Nineteenth Century Commercial Botanical Artist: Dellon Marcus Dewey

To sell seeds and plants in the nineteenth century the garden industry had to rely on botanical art to persaude a customer.

The commercial botanical artist like Dellon Marcus Dewey (1819-1889) provided colorful illustrations for the plant sales person.

When the customer saw the image of beautiful flowers or shrubs in the plant peddler’s book of illustrations, it was just a matter of time before he (or possibly she) decided to purchase.

Nineteenth Century Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York had received the name ‘Flower City’ in the mid nineteenth century because of its number of garden companies that sold seeds and plants.

The botanical artist played a key role in selling them.

Rochester’s D. M. Dewey was one such artist.

Historian and librarian Karl Kabelac wrote an article for the University of Rochester Library Bulletin called “Nineteeth Century Rochester Fruit and Flower Plates.”

Kabelac writes “His [Dewey’s] premises in the Reynolds Arcade [in downtown Rochester] were spacious and convenient.

“Here not less than thirty artists and others are employed in making drawings, paintings, etchings, photographs, etc.

“And in reproducing the same either for the trade regularly, or to fill special orders from Nurserymen or Horticultural Societies.”

Dewey had already painted 275 plates by 1859, when he began his own business.

Twenty years later he offered over 2300 plates including this pear. [below]

Dewey plate 1860. Courtesy of U of Rochester

Dewey’s Book

In 1872 Dewey published a book of his botanical art work with the title: The Nurseryman’s Pocket Specimen Book, Colored from Nature. Fruits, Flowers, Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Roses, etc.

Cultural historian Charles Van Ravenswaay in his book about the art work of Joseph Prestele Drawn from Nature praised Dewey.

Van Ravenswaay wrote, “Dewey used several different techniques, including his distinctive hand-painted work, to produce a popular art of more than average quality.

“This tireless man with his fertile, inventive mind, exploited to its full potential the nurseryman’s plate business and dominated it throughout its best years.”

Dewey proved to be an extraordinary artist who helped people see the potential of improving the home landscape with just the right plant.

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Update on the Book

Publishing a book during a pandemic has several unique differences from earlier times.

One is that everyone in the publisher’s office is probably working from home.

Another is that it seems to take longer for decisions to be made.

That appears to be the case with my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth-Century Seed Company.

I want to give you an update on the book.

Ohio University Press, 2001

The publisher just informed me that the publication date has now changed to the end of April.

The original publication date was late September, then January, and now April.

But what can I do?

I am writing about it here because the publication of this book is an important event for me, following several years of research and writing.

Talks on the Book

I plan to give a few talks about the book.

Today is the first such talk to the Garden Club of Harvard in Harvard, Massachusetts. Of course I will use Zoom. After several weeks writing, editing, and choosing the right image, my slides ‘are ready for their close-up’, i.e. for Screen Share.

I have also been offered some other opportunities to speak about the book on Zoom during the coming year.

Book Launch

I will probably have the launch of the book on Zoom as well.

The format is still undecided but there will be a host for the event. Not sure if a bookstore or another venue will sponsor it.

Editing

Meanwhile I continue to edit the manuscript. The publisher sends me chapters in an email, I edit them, and return them via email. Pretty efficient.

Do keep tuned.

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Marigolds Remain the Same after Decades

We like to plant new varieties of old favorites.

Some old favorites however remain pretty much the same year after year.

In her book Popular Annuals of Eastern North America 1865-1914 garden historian Peggy Cornett Newcomb writes that after a long time as a garden favorite the look of the marigold has not changed.

She says, “Comparison of descriptions and photographs of marigolds at the turn of the century and now shows that their appearance then was virtually indistinquisable from today.”

What’s in a name?

The features of the ‘marigold’ are its orange/yellow color and daisy-like appearance.

The Encyclopedia of Gardening says that the name marigold is applied to several different kinds of plants.

It includes the genus called calendula or pot marigold as well as the genus called Tagetes which we know by the names African or French marigold.

The popular annual calendula is a beautiful flower for the summer garden. [below]

Calendula [courtesy Burpee Seeds]

Victorian Gardens

Rochester, NY seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  in his seed catalog of 1880 wrote this about the calendula: “The Calendula is the fine old and well known Marigold family, which every one knows, but may not recognize by this name.”

Vick made reference also to the same flower. He said “The old Pot Marigold [or Calendula] much favored for boiled mutton, is C. officinalis.”

