Archives for March 2015

Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Seed Firm Lauded for its Company Landscape

It was not uncommon for nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries to create a landscape at their nursery, greenhouse or trial garden that would also give a visitor an idea of what the home landscape for that time should look like.

Phildelphia’s Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784, cultivated its own landscape over several decades.

Here is the company catalog from 1883. [Below]

Notice the lawn and lush plantings in the cover’s illustration, whereby the Company recommended that same design for the home landscape as well.

1883 Landreth Catalog

1883 Landreth Catalog

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan also recognized the fine example of modern landscape gardening on the Landreth home office.  He wrote in the November, 1881 issue of his monthly: “The pleasure grounds of David Landreth & Sons, connected with their seed farm near Bristol, twenty-four miles north of Philadelphia, and facing the River Delaware, is an excellent specimen of landscape gardening…Numerous flower beds, vases, rockeries, etc. are planted with choice blooming and ornamental foliage plants lighten up the grounds, which are kept in admirable style. The lawn grass, I found greener than upon the places in the same neighborhood.”

The lawn, of course, was an important element in modern landscape gardening for any home.

Thus, the seed companies, like Landreth, which also sold grass seed, had to provide the customer with an example of what the lawn could look like.  Meehan even recognized the quality of Landreth’s lawn.

Meehan wrote about the long history of the Landreth Company’s landscape. He said, “The Park has been made and planted within the past thirty five years.”   The term ‘Park’ first referred to the English practice of maintaining an area in the landscape where deer could roam freely , but eventually the term simply meant an area of lawn, cultivated for the enjoyment and pleasure of a visitor.




Old Fashioned Hellebore Appears at Spring Flower Show

The early spring array of flowers for the garden includes the Hellebore, a perennial from Europe and Western Asia. Today the plant enjoys a spot in the American garden as well.

It was therefore no surprise that the Hellebore appeared this spring in landscape designs at the Flower and Garden Show in Hartford, Boston and Chicago.

Nineteenth century English garden periodicals as well as an early American garden book wrote about the plant and how best to grow it in the garden.

In England’s Gardeners’ Chronicle an article by Thomas Moore appeared in the April 5, 1879 issue. Moore wrote “The present paper originated in a boxful of Hellebore flowers… These being supplemented by specimens from Mr. Barr, led to a visit to Mr. Barr’s bulb grounds at Tooting, where probably is to be found the most complete collection of Hellebores which at present exists, since it contains all that can be purchased both at home and abroad, or obtained from the most likely sources by other means.”

Since it was the variety called Helleborus viridis that appeared at the Spring Flower Shows, I was most interested in Moore’s comments about that plant. Here is a photo of the plant from the Boston Show. Notice its light green flowers.  [below]

Helleborus viridis at this springs's Boston Flower and Garden Show

Helleborus viridis at this spring’s Boston Flower and Garden Show

Moore wrote, “Leaving Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, in its several forms out of the question, the only Hellebores which are of much importance for the ornamentation of flower gardens are the forms – species or varieties it matters not – which are associated together as the respective representations of H. orientalis, H. viridis, and H. foetidus.”

H. viridis, an old variety of the Hellebore, can still provide color to the early spring garden.

Helleborus viridis

Helleborus viridis

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon wrote in his  book American Gardener, published in 1806, that the best time to transplant Helleborus viridis is in September.   Since his book is based largely on English garden authors from the eighteenth century, English gardeners grew H. viridis well before 1800.  Thus it has had a long garden tradition, first in the English garden and then later in the American garden.


Two New Features Characterized the Seventeenth Century English Garden

Hyams The English GardenI just returned from my trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden Show.

While there I met several people who never realized that the American garden included so much history.

My response was that the kind of garden we cultivate illustrates as much history as anything else in which we express ourselves, like music and painting.

The English garden, for example,  went through an evolution of sorts in the seventeenth century,and was marked by two new features.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams writes that at that time there were  “Two great movements in English gardening, movements which were, for a long time, to work against each other but which, in the long run, would both contribute to the making of English gardens in their final perfection as paradise. On the one hand there was a beginning of movement against order, against regularity, and on the other hand the planting of the first gardens of plants, collections for botanical purposes, or simply to satisfy the collecting instinct.”

A rejection of the formal, symmetrical garden became the first feature. The new garden therefore assumed the name of natural, a design that one might see in nature.

The second feature included the English love of collecting plants.  At that time there were plenty to be had including plants from America like Phlox and False Blue Indigo.  The English even cultivated special ‘American gardens’ where they showcased such plants.



Chromos Became Middle Class Art Form in the late Nineteenth Century

The art form called chromolithography provided colorful illustrations for the nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs.

