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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Two Typical Victorian Flowers

Everyone can easily list two important Victorian flowers.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor hesitates not one moment and presents his two typical Victorian flowers.

He writes, “The hollyhock and the scarlet geranium are what one thinks of as typical Victorian flowers.”

Taylor then explains why he includes the hollyhock. He says, “The hollyhock almost qualifies as a true florists’ flower.”

He gives the history of the hollyhock which I did not know. It seems that a shoemaker from Saffron Walden named Charles Baron introduced it to England from the Grand Orient in the sixteenth century.

Another choice

I guess we are all entitled to an opinion here.

My first choice for the most important Victorian flower would have to be the dahlia. The dahlia is both big and showy. Those are qualities one thinks of when you think of the Victorian era, especilly the 1890s.

This 1888 catalog cover from the John Lewis Childs Seed Company in New York says it all. [below]

Childs catalog cover of 1888 bursts in dahlias.

I could live with the geranium as the other top choice for that period of the nineteenth century. Everyone grew geraniums.

What are your top two Victorian flowers?

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More Nurseries Accompanied 19th Century Suburban Expanse

It is no surprise that seed companies and nurseries grew after 1870 when suburbs spread around the perimeters of large cities.

Patrice M. Tice in her book Gardening in America 1830-1910 wrote that the number of men employed as seedsmen, nurserymen, and gardeners increased 275% between 1870 and 1930.

The seed companies and nurseries provided the homeowner with every garden and landscape need in the new suburb.  The companies  presented some products unfamiliar to the homeowner but, in the ads from the companies, essential.

In 1894 the C. P. Lines and E. F. Coe Seed Company from  New Haven, Conn. wrote in its catalog called Attractive Home Grounds: “From the most restricted city lot to the more liberal setting of the suburban home and country estate, the possibilities of completing the effect by the judicious manipulation of nature’s furnishings—her grass, shrubs, trees, with their varying tints and shades of every imaginable color and form—give possibilities that should not be neglected by any one.”

This 1887 Lovett’s catalog had everything the suburban gardener would need.

Lovett’s from New Jersey said that its  catalogue was “indispensable to all owners of country and suburban homes, whether it be a mere village lot, or the extensive grounds of the rich man’s country seat.”

The green industry grows with a strong housing market.

As suburbs spread around the country, seed companies and nurseries emerged to provide the homeowner with seeds and plants, but also instruction on how to design the home property.

The English garden, with its signature lawn, often provided the model for that instruction.

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Coleus Varieties Still Abound

The battle between perennial advocates and those who loved to plant annuals stretched into the twentieth century both in England and America.

In 1905 Helena Rutherford Ely wrote in her book Another Hardy Garden Book, “Would that the Coleus might vanish from the land.”

Annuals, like the coleus, had been a major part of the garden since the 1850s.

So annuals were not going to go away without a fight. Even today that is the case. There are more beautiful coleus on the market than ever.

In its catalog of 1895 the seed company W. R. Shelmire from Avondale, Chester Co., Pa. boasted that the company offered seventy-five or more varieties of coleus.

In a speech to an international horticultural group In 1892 in Ontario the Cornell botanist and writer L. H. Bailey cautioned about the drive to increase newer varieties of plants. He questioned their relevance.

Bailey said, “There are more varieties of all plants in cultivation now than at any previous time.”

Then he said, “The question which you all desire to ask me is whether all this increase represents progress. Many poor varieties have been introduced.”

In other words, how many coleus do we need?

Rosy Dawn Gardens, a coleus growing specialist, says today there are hundreds of varieties of coleus, many of them on the market.

I personally like the coleus and always include it in my garden.

Here is a container of coleus on my deck this summer. [below] Loved the lime, yellow, and green combination from the first moment I saw this plant at a local Home Depot. It’s name is ‘Main Street River Walk’.

Coleus ‘Main Street River Walk’ on my deck right now.

So what can we make of the situation?

Proven Winners, a major grower of annuals, shrubs and perennials, offers twenty-eight varieties of coleus on its website.

Breeders continue to offer newer varieties and we choose the ones that work for us.

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Victorian Seed Company Believed in Advertising

Victorian seed company believed in advertising

Recently from the New York Botanical Garden’s Mertz Digital Nursery and Seed Catalog site I learned a bit about the relationship between seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) and J. Walter Thompson, the great American advertiser at the turn of the twentieth century.

Here is what the article said about Vick and Thompson,

 “James Vick of Rochester, NY spent about $100,000 a year, an enormous sum of money in those times, in advertising, all with the J. Walter Thompson agency.  When Vick died (1882) the management of the business was taken over by his son James Vick, Jr. 

” Vick promptly told Thompson that he had all the business he could expect to get and decided to quit advertising and add $100,000 a year to his profit.  Thompson cautioned Vick by saying ‘Vick you are crazy; it will only be a question of time until you are bankrupt.’

  “Soon thereafter the Vick family’s diminished finances forced Vick’s daughter to become a governess for one of his Pittsburgh clients.”

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J. Walter Thompson, important advertising executive in late ninetheenth century America. [Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

I thought what a sad story this is turning out to be.

Here is an early Vick catalog from the same site [below]:

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Vick seed catalog from 1876.[Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

The Mertz commentary concludes with these words, “Thompson’s story may have been more a case of resentment about losing the Vick account than an unbiased evaluation of the Vick’s business prospects. The James Vick and Sons nursery business continued operations until the 1930’s when it was sold to Burpee. “

That Vick spent a great deal of money on advertising probably contributed to his popularity in the late ninteenth century. His reputation as an honest peddler of seeds spread across the country.

It was, I believe, his sincere interest in his customer that sealed the deal and made the company a success.

He wrote “I have labored to teach the people to love and cultivate flowers, for it is one of the few pleasures thst improves alike the mind and the heart, and makes every true lover of these beautiful creations of Infinite Love wiser and purer and nobler.”

There is no dubt that advertising for the James Vick Company could have first introduced a potential customer to Vick and his seeds.

It was, however, his warm relationship with his customers, mainly in his writing, that kept them coming back for more seeds.

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Commercial Grower Prefers Cuttings for New Plants

Commercial grower prefers cuttings for new plants

Recently I visited Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire, a major grower for the plant brand known as Proven Winners.

What amazed me is each year from December to March the amount of small plants, called liners, that Pleasant View grows from vegetative cuttings.

The liners or small plants are then shipped out to garden centers that repot them and grow them til the spring for sale at the nursery.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) advised the use of cuttings for new plants in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick proposed the use of a bell glass for small pots, each holding a number of cuttings. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

The glass jar of course controlled light, moisture and temperature for the young plants as they grew.

Pleasant View devotes 700,000 square feet to the many trays of plants in special greenhouses which afford ample control of heat, light, and moisure.

In this way Pleasant View grows millions of young plants to ship out in the spring to garden centers and nurseries, mostly on the east coast.

Here is a photo I took of trays of cells, each of which contains a small plant. Notice how many plants there are in just this small space in one greenhouse. [below]

Small plants in cells, inside a tray, await shipment to a garden center near you.

Vick understood the science of this process of growing plants through vegetative cuttings.

In 1879 he wrote, “The florist and the nurseryman construct propagating houses, with beds heated by pipes with hot water flowing through them, to keep up a steady heat to encourage the production of roots in advance of the growth of the stem.”

Vick knew the importance of vegetative cuttings to reproduce certain plants like many annuals.

Today, Pleasant View does ninety percent of its propagation for Proven Winners with vegetative cuttings which, in this case, are flown in from Central America.

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We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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