Victorian Flower Fascination Continues

Victorian flower fascination continues.

Victorians loved their flowers. The showier, the brighter, the better.

So argues Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers.

The basis of that devotion to flowers stems from the view that flowers express a link to the Creator.

Scourse writes, “It had been an accepted  fact ‘that the most highly adorned productions of Flora’s kingdom were called into existence’ only at the appearance of man and his intellect capable of contemplating floral beauty.”

Now that we have begun our summer adventure in the garden which, of course, includes cultivating flowers, whether perennial or annual, you see how important a role flowers play in the garden.

Victorian Flowers

Victorian Flowers from the Burpee Seed Catalog of 1887

We love our flowers today as much as the Victorians.

Scourse writes, “In some aspects we still view flowers and nature in very much the same way as the Victorians: we thrill at the exotic, the macabre and the concept of wilderness (still in the comfort of an armchair, albeit via a different medium). Sentimental renderings of rustic cottage gardens, ‘laughing streams, and flower-bedecked fields,’ harvest mice and pastel-tinted, honeysuckle hedgerows still abound, together with nostalgia for a pre-Industrial lifestyle.”

Right now garden centers and nurseries abound in colorful selections of flowers, eager to go home with us.

Flowers still impact your eyes, your nose, and even your touch.

The Victorian fascination with flowers continues.












Victorian Flowers Decorate Forever Stamps

Victorian flowers decorate forever stamps.

Recently I bought first class stamps at our local post office, something I have done many times.

This batch of stamps however surprised me. Victorian flowers decorated each stamp in the packet I received.

Each stamp looked like a work of art. That’s what they were: botanical art from the late nineteenth century.

The U.S. Post Office used chromolithographs of flowers from the seed and nursery catalogs from the 1880s into the twentieth century for these new stamps, just issued in January.

stamps 2016

Depicted on the stamps, top row from left:corn lilies, tulips, stocks, roses and petunias. Pictured bottom row from left: tulips, dahlias, japanese Iris, tulips and daffodils and jonquils. [Courtesy of the US Postal Service]

The late nineteenth century was a time when many businesses used chromolithographs to promote their products in ads, catalog covers, trade cards, and posters. The garden industry was no different, including in the catalog brightly colored chromos, as they were called, depicting their flowers. Often the artist responsible for these images was never named.

The images on these stamps come from the seed and nursery catalog collection at the New York Botanical Garden, one of the largest such archives in the country.

Botanical art on stams 2016

An example of the botanical art on new first class stamps, issued in January 2016.

No surprise that I have been using the stamps for the past few weeks.

These stamps provide a lesson in garden history by focusing on the botanical art used to sell flowers in Victorian America.

We now have them thanks to the U.S. Post Office.

U.S. Post Office

U.S. Post Office











Victorian Garden Ads Seldom Depicted Women Working

Victorian garden ads seldom depicted women working.

Recently I received this photo in a press kit to promote a new garden tool. Notice the woman here is raking in the garden while her son observes his mother’s work. [below]

[Courtesy of PR Newswire]

Women depicted as gardeners who were actually working in the garden was something I did not see very often as I read dozens of nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs in doing research for my book.

I saw many illustrations of women, often cutting flowers to take into the house.  Sometimes women appeared as players in a lawn game like croquet.

Susan Groag Bell wrote an article called “Women create gardens in male landscapes: A revisionist approach to eighteenth-century English garden history.” It appeared in the journal Feminist Studies.

There she said “The discussion of gardening by women in the nineteenth century is not in the landscape books of the period, but rather in their letters, garden notebooks, botanical paintings, and embroideries. From these texts we know that women were actively involved in gardening.”

English writer Jennifer Davies in her book The Victorian Flower Garden does mention Victorian suburban women gardeners as a target audience for garden products.  She says, “Manufacturers were not slow to identify a new market in suburban lady gardeners. Advertisements for lawn mowers appeared with the wording ‘suitable for a Lady’ or with an illustration of a lady pushing a mower.”

Most of the illustrations of women in Victorian American seed and nursery catalogs did not show a woman at work in the garden. Notice the woman in this 1888 catalog illustration from Boston’s Rawson Seed Company. [below]  She’s cutting flowers.

Rawson_1888_garden very small

Illustrations similar to this Rawson image appeared frequently in the catalogs in Victorian America.

Today in selling tools for the garden, women are often depicted as actually working in the garden like digging a hole, weeding, or planting.

The change is not in a woman’s work in the garden, but in the advertiser’s image of woman as gardener.


Victorian Gardeners Loved Lily Auratum

Victorian gardeners loved lily auratum.

Recently I have been reading about lilies and the frenzy they created in the late nineteenth century, both in England and in America.  Everyone wanted lilies.

Among the popular lilies appeared the plant called lily auratum.

The nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick praised this lily in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.  In 1880 he wrote, “All of our readers have heard about the celebrated Auratum Lily, and it has no doubt been seen by nearly all.”

Then he spoke of its origin.

He wrote, “The lily is a native of Japan and abounds in the mountains, where the bulbs are gathered and shipped to this country in large quantities.”

Nicolette Scourse says in her book The Victorians and their Flowers that the English plant hunter Robert Fortune brought this lily from Japan in 1860 or 1861.

