousham.

Each of these belonged to wealthy landowners who sought to create a garden in the latest style of a more naturalistic fashion.

There were enough people of like mind on the relevance of gardening that in 1804 the Horticultural Society of London began with the support of King George III.  The name would change later to the Royal Horticultural Society.

Royal Horticultural SocietySince most gardeners were from the aristocratic class, it was no surprise that representatives of the middle class or laborers were excluded from membership in the Society, except for a working gardener or two.

Garden historian Jane Brown writes in her book The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Social History of Gardens and Gardening: “George III’s original charter to the Royal Horticultural Society is crowded with lords and baronets plus a bishop, though some good gardeners had to be added for efficiency’s sake.”

The Horticultural Societies in America began also with business owners, seed merchants, and nurserymen, but eventually included middle class gardeners as well.

You see from this case that gardening has long been connected with social class.

In America it was not uncommon for middle class suburban homeowners to envy the landscape of the estate outside the city with its long green lawn.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901)  in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly  once proposed an estate in New Jersey serve as a worthwhile example of what every landscape should look like: acres of lawn, hundreds  of flowers, and numerous shrubs.  That garden however had a staff of gardeners to take care of the property.

He was proposing it as an ideal that would motivate his readers who sought out his magazine to learn more about gardening and the landscape.

Jane Brown sums up the issue in her book with these words: “The English prefer their garden heroes to be aristocratic.”


American Garden Magazine Advertizes Garden Tools from England

Last week I spent time with garden magazines that I had put aside for months with plans to read when  I found a few free hours.

At the back of one magazine I discovered an ad for Clarington garden tools.  The tag line on the ad in tiny letters at the bottom said “English made garden tools since 1780.” [below]

When I read that line, I thought what a powerful way to motivate a potential consumer to buy the product. You were buying not only a tool but a tradition of craftsmanship in tool-making to help the gardener.  You could perhaps imagine yourself as an English gardener with these tools.

ClaringtonAs cultural historian Jackson Lears argues in his book Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, the consumer buys that image, that tradition, that dream, in a product he/she purchases. Hopefully these tools, made in the English garden tradition, will enable an American gardener to cultivate a garden worthy of the style called ‘English.’

Lears quotes the advertising copywriter John Star Hewitt who wrote in 1925, “No one ever in his life bought a mere piece of merchandise – per se. What he buys is the satisfaction of a physical need or appetite, or the gratification of some dream about his life.”

So in advertsing garden products, the marketer needs to align that product with a sense of satisfaction or well-being  for the consumer.

That theory of how modern advertising works has been a business model since the 1890s.

Thus American seed and nursery companies, as well as garden tool manufacturers, sold a dream, a hope, and a vision with their products.

Today a British garden tool company continues to sell the dream of an English garden by aligning its garden tools with that long tradition of the English garden.

clarington logo

 [Above illustration courtesy of The Sacred Bee’s Blog. ]


Early American Garden Book Borrowed from English Writers

As a guide for work in his famous garden Thomas Jefferson used an early book on gardening from Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard M’Mahon. The book was The American Gardener’s Calendar, published in 1806.

Jefferson became friends with M’Mahon and over the years he even depended on M’Mahon for seeds.

Garden historians recognize today that M’Mahon drew extensively from English garden writers for his book, which is a sizable volume.

Bernard McMahon's garden book, published in 1806

Bernard M’Mahon’s garden book, published in 1806

In the new book on Jefferson’s garden called A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello the author Peter Hatch who has supervised the garden at Monticello for thiry years discussed M’Mahon’s book.

Hatch mentions that the English garden writer John Claudius Loudon reviewed M’Mahon’s book in his Encyclopedia of Gardening (1825) and there raised the issue of its origin in these words: “We cannot gather from the work any thing as to the extent of American practice in these particulars.”

Nonetheless The American Gardener’s Calendar proved, through several editions, an invaluable resource for American gardeners for decades.

Thomas Jefferson often referred to it for help with his vegetable garden at Monticello.

Today we know that Jefferson planted his garden in the prevailing English style, perhaps with ideas from M’Mahon’s book.

Hatch concluded that in M’Mahon’s book “the ideal kitchen garden was laid out in the British model, and it was generally adapted by Viriginia gentlemen gardeners like Jefferson.”


Solidago Transformed from a Weed to an Ornamental

From before colonial times and well into the nineteenth century the English have shown a fondness for American native plants.

One such variety was the weed called Solidago or goldenrod.

The Englishman William Cobbett (1763-1835) in his book The American Gardener once wrote about a border of goldenrod at Hampton Court in London that was thirty feet wide and a half-mile long.  People referred to it as “the most magnificent walk in Europe.”

I found that  reference in Peter Hatch’s new award-winning book on Thomas Jefferson’s garden called A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.

Hatch also mentions the gardener Jeremiah Simple who wrote in the early journal American Farmer, “What we most despise here as more than useless, is cultivated with care in Europe, and our most noxious plants are returned to us as treasures.”

Solidago virgaurea [Courtesy Wikipedia]

Solidago virgaurea [Courtesy Wikipedia]

Nineteenth century seedsmen and nursery owners often complained in their catalogs and other publications that American gardeners did not consider native plants important.

For example, in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote that American gardeners would not know a rhododendron if they saw one, whereas the English found them ideal in the garden.

More recently in her book Herbs in Bloom garden writer Jo Ann Gardner first saw goldenrod in a garden at the Newfoundland Botanical Garden.  She wrote after that for her “No longer was goldenrod an unwanted field weed, but a desirable ornamental.”

I have solidago in my garden where it just seems to appear in September, often with one of my favorites, the New England aster.  I must admit solidago looks good at that time of the season with its bright yellow color.

What do you think of solidago?



Advertising, from the Late Nineteenth Century, Sought to Persuade People to Buy More Goods

The holiday season certainly offers an opportunity to reflect on our consumer culture.

Remember what Socrates once said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I just read an article from 1901 called “The Place of Advertising in Modern Business” which appeared in the Journal of Political Economy.  That was a time when advertising became an important topic for any business.

The academic author Emily Fogg-Meade was caught up in the movement of that time to recognize advertising as a modern science.

She wrote in the article: “Advertising is indispensable to a producer [of goods]: (1) to increase the consumption of goods, and (2) to introduce novelties.”

The goal of advertising centered on motivating consumers to buy more.

Certainly that is a message that resonates at this time of year, when stores advertise their after Christmas sales.

Shortly after Fogg-Meade wrote her article, the Henry T. Michell Seed Company of Philadelphia [below] published its yearly catalog in 1904.

This illustration appears thanks to Pinterest

This illustration appears thanks to Pinterest.

On the cover of the catalog Michell proposed the lawn and a bed of flowers on the lawn, repeating an illustration that many other garden catalogs featured at that time as well.

Perhaps Michell too was caught up in the moment when  modern advertising was  emerging  as a requisite for every business.

He probably thought he would likely sell more seed for the lawn and for sweet peas as depicted on the cover.