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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Exotics Were Important in the Nineteenth Century English Garden

Today plant hunters still travel the world looking for plants that will find a home in American gardens.

The American grower Proven Winners tests plants from sixty breeders around the world.  The company trials them and if they are worthwhile, the new plants become part of the palate for the American gardener.

The company introduces fifty new plants out of thousands that it tests every year.

Exotics were important to the nineteenth century English garden as much as they are to American gardens today.

English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) encouraged gardeners to cultivate exotics in the garden.

Euphorbia 'diamond frost' from Proven Winners is a popular plant for containers.In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams wrote: “It was always implicit in the ideas of William Robinson that exotics would not only be introduced into the English landscape garden and woodland garden, but that they should become altogether at home there, even to the extent of naturalizing.”

Today as we garden, exotics can continue to play a role in the garden.  Plants from outside the US have always found a home in our gardens.

In Germany Gary Grueber bred the popular Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ [above], first introduced in 2004. The flowers resemble ‘Baby’s Breath’.  Proven Winners soon after sold it to American gardeners.  Since then it has won over twenty-three awards.

Exotics, or plants from outside the US, continue to be important today.

American gardening reflects Robinson’s words of advice.

 

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The Nineteenth Century Garden Industry Pioneered the Mail Order Catalog

Today we take the sales catalog for granted.

In our house several arrive in the mail each month, selling everything from flour to clothes.

In the nineteenth century the American seed and nursery industries pioneered the use of the mail order catalog to reach customers across the country.  It became their major form of advertising.

Truman A. DeWeese in his  1908 book The Principles of Practical Publicity wrote: “Mail order advertising is one of the marvelous developments of the modern art of Publicity. By means of this ‘salesmanship-on-paper’ many fortunes have been made and great mercantile establishments have been built up.”

This Everitt Company Catalog of 1892 illustrated the competition among seed merchants.

This Everitt Company Catalog of 1892 illustrated the competition among seed merchants.

Seed companies and nurseries took pride in presenting their yearly catalogs. Seedsman John Lewis Childs, in 1896, told his customers in his catalog, “One of the pleasures which the first of each year affords is the presentation of a copy of our new catalogue to each of our customers, and we do it believing that they find pleasure and profit in receiving it. It is no small task to supply half a million books like this, and it necessitates an enormous outlay of labor and money.”

There was great competition in the seed and nursery trade, each company attempting to appeal to customers in different ways [as illustrated in the image above].  Some included the biggest plant variety and another the best colorful plant illustration.  All in hopes of winning over a customer.

As the century moved along, the seed and nursery catalog proved successful enough that other companies like Sears and Roebuck built their success on the catalogs issued from seed companies and nurseries.

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Nineteenth Century English Nurseries Supported Plant Collecting

Gardening resembles clothing as a cultural symbol.  It represents what is in fashion at the moment.

In nineteenth century England plant collecting made varieties of plants from Africa, Asia, and the Americas available to gardeners who had never seen them before.

People gardened to show off their collections.

The garden moved from the eighteenth century picturesque view to a garden with plants to display.

Edward Hyams in his book The English Garden wrote: “High gardening was a product of money, scientific and technical advances, the rise of the great and profitable nursery firms, and plant collecting.”

B. K. Bliss catalog cover of 1879

B. K. Bliss catalog cover of 1879

Soon people had to have the latest in garden fashion, the newest plants. The nurseries, sponsoring plant collectors to hunt the world’s forests and pastures, obliged and became rich in the process.

The same thing happened in America.

The New York seed merchant Benjamin K. Bliss [above] wrote in his catalog of 1860, “We would respectfully invite the attention of all lovers of flowers the following list of plants, containing, in addition to all the leading varieties of former years, many that are new and rare, now offered for the first time in this country.”

Thus marketing the garden became selling the latest fad to the gardener.

In one sense not much has changed.

American gardeners today show that same interest.

It ought be no surprise that those who market seeds and plants fill that need by advertising the “newest” flower or vegetable.

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William Robinson Encouraged Naturalizing Bulbs in the English Garden

In the spring time one of my favorite public gardens to visit is Blithewold in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In the bosquet area, near the house,  thousands of spring bulbs will bloom for the next several weeks.

American gardeners owe the encouragement of  such naturalizing of spring bulbs to the popular Irish plantsman and writer William Robinson (1838-1935).  He supported that type of planting in the English garden so a gardener would not have to suffer the high maintenance of annuals which demanded fresh planting every year.

The spring bulbs naturalize in the bosquet section of Blithewold.

The spring bulbs naturalize in the bosquet section of Blithewold.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams wrote “The Robinson technique of naturalizing bulb plants under trees and shrubs came into its own [at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Daffodils and other spring bulbs lend themselves to such naturalizing because they multiply, and come up faithfully every year.

The area for the bulbs at Blithewold is somewhat shady, but they put on their show faithfully every spring.

Blithewold’s 2013 season opens on Tuesday, April 2.  Daffodil Days begin on Saturday, April 6.

In 2010 Yankee Magazine named  Blithewold one of the Best Five Public Gardens in New England.  I understand that award completely.

American gardening owes a great deal to the writing of the nineteenth century British plantsman William Robinson, author of The Wild Garden.

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