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.


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.


National Advertising of a Brand Invented in the late 19th Century

The question of advertising the garden continues to haunt me.

How is it that we covet the plants and garden products that become heavily advertised?

In some way advertising gives legitimacy to a product.

If it’s advertised, it must be good.

But more than that. The more advertising is connected to the product, the better it becomes.

Making of Modern AdvertisingDaniel Pope in his book The Making of Modern Advertising writes: “National advertising of manufactured, branded products was a nineteenth-century creation.”

We could, for the first time, promote a product around the country because people could buy national products at local stores but also at the new department store.

Products like oat meal and hand soap became brands like Quaker Oats and Ivory.  People asked for the brand version of the product.

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.”

Garden products, like seeds and plants. were no different.  They were produced in mass quantities in greenhouses and nurseries around the country.

By the end of the nineteenth century  the garden, illustrated in seed and nursery catalogs,  had taken on the ‘brand’ of the English garden with its style of lawn, carpet beds, shrubs, and trees to line the property.

It was no surprise that suburban gardens  from Maine to California took on that look.

Advertising sells products but also values, ideas, images, hopes, and dreams, both then, and still today.


Chromos Proved Essential in Nineteenth Century Garden Advertising

Any business owes its success to a multitude of causes.

One of them has to be integrating the latest communication technology. Today that might mean social media.

In nineteenth century America that meant chomolithography to illustrate the company’s products.  The seed and nursery industries were at the forefront of employing chromolithography for their advertising.

Henderson illustrated flwoers, but also the lawn in this catalog cover.

The Peter Henderson Company illustrated tulips in its catalog cover of 1892.

Lithograph companies spread around the country after 1850.  The garden industry used their services as, for example, was the case in Rochester, New York, home to the famous Dewey lithography firm and several others.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1880: “We believe the money spent in printer’s ink for the two pages a colored plate occupies, would not be half as telling as the colored illustrations of the thing itself.  We have no doubt this style of advertising will grow.”

And grow it did.

Most seed and nursery catalogs employed chromolithograph artwork to sell seeds and plants.  Some, like the Rochester seedsman James Vick, also sent chromo illustrations of flowers as a premium to his customers for buying his seeds.

In the process of employing this newest form of advertising, the garden industry has given the world illustrations that have become heirloom treasures of color, illustrations people still appreciate to this day.

Today when people think about nineteenth century seed and nusery catalogs, the color illustrations in the catalogs often come to mind.

Does that happen to you?


Last Week’s New England Grows Introduced Me to a New Coleus

Every year I look forward to the nursery trade show in the Northeast called New England Grows.

The show attracts thousands.  It was held last week, only Wednesday and Thursday, cut short a day because of the snow storm.

What I like about New England Grows besides the lectures which always bring me new ideas, is the trade show component. Dozens of vendors line the rows of the Boston Exhibition hall.  It takes hours to move through them all.

Several nurseries display their new plants.

In the nineteenth century novelty plants played a key role in each seed and nursery catalog.

Coleus 'Neptune's Net' which I saw last week at New England Grows in Boston.

Coleus ‘Neptune’s Net’ which I saw last week at New England Grows in Boston.

For example the Childs Seed Company catalog said in 1890, “Customers will look every year for a lot of sterling novelties, which you must provide, and each must prove as worthy as you recommend.”

The company had to provide novelties because the gardener expected it.

At New England Grows several nurseries showcased many newer varieites of their plants.

A Proven Winners variety of coleus called ‘Neptune’s Net’ caught my attention on entering the  Pleasant View Garden exhibit. I knew immediately I wanted to grow this plant in my summer garden.

Like the gardeners of the nineteenth century, today we too search out newer varieties.

Why do you think we like the newest?

And, of course, we know that the seed and plant companies provide the latest variety that could be from any place in the world to plant in our gardens.


Boston Athenaeum Hosts a Chromo Exhibit

This past week I attended a lecture on the chromolithography exhibit currently showing at the Boston Athenaeum.

I knew that chromos played a key role in advertising in the nineteenth century and wanted to learn a bit more about them.

A chromo is a colored illustration in which the artist used a flat limestone for each color of the image. He drew the image on a stone, but applied only one color per stone. One chromo could take many stones. It was quite time-consuming, but became an art form that captured nineteenth century America with its life-like colors, something people had never seen.  Most Americans could not experience original artwork like painting since there were few art museums or galleries.

The chromolithrogarphy exbhit right now at the Boston Athenauem.

The colorful invitation for the chromolithography exhibit now at the Boston Athenaeum.


Boston introduced the first  chromos in America in 1840.

Books, newspapers, and, of course, catalogs, had used mainly black and white engravings before that time.

Soon businesses used chromos to show off their products and even their buildings.  The Athenaeum’s collection includes a chromo commissioned in 1873 by the Walter Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Mass. to feature their new building.

The garden industry also used chromos in the seed and nursery catalogs.

According to Charles Van Ravenswaay, former librarian at Winterthur in Pennsylvania,  in 1864  the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) was the first to use a chromo in his catalog. In it Vick illustrated the double zinnias which had only been developed four years earlier.

Several chromolithography shops set up business in Rochester at that time, largely to meet the advertising needs of various businesses, including the seed and plant trade.  At the end of the 1880s a magazine called  The Horticultural Art Journal began in that city

But it was Boston, as I learned, where chromolithography began.

