The Spring Garden at James Vick’s Home in 19th Century Rochester Amazed Visitors

I have visited East Avenue in Rochester, New York several times.  My purpose was to see where the home of the seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) once stood.

I found the spot though the house of course is long gone.

It was on East Avenue in his gardens that he grew hundreds of tulips in the spring. What a spring-time joy that must have been for a visitor to see after a long hard winter such as we have had here in New England.

The Horticulturist magazine wrote in 1867, when Vick’s seed business was still young: “He now occupies, on the southeast part of the city, twenty-three acres of ground for growing seeds, chiefly flower seeds, and employs six horses and about twenty-five men

Vick's Home on the South Side of East Avenue. 1877

Vick’s Home on the South Side of East Avenue in Rochester, NY. 1877

and women. The collection of bulbs on these grounds is large – over a hundred thousand tulips flowered the past season.”

Vick of course wanted his customers to know what they were buying when they bought his seeds and bulbs.

His display garden of tulips in spring must have dazzled his customers. The Horticulturist magazine put it this way: “During the blooming season the display of these and other flowers presented a brilliant and magnificent appearance.”

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Gardeners Still Await the Annual Catalogs

My past few posts here have centered on a look at the roots of American consumer culture.

I have written mainly about how advertising at the end of the ninteenth century became the major tool which motivated people to buy the goods that were being mass produced.  The garden industry was at the forefront of that movement as we can see from the size of catalogs, filled with seeds, plants, vases, and other assorted garden products including the lawnmower.

This Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a column called “Checking out our consumer culture” in which writer Katherine Whittemore examines six books about advertising, including William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.

What I liked about her review was that she constructs a line of argument through the books she mentions which is that  advertisng and marketing somehow or other get us to buy things we may not really need.

"Brandwashed", one of the books Whittemore writes about

“Brandwashed”, one of the books Whittemore writes about

In gardening that may be a difficult concept to swallow since we all seem to want the latest plant or the newest fad in our garden.

Now that it is Chrsitmas time I am once again confronted with the question of what new material possession do I need. I again hit the wall because I really don’t need anything. I have enough things. We have enough.

Yet the ad industry continues to push forward the glitter of ever new products.

It is hard to resist advertising and marketing. Whittemore, for example, writes that Whole Foods places its flower section right by the doors, so we are unconsciously ready to associate the store with freshness.

The late nineteenth century seed and nursery companies structured their catalog in a particular way. First, an introductory essay, then columns on gardening and the landscape, followed by the list of seeds and plants for sale, and finally ads.  There was a reason for that order, and that, of course, was to motivate the gardener to make a purchase.

This year, since December 1, I have already received several  garden catalogs, some  of substantial size.

In this holiday season, as both a gardener and one interested in the study of advertising, marketing, and public relations, I must say that the consumer culture is alive and well.

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Post Office Became More Commercial by the end of the Nineteenth Century

Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

America was built on the principle of free expression of ideas.

From the beginning of the country newspapers operated with the assurance of a free press.

As a result of the Post Office Act of 1792, a new form of the post office became a vital communication link for the nation, carrying not just private correspondence, but also newspapers, which were allowed in the mails at a low rate to promote the spread of information across the states.

The post office service then made accessible newspapers and magazines that expressed political ideas that might indeed diverge from one another.

By 1900 everything changed and the post office became the major vehicle to sell products.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “In the nineteenth century, the goal of the U. S. Postal Service was to make ‘knowledge and truth’ available to more and more people. By the end of the World War I, this goal had been altered; the greatest use of the mails was now American business.”

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries used the post office service to send their garden catalogs to their customers who were scattered around the country.

As the country moved to a more of a consumer culture by the end of century, the post office too took on the role of a provider of information of new products and services.Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York mailed several catalogs yearly in hopes of  seed orders. Like all companies at that time, the post office was an important tool for their business.

Rural Free  Delivery became available in 1896 which  meant that every home in America could receive mail.

That year was a boom for any company that used a catalog to sell its products.

Vaughn Seed 1891

Vaughn Seed Catalog 1891

The Vaughan Seed Company from Chicago began its catalog seed sales after winning awards for its flower displays at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893 and the passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act.

Mail delivery proved a valuable asset to their business.

The mail order business also provided the inspiration for a new warehouse for Maule’s Seeds, located in Philadelphia. In his 1889 catalog  Maule wrote, “Three years ago I had especially built for me the finest warehouse in America for conducting the mail-order business. I have devoted my entire attention to furnishing the gardens of America with my seeds direct, with the aim of doing the largest mail-order business on the continent.”

