Archives for December 2015

Flowers Fascinated Victorian Women

In the nineteenth century growing flowers meant much more than a hobby, especially for women.

Victorian women grew flowers because it was the moral thing to do. Growing flowers, in fact, became itself a lesson in morality.

Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers says, “The Victorians inherited a tradition of flower morality originating from the Book of Genesis.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  often wrote that the first garden was that of Adam and Even, the Garden of Paradise. Vick saw it as his job to spread floriculture, or the love of flowers, across the country, a kind of return to the first garden.

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company, Boston

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company [Mass Hort]

Scourse writes, “The presence of weeds and other difficulties of cultivation were directly attributed to Man’s disobedience rather than any natural cause favoring weed dispersal.”

John Lindley (1799-1865), famed horticulturist and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society at age 23,  once said “The love of flowers is a holy feeling, inseparable from our very nature.”

The chromolithograph [above] from the Parker and Wood seed catalog of 1887 illustrated twenty-five varieties of flowers that gardeners could grow from the company’s seeds.  As the illustration mentioned at the bottom in the words “Painted from Nature,” it reflects the importance of flowers for the middle class Victorian gardener.

At the same time as flowers provided a lesson in morality, flowers also opened the doors of science to many, including women. People could study a flower and learn about its reproductive habits.

Flowers provided lessons in biology, giving many Victorians a first hand look at how science could enable a more learned society.

In 1844 English gardener Louisa Johnson wrote the book Every lady her own flower gardener as kind of a plea for women to discover themselves in the world of flowers. And, of course, it was not long before people began to write about ‘the language of flowers.’

And to think it all rested on the humble flower.


Victorian Vase Appeared in 1888 Lawn Mower Ad

During the late nineteenth century Victorian period in America, the vase played an important role in the garden. The container had to be large and positioned on a stand so people would be able to see it.

Its plants included tropicals such as banana or canna. People also loved such plants because they were exotic.

Recently, while paging through the Parker and Wood seed catalog of 1888, I came across an advertisement for a lawn mower. Here is the illustration in the ad.  [below]

The Parker and Wood Seed Company became the New England Agents for Blair Manufacturing in Springfield, Mass. which made lawn mowers.

Parker & Wood Catalog 1881 "Seeds and Agricultural Impletments"

Parker & Wood Catalog 1888 [Courtesy of Mass Hort]

In the vase notice the large leaves on what is probably a tropical plant.

You can’t miss them.

Of course, the military figure cutting the grass also caught my attention. Why is he wearing what appears to be some sort of military uniform?

But it is the lawn mower that the ad intended to sell. The ad detailed the features of the lawn mower: “will cut narrow borders and will perfectly cut low terraces. Runs perfectly silent; easily operated.”

This was a time when suburban homes took pride in an English lawn.  A machine to keep the lawn trim certainly found an audience among the gardeners who read this catalog.

Such advertising became national since people around the country wanted a lawn mover. In 1906 Truman A. DeWeese wrote The Principles of Practical Publicity, an early volume on the success of advertising. He said, “”The manufacturer now creates a demand for the goods through advertising.”

The ad in its own quiet way also sold Victorian values, like the showy garden vase.



Fall River’s Victorian Christmas Trees Shine

At the Fall River Historical Society in Fall River, Mass. you can see four Christmas trees decked out like you have never seen a tree decorated. Until December 30 the FRHS holds its annual holiday event called “Deck the Halls.”

Last year one of the event’s trees received a second place award for the Christmas Tree Design Competition held annually by the Holiday and Decorative Association.

"Revelry in Red and Gold" theme for this Christmas tree at the Fall River Historical Society

“Revelry in Red and Gold” theme for this Christmas tree at the Fall River Historical Society

The FRHS is located in a hilly residential section of Fall River, at the corner of Maple and Rock, in a granite Greek Revival mansion, built in 1843 for Andrew Robeson Jr., a prominent businessman. Gold lettering on the front gray exterior tells you this impressive structure now houses the Historical Society.

With the assistance of a guide I recently toured the interior of the house, which is not very large compared to the size of today’s houses. We went from room to room on the first level and then upstairs. What I remember most are, of course, the four Christmas trees, scattered around the house.

Museum Curator Michael Martins and Dennis Binette, Assistant Curator, both designed the trees, and now with the help of several volunteers who put in weeks of work, the trees shine in lights, fabrics of all sorts, shells, and ribbons. Each tree embodies a theme.

The glory of the Baroque period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inspired the 13-foot tree decorated as “Revelry in Red and Gold.”

The tree, illuminated with 6,000 white lights, emerges from a cloud of gold lame and hundreds of yards of white and gold fabric. The tree is studded with rich cut-velvet poinsettias, gilt-trimmed greens and berries, cascading berry sprays, Queen Anne’s lace in glitter and gilt, and laurel and holly sprays.

Seventy yards of gold metallic backed red velvet ribbon finish the tree. The nearby mantelpiece and portraits are also decorated.

Down the hall in another room you will find on a table an upside down 8-foot Christmas tree, with the theme “Carnival in Venice.” The annual Italian festival at Venice called Carnevale, famous for its elaborate handcrafted masks, inspired this design. Thus this tree includes a mask at its base.