The Boston Athenaeum’s exhibit, called Chromo Mania, is certainly worth visiting.  It continues until January 12.


Nineteenth Century Seedsman B. K. Bliss Pioneered the Mail Order Business

I always wondered when seed companies first  started to send seeds across the country in the U. S. mail.

The Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in the 1873 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly included an article entitled “The Father of the Postal Seed Business” written by fruit-grower, landscape gardener, and writer Franklin Reuben Elliott.

The B. K. Bliss and Sons  seed catalog of 1879. [Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society]

Elliott wrote: “B. K. Bliss, formerly of Springfield, Mass., now of New York, was the first to make a specialty, and so draw attention of the public to the value of transmission by mail at a cheap rate, of seeds, plants, etc.”

Bliss deserves the recognition, of course.

The genius of the seed and plant industries was as a pioneer in the use of the catalog to sell their products, and then to use the mail to deliver them.  Their customers lived mainly in rural America.

I spent several weeks looking at the seed and nursery catalog collection at the Special Collections at the Library of the University of Delaware.

The website of the UD Seed and Nursery Trade Collection  also agrees that “B. K. Bliss is credited with introducing mail-order marketing to the seed industry.”

The Bliss’ catalogs  date from the  1850s.

So when Sears and Montgomery Ward entered the catalog business in the late nineteenth century, they reaped the experience of the garden industry’s many decades with the catalog as their primary sales tool.

The nineteenth century garden industry sold not only seeds and plants but a new way of marketing and sales.  Mr. Benjamin K. Bliss was  there.



Late Nineteenth Century Mass Production of Plants Made Dozens of Varieties Available

By the end of the nineteenth century seed company and nursery catalogs would offer for sale many varieties of one plant.

That was possible because of the new system of mass production of seeds and plants.  Like any business, the garden industry sought ways to incease its inventory and market share.

The growing conditions of California where the nursery business could continue all year enabled new plants to reach the market much more quickly.

Illustration of the coleus in the 1893 Burpee seed catalog

The  book Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers, first published in 1896, featured the California seed business  C. C. Morse and Company with its fields of sweet peas. The book said, “Particular attention is given to the sweet pea, one of the most popular of all flowers.  Of these they [Morse] aim to grow every variety the sweet pea specialist can name, and more than ninety varieties are now cultivated.”

The W. R. Shelmore Company in Avondale, Pennsylvania offered more than seventy-five varieties of coleus in its 1895 catalog.  The catalog said, “We have one of the best collections in the country.”

When industrialization met the gardening industry, the number of plants available for the American gardener increased.

Then hybridizers would produce many varieties of one plant, as in the case of the coleus and the sweet pea.

Not much has changed today.  Each spring the garden industry continues to feature new plant varieties.

And, of course, American gardeners buy up the newer varieties.


Mass Produced Goods in Late 19th Century also Impacted the Garden Business

Just finished a great book called Sunshine, Fruits and Flowers, an 1896 souvenir book, published by the San Jose Mercury newspaper, and reprinted in 1986 by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.

Black and white photographs from California in the late 1890s appear on almost every page.

In the book you will find the four pictures below.  Top left shows the clothing department in the T W. Spring and Company store, located in San Jose.  Top right is the store’s children’s department. The bottom two are window displays for the store.

T. W. Spring and Company Clothing Store, 1896, San Jose, California

What they show is how mass merchandising became essential in buying and selling cloths.

No surprise that the big seed houses and nurseries of that period published large colorful catalogs to sell their many seed and plant novelties as well the old standards.

The mass produced goods, available in the garden catalogs, included seeds, urns, and garden accessories.

By the 1890s a new age was emerging where people preferred goods that were mass produced because they enabled the consumer to feel more modern and up to date.

The garden industry had to compete to survive. No surprise that seed catalogs would offer dozens of varieties of one flower.  The C. C. Morse and Company in Santa Clara overed more than ninety varieties of sweet pea.

By the 1890s advertising impacted  American gardening.  The modern age of consumerism had begun.


English Garden Catalog Served as the Model for American Catalogs

Dreer’s catalog of 1885


I just came across the book Pages from a Garden Note-Book by Mrs. Francis King, written in 1921.  It’s focus is American gardening at the beginning of the twentieth century.

King included a wonderful chapter on seed and nursery catalogs.  Many well-known seed company and nursery owners are mentioned like Childs, Henderson, Lovett, Vaughan, and Dreer.  Originating in the nineteenth century, these companies had been in business for decades by the time this chapter saw the light of print.

The chapter title is “A Review of the American Seed Catalogue”, which was originally written by  Miss Mildred Howells in 1916, and included in this book.  King credited Howells in her introductory section called “Note”.

Howells’ essay said: “When the small blue-bound list [catalog] of Chester J. Hunt, of Montclair,[New Jersey] appeared on the gardening horizon, it was as if a new star had arisen. We look, and with reason, to the best English lists as our models of what the seed, bulb, or plant list should be; and this list of tulips and daffodils, in its completeness, its careful descriptive text, its excellent prefatory notes, and its color sense, is head and shoulders above most that we have–much more like an English list.”

Thus she compared the American seed and nursery catalog with English lists or catalogs, and seemed most content only when American gardening catalogs resembled those published by the English.