In 1898 the Childs Seed Company catalog said it was not uncommon during the busy months of the business “for Mr. Childs to receive as high as eight to ten thousand letters in a single day, including hundreds of Registered letters and thousands containing Money Orders.”

The mail delivery of seeds was so successful for the seed trade because the seed companies had learned that the seed packet, originally developed as a marketing strategy, made it easy to ship seeds around the country.

The garden business was truly a modern, efficient enterprise, thanks to the post office.

 

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US Became the First Country to Launch Mass Production of Goods in late 1800s

The seed and nursery catalog by the end of the nineteenth century had become a small book, not only because of the number of color illustrations that appeared within its pages, but also because the garden catalog had so many products to sell.

The seed and nursery industries were caught up in the mass production process that was sweeping the country at that time.

The American gardener by 1900 became part of the country’s new economy devoted to mass production.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “The United States was the first country in the world to have an economy devoted to mass production, and it was the first to create the mass consumer institutions and the mass consumer enticements that rose up in tandem to market and sell the mass-produced goods.”

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

So it was no surprise that the Philadelphia seedsman W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) believed in the value of advertising for every modern business, including his own.

In the Saturday Evening Post magazine of February 4, 1905, an ad from the Burpee Seed Company said, “If you garden, you want the best and we shall be pleased to send you Burpee’s Farm Annual for 1905, an elegant book of 178 pages which tells the plain truth, with hundreds of illustrations, beautful colored plates, and describes Superb Novelties of unusal merit.”

Burpee, like other garden catalogs, used the modern form of commercial enticements to move and sell his goods.

 

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Nineteenth Century Seed Store Featured a Horticultural Library

In 1906 the Boston seed firm W. W. Rawson moved into its new building with four floors at 5 Union Street in the downtown area.

The company had by that time enjoyed years of business in the seed industry which began for them  in 1884.

What impresed me in reading about their new home office was that the Rawson Company  included an area for reading garden books and magazines on the first floor store-front  where people walked in off the street to purchase seeds.

From The Florists' Exchange magazine, 1906

From The Florists’ Exchange magazine, 1906

Rawson wanted to keep his customers familar with what was happening in the world of gardening.

An article about the company in the trade journal called The Florists’ Exchange of 1906 said, “The new store is unique in its arrangements with a nice waiting room where customers may enjoy the privileges of an extensive horticultural library.”

Like the owners of many other nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, Rawson saw his role as an educator.

He wanted to make sure people continued to learn about gardening.

For that purpose where else would they go but to the experts, those who wrote the garden catalogs, garden books, and garden magazines?   The authors of many such publications also owned seed companies and nurseries, like Andrew Jackson Downing, James Vick, Peter Henderson, Thomas Meehan, and Robert Buist.

 

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The Nineteenth Century Garden Indusry Pioneered Mail Order Sales

For most of the nineteenth century the farms scattered around the country became home to most Americans.

After 1880 opportunities for employment drew many farmers to the city.

Thus for decades the garden industry had to employ mail order catalogs to attract its rural customers.

Northtrup seed catalog

Northern Grown seed catalog of 1892

Bess Gedney Chistiansen wrote in her article “A Brief History of Seed Catalogs” that the second half of the nineteenth cnetury became the golden age of mail order. “Originally concentrated in the Northeast the industry found an insatiable demand for seeds, nursery stock such as fruit trees, and agricultural and gardening advice. Just as rural families could order household items such as furniture, pens, and musical instruments from a catalog, so could a farmer send away for whatever he needed [for the garden].”

Of course, the seed and nursery catalogs grew in number and in size.

By the end of the century, the catalog was almost a book, with essays, instructions, advertising, and illustrations along with the listing of seeds and plants for sale.

For decades the mail order catalog had been the company’s primary sales tool.  W. Atlee Burpee once said, “The catalog is the silent salesman.”

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Standardized Products Became the Norm in the late 1890s

We gardeners like to think we are original in planning a garden space.

In a media environment that is not possible because we become surrounded by media messages in advertising and editorial content in so many outlets.

Since the 1890s the media influence our ideas about gardening.

Quaker OatsAt the end of the nineteenth century people wanted standardized products that came from the nation’s factories, whether clothing, shoes, or food.  Even seed company and nursery owners illustrated their large operations in a chromolithograph included in the pages of the catalog.  A customer could then see the trial fields, the building which made boxes for the company’s many orders, and, of course, the multi-storied structure that served as the seed company or nursery  headquarters.