Fall River society of the nineteenth century serves as the inspiration for the 9-foot tree called “Lady de Winter,” located in the dining room. The tree is decked out as the torso of a woman who belonged to the city’s elite in the late nineteenth century. The evening dress is made of leaves of a pewter fabric, steel-blue velvet poinsettias, silver leaf sprays, and pearls.

The final tree called “Greeting from Krampus” you will find in the second floor hallway. The tree’s theme hinges on the Santa Claus legend that a child who has behaved badly during the past year receives coal, not from Santa Claus, but from Krampus. So at the bottom of the 7-foot tree you can see chunks of coal, intended for that child who was anything but good.

Victorian Christmas trees truly shine in Fall River.


1890s Lawn Seed Ad Linked to Public Garden

By the 1890s modern advertising sought to motivate the buyer by an emotional appeal.

Recently I spent an afternoon examining nineteenth century seed catalogs at the library of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

A grass seed ad in a catalog from 1889 caught my attention.

The Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston used the Public Garden which borders the Boston Common as an illustration to sell its grass seed. Created in 1837, the Public Garden was the first public botanical garden in America. From the begnning decorative and flowery, it featured meandering pathways for strolling. Today its famous duck boats bring tourists to its lagoon in the summer.

Both the Public Garden and the Boston Common, begun in 1634, extend for several city blocks.  Recently I drove by at night to see their Christmas lights. Quite impressive.

an ad for grass seed in Park & Wood Catalog 1889

An ad for grass seed in this 1889 Park & Wood Catalog featured Boston’s Public Garden.

By late  nineteenth century the lawn had become an important part of the home landscape.

This advertising told the reader that if the grass seed was good enough for Boston’s Public Garden, it certainly would be fine in your home landscape as well.

An appeal in this case to sell something by associating it with something or someone that people treasure is what we still do today in marketing, advertising, and public relations.

By the late nineteenth century advertising meant not simply giving information about a product, but motivating a buyer to choose a particular product.  In this ad the Company referred to its particular variety of grass seed  called ‘Boston Lawn Seed.’  You can see the product name in the lower right corner of the ad. [above]

Connecting the grass seed with this established public green space was an example of that kind of modern advertising.

By linking the lawn seed to the Public Garden, for people across the country this nineteenth century ad also sold the importance of the lawn in the landscape.



Boston Gave America Its First Park Cemetery

Recently a visitor to Boston asked me whether he should visit the Arnold Arboretum or Mount Auburn Cemetery.

I recommended the Arnold Arboretum.

That does mean that Mount Auburn is not worthy of a visit, because it is.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is, after all, America’s earliest park cemetery, built in 1831. The  Massachusetts Horticultural Society which sought to express its interest in horticulture and landscape gardening gave its support early on to this new rural cemetery.

In 1804 the French had already built such a cemetery which they called Pere Lachaise.  The book Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America by landscape historian Walter Punch says, “The British and Americans quickly followed suit with new ‘rural cemeteries,’ landscaped burial grounds around London, Liverpool, and Boston.”

[courtesy photo]

The entrance to Mount Auburn Cemetery [courtesy photo]

In 1881 Boston gentleman farmer Marshall Wilder (1798-1886) wrote a  book called The Horticulture of Boston and Vicinity. He said, “It was intended by the founders of the Gardens and Cemetery at Mount Auburn that these grounds should ultimately offer an example of the best style of landscape or picturesque gardening.”

The picturesque garden style, originating in the eighteenth century, represented the style of the English park.

To this day people flock to Mount Auburn to see an early American example of the English park.

As you walk the hilly grounds of the cemetery, you follow curved pathways. Along the way you see many shrubs and trees that have been well placed and maintained over the years.

The giant beech tree that greets you as you enter the cemetery is itself a symbol of the grandeur of this cemetery park.

Over the years Mount Auburn Cemetery has truly become a gift to the people of Boston and the world.

Thus this park cemetery is something to share with all visitors to Boston.


Combine Natural and Formal Garden Design

We learned by the late Victorian period in America that you can combine both the formal and the natural garden design.

Eighteenth century England initiated the natural or picturesque view of the landscape, with its  extensive lawn, curved walks, groups of shrubs, and carefully placed trees.

English landscape designer Edward Kemp (1817-1891) in his book of 1850 called  How to Lay out a Small Garden believed that the natural view, or the old landscape garden view, should also include straight lines and symmetrical patterns where needed.  He opted for a blending of the two design styles  at a time when flower beds on the lawn became popular, creating the Victorian garden design.

America’s gardens reflected the change.

The Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1866 wrote: “Even in England, the garden of the world, and particularly the parent of the ‘natural style’, this system of landscape gardening is falling into discredit..  Artificial work is now very popular in gardens; and the new gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society are almost as artificially arranged as the Dutch gardens of old.”

America also launched into a period of carpet bedding and ribbon design on the lawn, where plants were arranged by size and color and kept trimmed to a desired height.

Today in Woodstock, Connecticut you can see a nineteenth century garden, called Roseland Cottage, designed with both a formality about it and with a trace of the picturesque style. [left] The north  lawn, which was once used for croquet, extends behind the house.