In Restoring American Gardens Denise Wiles Adams claims that the Parsons plant catalog from New York first listed it in 1861.

I went in search to see where this lily might be available today.

I found it in the catalog from White Flower Farm. [below]

The plant’s dotted white flower with yellow lines is as beautiful as Vick wrote about it in the nineteenth century.

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Vick loved the flowers on this plant. He said, “We have received many reports from our readers of plants that have given from ten to thirty blossoms each year for several years.”

Today nurseries still sell this plant, originating in the nineteenth century, thanks to an English plant collector who traveled to Japan to find plants for the English garden.

The Elliott Seed Company catalog of 1891 included this illustration of a child standing next to a lily. [below] Though perhaps not the auratum, the image reveals the importance of the lily to gardeners.

The six-foot lily auratum gave off a strong vanilla fragrance. One of Vick’s customers wrote him and said, “It filled the air with its sweetness.”

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Based on the frequent mention that Vick gave this lily in his magazine, it remained popular for Victorian gardens for decades.

A reader once wrote Vick, “I hope your customers will try an Auratum.”



Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower

Victorian middle class wanted the lawn mower.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the lawn has assumed an important role in the English garden.

Lancelot Capability Brown, the English gardener to the King in the mid 1700s, created many a lawn on the properties that he was contracted to design in the new modern landscape style.

Since the garden of the wealthy had a team of gardeners to cut the grass, the lawn mower did not appear until mid nineteenth century.

The lawn mower came about because the middle class homeowner couldn’t afford the staff of gardeners.  He wanted an easier way to cut the grass.

Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 writes, “Not until gardening became the leisure occupation of many new middle-class town dwellers did the mechanization of mowers begin.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

Buckeye Lawnmower ad [Pinterest]

The lawn mower in England appeared in 1830, and in America a few years later, 1850. Here is an ad for the Buckeye Lawn Mower from Springfield, Massachusetts that appeared in garden catalogs in the 1890s. [above]

With a mower the middle class could enjoy a lawn just like the wealthy, upper class had been doing for decades.

A lawn thus reflected social class. With a lawn the middle class could identify with the more wealthy estate owner, because now they both had a lawn to maintain.




19th Century Garden Catalog Was Advertising

19th Century Garden Catalog Was Advertising

The seed and nursery catalog covers from the nineteenth century appealed to so many people because they offered a sense of color, design, and feel for that period.  Even today we love their look.

They are also ads.

The nineteenth century American style of landscape followed the English model not only in newspapers but in magazines, and, of course, the garden catalog, as New York seedsman Peter Henderson did on this 1897 seed catalog cover. [below]

Anthropologist Grant McCracken in an article about advertising in the Journal of Consumer Research says, “Cultures segment the flora, fauna, and landscape of natural and supernatural worlds into categories.”

Advertising in a culture defines class, gender, and fashion, including gardening.

So in the nineteenth century American seed and nursery businesses said the English garden style, sometimes picturesque, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes gardenesque. was the preferable form for the gardener.

McCracken says, “Advertising works as a potential method of meaning transfer by bringing the consumer good [like a plant or seed] and representation of the culturally constituted world together within the frame of a particular advertisement.”

Since the catalog from the seed and nursery industries was often called an advertisement, we can certainly refer to the cover as such, since the colorful illustrations were so carefully chosen by the company owner to give a particular message.

In this Henderson catalog it is the English garden style that he represented, especially in the lawn.

Think how advertising works.  We never just buy a product, like a plant or seed, we buy the dream in the image connected with the product. How the flower might look, how the garden might turn out. 

In Henderson’s cover home owners could envision a lush and green lawn like the one illustrated on the cover.

The cover sold the English garden with its lawn.


Men and Women of the Cloth Love the Garden

History shows us that men and women of the cloth love the garden.

From the middle ages cloistered nuns and monks, behind garden walls, taught us the importance of herbs for medicine and the kitchen.

Later in England clergymen played an important role in the history of the English garden. They may have introduced new plants, grew special plant varieties, collected plants from around the world, and perhaps exhibited plants at local flower shows.

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in 1866 included a letter from a clergyman who lived in Adrian, Michigan. The letter addressed his fellow ministers.

The clergyman wrote: “First get Buist and Breck, take the Monthly, buy a select list of seeds and plants, and go to work. You have preached patience, practice it now.”
He recommended his fellow clergymen seek out both a Breck and a Buist seed catalog, order some seeds, and start gardening.
Catalog from the Joseph Breck Seed Company which began in Boston in 1818.]

Catalog from the Joseph Breck Seed Company

The Joseph Breck Seed Company opened in 1818 Boston. A few years later Robert Buist started his seed company in Philadelphia.  Both were well-established American garden businesses by 1866.

To this day we spread the word about gardening to our family and friends. The seed companies and nurseries that help us are the ones we recommend.

Thus the cycle continues. Our friends, in turn, recommend the same companies.

Mass marketed gardening emerged for the first time when nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries  introduced the mail order catalog as a means to connect with gardeners whether in the city, the suburbs, or on the farm.

Since all advertising, and the catalog was first and foremost an ad, sells cultural values, in the process the seed and plant merchants sold a certain style of gardening which was the English garden, especially the lawn.

When the Michigan preacher recommended the Breck and Buist company catalogs and Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly, he too promoted the English style of gardening.


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.



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.