After 1850 chromos, as they were called, became a part of every business, whether for the sale of sewing machines, clothing, pots and pans, or seeds and plants. Companies flooded the market with chromos of both their products and their buildings.  People loved them, and collected them.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “Families displayed their histories (framed photographs, marriage certificates, and the like) and their taste as consumers (lithograph prints…) in parlors that doubled as family museums…Women created these collections, as well as other parlor artifacts and activities.”

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered several chromos depicting flowers from his catalog’s collection of seeds.

He thus used the latest  marketing form for his seed company. When chromolithography entered the scene, Vick was an early adopter, featuring a chromolithograph on his seed catalog cover of 1873.

He encouraged his customers to write in for a chromo he offered that they could frame and put in a suitable spot on the wall in their homes.

Over several years he offered a few different chromos.

Here is Vick’s Chromo E, which measured 19 by 24 inches [below]:

Vick chromo of 1873

Vick Chromo E  [1873]

In his seed catalog of 1874 Vick detailed the history of how he came to offer these chromos to his customers.

He wrote the following story in an article simply entitled “Our Chromos.”

Vick said “For many years we have endeavored to use every means within our power to increase the love and culture of flowers among the people. While walking among our ruined flowers one morning after an unusally early frost in September, and picking here and there a specimen that had escaped destruction, we could not help feeling sad that our flowers were done, especially as there were some that we would have to describe from recollection. We at once determined that the next season we would secure the services of a first-class flower-artist, and in oil colors preserve on canvas the most truthful representations possible of the leading varieties of flowers. In this we were quite successful, and our office blossomed, regardless of cold or storms, we were delighted for a time. Soon, however, the paintings failed to afford the full measure of pleasure we anticipated, because we were enjoying them alone, with the exception of a few friends or customers who happened to call; but our thousands of customers received no satisfaction from them. We at once determined to make an effort to have them chromoed in the highest style of the art, so they would be as perfect as the oil painting. In this we were also successful, and for several years we have been furnishing Chromos of these paintings to our customers.”

Thus he made his oil paintings of the flowers available to his customers as chromolithographs, or as Vick put it, he “chromoed” them.

They were quite popular for his Company. He sold over 100,000.





Chicago Calls

This week I will be in Chicago for a couple of talks about my book America’s Romance with the English Garden.

On Thursday, March 19 at 7 p.m. I will make a presentation at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

The next day Friday, March 20 I will speak at the Chicago Flower and  Garden Show in Chicago at 12:30 p.m.

If you attend either of these two events, please stop and say hello.


Chicago Flower Show


By 1900 Advertising Became a Science

It is worth taking a stroll down memory lane to see how businesses by 1900 put such stock in the power of advertising.

Something must have been motivating them.

In a book from that period called the Handbook of Mahin Advertising Company we read the following, “Advertising is influencing the minds of people. It is making them think as you desire. It means utilizing all those forces which produce impressions and crystallize opinions. It is the creating of prestige – that quality which causes others to accept a statement without question.”

In 1901 business professor Emily Fogg-Meade gave an example in her article “The Place of Advertising in Modern Business”.  She wrote, “Royal Baking Powder becomes the symbol of all baking powders. In ordering her supply the busy housewife may forget the name of the new baking powder which her grocer has urged her to try, but the name of ‘Royal’ immediately occurs to her.”


Newspaper ad 1890

The idea of branding comes to mind. The consumer thinks of a particular ‘brand’ of the product, rather than the product.

Such is the way of modern advertising.

Fogg-Meade spelled out the reason for such advertising when she wrote, “This method of making the public acquainted with goods has been resorted to because the modern system of distribution requires that goods be sold in large quantities.”

Because so many goods were coming out of factories and they had to be sold in quantities, advertising for a particular brand worked quite well.

By 1900 people did not want any oatmeal, they wanted ‘Quaker Oats’, and not any bar of soap, but ‘Ivory.’

It was no surprise that American gardeners too wanted the garden style promoted in the catalog.


Advertising Determined Success of National Garden Magazines by the 1890s

By the end of the nineteenth century national magazines sought any means to grow in circulation, especially advertising.

The Ladies Home Journal, with its many pages of advertising, boasted that it enjoyed the largest number of readers among all such magazines. Advertising made the magazine’s publisher Cyrus Curtis a wealthy man.

Meehan’s Monthly, a garden magazine published in the 1890s in Philadelphia by nurseryman Thomas Meehan and his sons, also coveted readers across the country and promoted itself as an ‘Advertising Medium.’

The magazine’s readership included the leaders in the garden industry, people who owned nurseries and seed companies.  They formed the group of businesses that the publisher sought to advertise within its pages.

The Meehan’s wrote in 1891, “From a business point of view we expect the support of every intelligent Nurseryman and Florist, as it is clearly their interest that the number and enthusiasm of their customers should be increased, which is the great task the magazine has started out to accomplish.”