Nineteenth century English and American garden writers and designers debated the question for decades.  At the end of the century there was a clear return to formality, both in England and America.

sarah - her story BOOKWife of New Hampshire’s Civil War Governor Sarah Goodwin (1805-1896) found great pleasure in her Portsmouth garden. In her book about Sarah called Sarah: Her Story author Margaret Whyte Kelly writes, “”Most people were somewhat influenced by naturalism, but only those with a great deal of money and property followed all its precepts.”

Americans responded to naturalism in landscape design, but more formality also crept in especially by the later part of the nineteenth century.

Victorian America taught us to combine both the formal and the natural garden design.


Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sold Vases

The garden vase played an important role in the late nineteenth century Victorian garden.

Nurseries and seed companies, like Rochester’s James Vick, sold such garden ornaments along with their plants and seeds.  Illustrations of the garden vase appeared among the ads in the back of the catalog

Sometimes the same manufacturer supplied seed companies and nurseries with its products, including such vases.

An advertisement in Vick's Floral Guide 1880

An advertisement in Vick’s Floral Guide 1880

Therese O’Malley writes in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design, “The term vase typically referred to a free-standing, symmetrical vessel having a wider mouth than foot…In the context of the designed landscape, treatise writers often strongly recommended that the vase be placed on top of a pedestal or plinth so that it would be easily visible.”

Vick’s catalog of 1880 called Vick’s Floral Guide included an advertisement for an outdoor garden vase. [above]. The vase dimensions were 18″ in diameter with 25″ in height.

The vase resembles O’Malley’s description of such an ornament for the nineteenth century garden.

The ad from Vick’s catalog referred to the vase as a “Highland Garden Stone Vase.”  The manufacturer, as listed in Vick’s ad, was Joseph Willett from Boston.

The Parker and Wood Seed Company, also in Boston, included a similar ad in its catalog of 1886. [below] The words at the top of the ad read “Highland Stone Vases”.

Notice the “No. 16” vase  at the top left is identical to Vick’s vase in his ad, where it is also referred to as “No 16.” The vase number was probably the manufacturer Willett’s number.

Back cover of W&V, circa 1880

Back cover of the Parker and Wood Seed Company catalog of 1886

The Parker and Wood Company ad did not mention the Willett Company as the manufacturer.  However, it included the recommendation of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association at the top of the ad with the words “Commended for smoothness of finish and uniformity of color.”

Each of these two seed companies sold the same urn, at the same price,  to help gardeners keep up with the garden fashion of the time, a garden vase on the lawn.


Victorian Conservatories Appeared Everywhere

The Victorian conservatory became an extension of the house.

Such greenhouses served an important role in the life and work of the nineteenth century gardener.

As glass became cheaper, the middle class could afford to have a conservatory or greenhouse.

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers,”In 1833 new methods of glass manufacture completely changed greenhouse design and efficiency.”

English horticulturist Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, had first built the greenhouse for his employer, the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.

Paxton, the most famous gardener in England at that time, became as well the country’s expert on such structures of glass.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Attached conservatory in Parker and Wood Seed Catalog of 1892 [Mass Hort]

In 1892 the Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston issued a seed catalog with a black and white drawing of a house that included two men and two women playing badminton on the front lawn. (above)

Notice the large conservatory attached to the house at the left. The conservatory provided a setting for tropical plants that the owner could cultivate and perhaps during the warm months position outdoors so the plant could enjoy the season’s warmth and rain.

Such conservatories served American gardeners well during the nineteenth century, particularly when the owners were wealthy or upper middle class.

The difference between the greenhouse and the conservatory is that in the former you plant trees in containers to take outside in the better weather. In the conservatory, according to Bernard McMahon’s American Gardener (1806)  “trees or plants taken out of their tubs or pots are regularly planted in the same manner as hardy plants in the open air.” In the conservatory you planted the trees in one of the beds provided in its design.

The Victorian conservatory, attached to the house, appeared both in England and America, assuring hours of gardening pleasure to its owner.


Victorian Gardens Required Coleus

You already know that the leaves of the coleus give color and form to any bed or container. 

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century.

Victorian gardens, both in England and America, required the coleus.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly said in 1861: “Coleus Blumei mixed or edged with Perilla Nankinensis will make a fine bed, the latter if used for edging should be frequently stopped or pegged down, and not allowed to bloom.”

Burpee catalog of 1893

A chromolithograph of the coleus from the Burpee Seed Company catalog of 1893

Eventually more mention of the coleus and its varieties appeared in the garden catalogs.

The James Vick Seed Company catalog of the 1870s does not list the coleus among the plant offerings, but in the company magazine of 1887, after the elder Vick’s death, a column appears about how to propagate the coleus. The writer said, “My practice is to grow fine healthy plants this summer, and in August or September, before frost, take cuttings for my winter stock.”

The Dingee and Conard catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

Leopold writes that the two major gardening sites, beds and borders, helped define the color and shape of Victorian gardens.

The coleus played no small role among the plant choices to fill that bed or border both in English and American gardens.