On the herbal site called Sunkist Herbal, we read its role in Victorian society: “The calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a hardy annual with single or double daisy-like blooms of yellow or orange.

“The 3- to 4-inch flowers open with the sun and close at night, leading the Victorians to believe they could set a clock by the flower.

“The name ‘calendula’ is from the same Latin word as ‘calendar,’ presumably because the flower was in bloom almost every month of the year.”

In 1880 Vick wrote in the October issue of his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Every one knows the old yellow Marigold, for it is common as the Sunflower, and has been as long as we can remember. It is called in the books Calendula, but that makes no difference, for it is the same old Marigold that many of us have grown for half a century. That name was given because it was thought some species were in flower every month of the calendar.”

He concluded, “The Calendula will probably never take rank with the best annuals, but we are glad to see it make a bold start for the front after so long a stay in the rear. If its improvement should continue, there is no telling the future of this good old flower.”

Vick sold seeds for calendula and other marigolds like African and French marigolds as well.

New Seed Catalog

Yesterday I received the enormous annual seed catalog from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

The catalog has its name on the front cover: The Whole Seed Catalog 2021.

It measures 9″ by 11″ with its total pages numbering almost 500. Yes, it is quite large.

In the ‘Flower’ division there is a section for the marigold.

The catalog says, “Marigolds [Tagetes]. Cheerful flowers native to Central and South America, marigolds are strikingly beautiful and amazingly easy to grow.”

So though the marigold may go by different names, its look has remained the same for a long time. And we continue to grow it.

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The Dahlia – in and out of Fashion

You might think that a flower as beautiful as the dahlia has been a garden treasure since explorers first brought it from its home in Mexico to Europe and later to the U.S.

Not true.

The dahlia has had a long history of being in and out of fashion.

When first introduced into England in the early nineteenth century, there was an uproar over this plant.

John Claudius Loudon, Editor of The Gardener’s Magazine, recognized it as a current fashion in the garden.

He wrote, “At almost every nursery several hundred sorts may be procured; but as new sorts are continually coming into fashion, and the old sorts becoming neglected, it would be of little use presenting a list of varieties.”  

Loudon was amazed at the variety in the dahlia’s form and color.

There was even a period of dahlia mania before 1850 both in England and in America.

Then dahlias receeded in popularity.

The dahlia almost became the new hollyhock: perhaps pretty but not in my garden.

Recent Article on the Dahlia

Last week Alan Titchmarsh wrote an online article in Country Life about the dahlia.

The title of the article says it all: “How the dahlia shrugged off its ‘too common to plant’ tag – and thank goodness it did.”

He says, ” It was Country Life’s regular contributor Christopher Lloyd who was instrumental in restoring their respectability, although he would have scoffed at the use of such a word, as snobbery was as alien to Christo as silence and circumspection are to the current President of the US.”

In his own gardening and subsequent writing Lloyd put the dahlia back in the garden.

He particularly liked the wonderful dahlia called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ which just happens to be my favorite.

Here it is in all its glory:

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ [Courtesy of White Flower Farm]

Who would have thought that the beautiful dahlia would have had such a rocky road in garden fashion?

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Public relations and the late nineteenth century garden industry

In the late nineteenth century the practice of public relations emerged though it was not called by that name.

AT&T created a monopoly for its telephone.

The one company owned all the other phone companies scattered around the country.

In its public relations effort AT&T convinced the government that the best way to serve the public was with a monoply.

It worked. For decades that is how AT&T operated.

Karen Russell tells the story in her new book Promoting Monopoly: AT&T and the Politics of Public Relations, 1876-1941.

She writes, “Many people were working to develop communication strategies and tactics long before there was a formal vocation of publicity or public relations.”

The words ‘publicity’ and ‘public opinion’ became important for AT&T.

Taking the pulse of public opinion became essential for the company.

Even the use of advertising, buying space in a paper or magazine, to tell the company’s story, became a form of public relations by AT&T.

By the end of the nineteenth century words like publicity, public opinion and communication strategies were used in AT&T’s company documents and press releases.

The goal was to maintain public support.

Garden Industry

Certainly by the end of the nineteenth century the garden industry too had to confront the same tasks in its dealing with the public.

The consumer was simply not going to accept a seed packet, a plant, fertilizer, or a garden tool without seeing evidence of how well they performed.

The company needed to be trusted for a gardener to make a purchase

No longer could a company spokesperson say or write anything to sell a product.

This truly was the begnning of public relations as a company’s responsibility.