People didn’t want just any oat meal.  They wanted Quaker Oats.

And they got that, and lots of other standardized products.

People also wanted a garden like the one illustrated in the garden catalog, which spread across the country in the millions from the many seed companies and nurseries, operating as the modern business they had become.

The Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist might have felt a glimpse of the power of the media when he wrote in 1857: “Nurserymen have to cater for the wants of their customers, and they wish everything that receives a newspaper puff, however indifferent in quality–so that we go on increasing in all sorts of varieties.”

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Nineteenth Century English Garden Writer William Robinson Encouraged Naturalizing of Plants

One of my favorite places to visit is the public garden Blithewold in Bristol, Rhode Island.

The property dates to the early twentieth century both in the architecture of the house and the extensive gardens.

Every spring the area under the trees  fills with daffodils that have now naturalized in that spot over the years.

The spring bulbs naturalize in the bosquet section of Blithewold.

The spring bulbs naturalize in the bosquet section of Blithewold.

The English horticulturist and writer William Robinson (1838-1935) proposed the idea of naturalizing for the gardener.  Alicia Amherst in her book A History of Gardening in England wrote in 1895: “The idea of naturalizing plants in shrubberies, grassy banks and wild places, is also a new departure of the late nineteenth century. Mr. W. Robinson, by his works, The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden, has done more than any one to bring in this taste.”

Now that fall is approaching, and gardeners often think of planting spring bulbs, thoughts might also turn to creating an area where bulbs like daffodils can naturalize. You can have flowers return year after year, and expand in their spread as they reappear.

Today Robinson’s idea of naturalizing provides a truly beautiful display at Blithewold each spring.

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Garden as Design versus Garden as Collection of Plants

Recently I attended an auction of the New England Hosta Society where the hosta called  ‘Lachman’s Legacy’ sold for $650.   Clearly the buyer really wanted that hosta.

The price, however,  seemed like a lot of money to pay for one plant.

That is when it hit me: there is a difference between a garden design and a garden as a collection of plants.

In the eighteenth and  nineteenth centuries it was common for English gardeners to have an “American garden” on their property.  Such a garden was a collection of plants from America, often our native plants like rhododendron.

This blue hosta surrounded by Solomon Seal is Hosta 'Blue Cadet'. plated over 20 years ago, in my garden

This blue hosta surrounded by Solomon Seal is Hosta ‘Blue Cadet’, planted over 20 years ago in my garden, and only one in my own collection of hostas.

It is quite common for gardeners to collect plants, but difficult sometimes to fit them into the home landscape.  Such gardeners appear more interested in showcasing the latest plant.

On the other hand, landscape designers choose plants that fit into their artistic expression for the landscape.  A plant finds a home here because it makes sense in the property’s overall design.

Plant collectors sometimes show a cluttered landscape when they seem to run out of room to place a new plant.

We have  landscape gardeners, people whose concern is the design of the landscape, and we also have plant collectors.

Can a garden express both views of plants? I think that is difficult.

What do you think?

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Nineteenth Century Garden Advertising Sold Novelties

Any business has to adjust to the changing social environment in which it operates.

That applied as well to businesses in the 1890s.

At that time in America advertising underwent a shift in format and purpose.

Advertising sought to promote new products, or ‘novelties’.  The garden industry had to adjust to this new kind of advertising.

In the front of the catalog appeared a section of new plants, or new seeds, referred to as ‘novelties’.  The pages were often a different color form the rest of the catalog so these items would catch the attention of the customer.

Hollyhock here described as a 'novelty' in this Harper's ad of 1888

The Hollyhock described above as a ‘novelty’ in this Harper’s ad of 1888

The catalogs were sales tools.  Burpee called the catalog the ‘Silent Salesman’.

In the Yale Review  of 1899 in an article entitled “The Philosophy of Modern Advertising” we read: “The most expensive forms of modern advertising, and hence presumably the most profitable, aim to win the reader to buying some new book, some new medicine, or some new mechanical device. Advertising in magazines is, from its nature, almost exclusively concerned with ‘novelties’, in the broadest sense of the word, articles that twenty years ago were not heard of, and which are aiming to win the attention and favor of the public.”

And so the seed and nursery catalogs told its customers they needed a novelty plant.  Next year the plant might be eliminated from the list, but this year it was new, a novelty, and thus one any gardener needed.

Is it any surprise that ever since gardeners have been on the hunt for that novelty plant?

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