The Harper’s Magazine [below] shows a sample of such garden businesses as Vick, Henderson, and Dreer who did not hesitate to advertise in the magazine.

garden ads 1887

Garden ads Harper’s Magazine in  1887

Modern advertising played a crucial role in the garden business by 1900.

No longer could simply regional or local advertising suffice, but the goal became a national audience. Any means to reach that group was within the bounds of running a sound business.

Modern advertising fueled the garden industry as it did any business at that time.

Advertising, referred to for the first time as a science, made the product known and that brought in more customers, including gardeners around the country for the newest seed.



The Annual Seed Catalog Still Arrives in the Mail

With the Internet you’d think there would be no printed seed catalog, but they still come in the mail, as they have for almost 200 years.

Though there are fewer catalogs, they remain important in choosing seeds for the garden. Gardeners still look forward to them.

Barbara Melera, owner of the oldest continuing seed company in the United Sates, the Landreth Seed Company, begun in 1784, said, “Most people who buy seeds get seed catalogs and make lists. Then they go online for the seeds.”


The D. Landreth Seed Company’s current catalog, 2013

She says, “Our catalog is unique. It is an historic reference.” The imagery and design reflect the old time seed catalog of the nineteenth century. The current Landreth catalog here lists 900 seed varieties within its 102 pages. [above]

The seed catalog has long served the gardener as an indispensable resource.

When David Landreth began his company, he simply listed the seeds for sale. Thus the catalog, a marketing tool used by other businesses as well, became a few pages of the names of flowers and vegetables, often called a circular. But that soon changed.

Early nineteenth century immigrants to American came from European cities with no experience in gardening or farming. In 1847 Landreth’s son John issued a new kind of catalog with 60 to 70 pages, including instructions on how to plant and grow the seeds he sold. Landreth taught his customers about planting, including what needed to be done in the garden each month during the growing season.

By 1859 he printed 600,000 catalogs. The train and pony express delivered them across the country. Since only three million people lived in America at that time, the Landreth catalog probably appeared in every house in the US till the 1860s when the population exploded. Landreth taught his customers how to live off the land.

That form of the catalog for the seed industry, a list of seeds with growing instructions, has remained the format for the garden catalog to this day.

Unfortunately this year, because her catalog costs so much to mail, Melera has decided not to publish a new catalog. She said, “I’m devastated there is no catalog.” She will keep the price for any seeds the same as listed in last year’s catalog. In the future she hopes to issue a two or three-year catalog. A Landreth catalog will continue to arrive in the mail, but it won’t be a new edition each year.

Since the Internet has become the new sales tool for seed companies, Melera prefers customers to buy online. She says, “That’s easier for both sides.”

Though the Landreth Company provides an active presence on Facebook, Melera says, “Catalogs are much more important than Facebook and the Internet.” She says, “Photographs are essential. People want to see what the plant looks like.”

Though today there are fewer seed catalogs, they still arrive in the mail at this time of the year. Gardeners like to page through them to see the flowers and vegetables. Then they decide what varieties to buy. That’s not much different from how American gardeners have shopped for seeds for decades.


Victorian America Introduced a Three-Dimensional Garden Style

Gardening is all about fashion and style. What is current is valuable just because it’s of the moment and in style.

Brent Elliott’s book Victorian Gardens presents the evolution of carpet bedding in the Victorian era.Elliott Victorian Gardens cover

He discusses the role of carpet bedding, or arranging plants according to a certain intricate design right on the lawn. Then he notes that America took that form of gardening to new heights. Gardeners in America were using three-dimensional wire shapes and covering them with plants.

He writes that by 1889 “reports came from America that three-dimensional experiments in gardening (carpet bedding in vertical form), and were greeted with pious wishes that an art so debased should never reach the  English shores.”

American gardeners had defined carpet bedding in a new way with their three dimensional structures on the lawn.

That reminds me of the art form called Mosaiculture which I first saw in Montreal a few years ago.  It was breathtaking to see how intricate the art work to create various shapes and forms out of wire and plants.

Mosaicculture  is “a refined horticultural art that involves creating and mounting living artworks made primarily from plants with colourful foliage (generally annuals, and occasionally perennials). The colorful two and three-dimensional drawings, designs, sculptures and reliefs thus created employ a wide variety of flora.”

This art form combines sculpture, painting, and, of course, horticulture.

Here is an example of it [below]:


[from the Mosaicutures websie: XXX]

[Courtesy of Mosaicultures]

You can see the detail in the design and the careful execution of this art form. Each of the colors comes from a particular plant.

In Victorian times the fashion of carpet bedding had evolved to this level of art form, but to some that was taking carpet bedding too far, and such gardening was discouraged and even mocked.

Today of course we recognize Mosaiculture for its contribution to the world of gardening.

As we learn from Elliott’s book, garden fashion can change with the wind.