Russell mentions how the American Newspaper Publishers Association in the late 1880s sought to change certain practices of newspapers. It was then that some editors wrote glowingly about a company because that same company bought advertising space in their papers.

We were beginning to see the rise of a serious look at how a garden-related company goes about promoting its product by creating an image of a company that understood and supported the gardener.

Since the late nineteenth century garden related companies were relatively small, compared to AT&T, nonetheless we recognize their effort to create communication strategies and tactics that fostered good will between the customer and the company. We now know such a company was ahead of most other businesses.

A strategy that took hold in the lat 1890s was an increase in paid advertising.

It was no coincidence that Philadelphia seedsman W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915)  once said, “No business can succeed without advertising.” He wrote his own advertising copy, which sold both seeds and garden fashion.

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

The trade journal Printers Ink wrote about Burpee in its June 17, 1915 issue in these words: “Starting with a modest business in 1876, the House of Burpee has grown into the greatest mail order seed house in the world. Like many other Philadelphia enterprises this establishment is of international importance. Mr. Burpee will tell you that he has built up this great business by advertising, and to a great extent that is so, but back of it all has been the integrity and the enthusiasm of the founder of the House of Burpee.”

The public had trust in Burpee. Promoting strong public opinion in his favor became crucial for him and his seed business.

Burpee provides an example of successful public relations practice in the late nineteenth century garden industry.

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Plants as Commodity

It wasn’t always the case that a plant had a certain dollar value.

Sometimes people planted what was available, what they loved, or what they could find.

There was no question about the cost of the plant.

Just because a plant is now for sale, however, does not mean it is worth growing.

Commercial Plant Business

In 1990 Julie S. Higginbotham wrote the article “Four Centuries of Planting and Progress” for the trade journal American Nurseryman.

She said, “America’s commercial nursery trade was born on Long Island, where the first major nursery was founded in 1737.”

Nursery Trade

Of course, the search for new plants to sell in the nursery began around that time as well.

Thank God we don’t have too many periods of tulip mania or dahlia mania as we did in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries respectively. There gardeners/investors lost fortunes in pursuit of the ‘must have’ plant.

One thing we do know about buying plants.

Noel Kingsbury says it so well in his book Hybrid: “New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

There is ample evidence from the lists of top selling plants for growers like Proven Winners.

Each year the same plants seem to make the list.

Maybe Kingsbury is on to something here.

Why is it that every year people buy plants like verbenas, geraniums, petunias, and begonias in such numbers?

It could be that gardeners know them and trust they will do fine in the garden.

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Women Gardeners in Late 19th Century

You might easily associate the flower garden with the work of women.

After all, isn’t that how people thought about flowers in the garden?

Is it still true that men take care of the lawn and the vegetable patch and leave the flowers to women?

That’s an example of how gender has been linked to certain forms of gardening for centuries.

I found a pattern of the portrayal of women in garden advertising when I looked at dozens of seed catalogs from the late nineteenth century.

Women were alwayts dressed neatly, representing the upper middle class, the audience for the catalog.

In this catalog cover froim Peter Henderson in 1892 notice how prim and proper the woman presents herself. [below] She is cutting daffodils for tea or lunch, but certainly not working in the garden.

Henderson 1892 Catalog Cover

In fact, I did not see any women in the catalog illustrations actually working in the garden though I often saw them in the garden.

They may have been interested but did not, or perhaps could not, work in the garden.

Caroline Ikin wrote the book The Victorian Garden.

She writes, “The role of women in the garden was changing during the late Victorian era.”

We know that working class women gardened in the mid to late nineteenth century. They formed the major customer base for seed company owners like James Vick (1818-1882)

Vick wrote in 1878, “It is but a few years since woman was permitted to grace the festive board of agricultural and horticultural exhibitions. Now no occasion of this kind is deemed complete without her presence.”

Garden Club Movement

It was in the early 1900s that the Garden Club movement began in the United States. It was a formal way of recognizing woman’s role in the garden as designer and, if needed, both as planter and as weeder.

Then several books for women gardeners appeared on the market.

Women could not only enjoy looking at the garden, but could now more freely work in the garden, learn about botany, and even try landscape design.

Ikin writes, “With more middle-class women turning to gardening as a pastime and a means of self-improvement, a market was created for gardening books aimed specifically at women, as well as for tools and gadgets designed for female use.”

By the early 1900s the Garden Club movement here in the United States became the source of empowering women to garden, encourage native plants, and advocate for landscape design.

The late Victorian culture recognized women as gardeners.

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Two Ways to Reproduce a Plant

Annuals play an important role in the summer garden.

How do so many annuals make it to your garden center in the spring?

The major methods to reproduce a plant are through a seed or a cutting.

The new plants you see at the garden center probably came there as a cutting.

This is how it works.

A cutting is planted in a small container of soil or medium. Growers call that small container a plug.

Richard Craig, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote the article “Creating a More Beautiful World: A Century of Progress in the Breeding of Floral and Nursery Plants.”

The article appeared in the scientific journal HortScience.

Craig recognizes the importance of the plug in the business of propagation.

He says, “I believe that the development of plug-culture technology was one of the most important developments of the century.”

Pleasant View Garden

Pleasant View Garden in Loudon, New Hampshire grows thousands of plants each year for Proven Winners.

Not too long ago I wrote a post here in which I mentioned Pleasant View uses cuttings extensively for its annuals.

The cutting as a plug is then sold to garden centers.

Here is a greenhouse at Pleasant View Garden with hundreds of plugs waiting to find a home in some garden center or nursery. There they will be potted and cared for in hopes in the spring customers will buy them.

Pleasant View Garden, Loudon, New Hampshire.

Stephen Harris in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900 also recognizes the importance of cuttings for the garden industry.

He writes, “Traditionally, gardeners have two basic approaches to multiplying the number of a plant: sexual propagation using seed or clonal propagation using some form of cutting.”

It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that through new grower technology cuttings for plugs became the major form of propagation for the garden industry.

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Archives Open A Window on American Gardening

I just finished reading a wonderful new book on the history of the American garden.

The book, Everything for the Garden, is not thick but is filled with many engrossing photos and illustrations.

The book is based on the collection of garden books, catalogues, and related ephemera in Historic New England’s Library and Archives.  The time frame is the nineteenth into the early twentieth century.

Five excellent essays by prominent garden historians, writers, archivists, and designers make up the volume.

Garden historian Judith Tankard writes about our long dependence on the written word, especially garden books.

She says, “Even though today’s information is readily available on the Internet, the old-fashioned pleasures of thumbing through catalogues and how-to-publications still exist.” There is something that still attracts us to the printed word in the form of a garden book or garden magazine. We want to hold it in our hands.

Late nineteenth century catalogues from seed companies included vegetables depicted as humans in an effort to sell their seeds.  That whimsical artwork is still fun to see.

Garden Statues

Any history of the garden must of course include statuary.  Here archivist Richard Nylander reminds the reader how different the gardener’s choice of such statuary can be, depending on the decade. He highlights three such garden ornaments.

The first garden accessory he mentions is the sculpture Bird Girl (1936) which also appeared on the cover of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 I found his second statue, that of St. Francis, one that I had never thought of but certainly one that I have seen in many gardens. Francis, after all, is now the patron saint of ecology with his love of animals and nature.

 Finally, he reminds the reader of the ever-popular, ever-repulsive, Pink Flamingo craze from the 1950s. What fun.

Garden Fashion

 The idea that the garden is subject to fashion and style appears over and over in the book as the writers discuss the time and place of a particular form of the American garden. For example, the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century stimulated interest in old-fashioned flowers and gardens. It was an interpretation of what people thought the Colonial garden might have looked like.

Alan Emmet includes many images of period gardens like Hunnewell’s in Wellesley, Mass. and Celia Thaxter’s off the coast of New Hampshire.  He admits the difficulty in preserving a garden. Emmet writes, “A garden is probably the most fragile, the most perishable form of art.”

The final essay by Virginia Lopez Begg presents an overview of the Garden Club movement in America.  She spells out the importance of the movement for women. The movement also changed our views of horticulture and landscape design.

The book ends with a listing on the inside of the back cover of some of the many properties, with their fabulous gardens, that Historic New England manages.  Now, as spring approaches, we need to visit these gardens and enjoy them once again in person.

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New Book Cover Arrived

Last week turned out to be extra special for me.

On Monday Ohio Unversity Press sent me the cover for my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth Century Seed Company.

James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York, owned one of the largest seed companies in the country.

The book tells Vick’s story, especially his passion to teach people about flowers.

Here is the cover:

The colors jump out at you and ask you to sit down and read Vick’s Victorian-era story..

I am quite happy with the Victorian look and feel of the design. Vick’s seed catalog from 1874 is the back ground, now colored in that brilliant blue.

Don’t expect to see the book until mid to late Fall.

What do you think of the cover?

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