Photography Enters Victorian American Homes

Photography enters Victorian American homes.

By the end of the nineteenth century photography had developed a foothold in advertising but also was slowly becoming part of family life as well.

Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1918 writes, “Photography, part of American life since the work of the daguerreotypists of the 1840s, did not become an average person’s skill until the 1880s.”

Before that time a photographer would take an outdoor family photo with the family members often gathered either on the lawn or on the porch.

Here is an example of a family in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1870s captured in this photo. [below]

Notice how hard it is to see the faces of these people.  We cannot tell if they like or dislike the photo experience.

Just a few years later hand-held cameras became the sensation with the arrival of George Eastman’s  Kodak camera in the 1890s.

Then, as Schlereth writes, “Unlike the professional photographer who usually placed his subjects in front of their house, snapshot-camera buffs often favored the backyard for their settings.”

The advertising pitch for Kodak cameras remained constant well into the twentieth century.

Kodak wanted to capture that special moment of family life.  A picture would hold that memory for years to come.  That was a powerful pitch to persuade people to buy cameras. It worked.

The phrase “capturing the Kodak moment” appeared in much of the promotion for Eastman’s camera.

Thus taking family photos became an important cultural practice. An experience was not valuable unless you had photos to show it.  Photos became more precious than the experience they captured.

By the early 1900s Kodak advertised its camera with words like “At Home with the Kodak” and  “Let Kodak Keep the Story.”

The late nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries too changed with the times. Gone were the colored chromolithographs in the catalog, replaced by the ‘more realistic’ photograph of the flower or vegetable.


Victorians Enjoyed Genteel Lawn Games

Victorians enjoyed genteel lawn games.

Today we accept games on the lawn either in the front or the back of the house without too much question. Such fun often occurs especially when visitors arrive to spend some time.

During much of the eighteenth century the lawn surrounding one’s residence was something people admired. It was not a field for sport.

That all changed in the nineteenth century when middle class families could afford a lawn.

Then it was not uncommon to play games on the lawn. But special games.

Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1918 says, “Three lawn games – croquet, archery, and lawn tennis – influenced middle-class recreation at home. Both sexes played these gentle and genteel sports.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick included this illustration in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August 1878. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly August, 1878

Two women are playing croquet while a man and woman sit near-by on the summer shade swing.

Boston seed merchant Joseph Breck illustrated in his catalog of 1886 people playing tennis on this extensive lawn. [below]


Joseph Breck seed catalog

In the nineteenth century if you had a lawn, your guests expected to participte or at least see lawn games in action.



Victorian Home Landscape Demanded Flowerbeds

Victorian home landscape demanded flowerbeds.

Flowers for a home landscape of any size were important in the late nineteenth century.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote that farmers, laborers as well the middle class, anyone, could plant flowers to enjoy.  Flowerbeds belonged not only to the garden of the estate owner.

He made promoting floriculture his life-long goal in his business.

In many ways Vick followed the practices of other seed merchants. His appeal to sell flowers, particularly to women, was what other companies were also doing at that same time.

Seedsman Azell Bowditch from Boston, for example,  wrote in his catalog: “We shall endeavor to keep pace with the ‘Flowery Age’ in which we live, and hope to be able, by attention and care, to supply our patrons with all the valuable varieties of seeds that can be obtained at any other seed establishment in the Union.”

In this illustration from Vick’s 1874 seed catalog you see a family outside their home, enjoying the outdoors. [below]

On the lawn near the house the owner planted flowerbeds, or, as they called then, carpet beds.

Annuals filled three lage beds to bring color to the landscape.

This image introduced Vick’s annual seeds in the catalog.

Thus he illustrated for his customers what the home landcape could look like with beds of colorful flowers.



NY Italian Garden Reflects Victorian Period

NY Italian garden reflects Victorian period.

A recent visit to the Sonnenberg House and Gardens in Canandaigua, New York revealed a bit of American garden history.

The drive on the New York thruway back to Boston from the Association for Garden Communicators annual conference in Buffalo meant passing the Sonnenberg estate which is not far from Rochester.

There I saw the nine gardens that dot the estate landscape including the Italian garden.

Located in the area directly behind the house the Italian garden is filled with plants, many potted for the summer season. [below]

The Sonnenberg landscape includes this Italian garden behind the house.

In 1900 the owner Mary Clark Thompson, whose father was once the New York governor, hired Boston landscape architect Ernest Bowditch. A couple of years later he designed this Italian garden for Mrs. Thompson.

The center of the Italian garden includes a Fleur-de-lis pattern of flower beds.  The popular ‘carpet bedding’ pattern appears on the lawn.

This garden design reflects the Victorian interest in Italian gardens at that time. In 1904 novelist and garden design enthusiast Edith Wharton, following her trip to Italy, published her book  Italian Villas and their Gardens.

You could define the ‘Italian’ garden as a reflection of the Renaissance garden that later also influenced the landscape of Versailles.

The Sonnenberg garden displayed that grand formal style of design with water features along with straight lines of clipped shrubs and several planters filled with tall, showy tropical plants.

The coleus for the carpet beds in the Italian garden were grown in Sonnenberg’s own Lord and Burnhan greenhouse.

Visiting this grand estate and garden is like a trip into the late Victorian period. 

Sonnenberg House and Gardens, restored and now well maintained, is one of America’s most preserved country estates from that time.



Early 1900s Advertising for White House Lawn Seed

Early 1900s Advertising for White House lawn seed

Since the White House landscape took on the design of the modern English Garden from its begining, it was no surprise that the lawn played an important part in the long history of the White House garden.

According to Marta McDowell’s book All the Presidents’ Gardens, during the Taft administration, the Oval Office was added to the West Wing, nudging Teddy Roosevelt’s tennis court farther out on the South Lawn.

The Michell Seed Company from Philadelphia supplied the lawn seed.

The fact that the White House used its grass seed became a message in Michell’s advertising.

In 1912, as McDowell notes, Michell’s promoted its grass seed with these words “On the White House Grounds in Washington, at all recent National and International Expositions…in the best known public parks, and finest estates.”

Michell’s often included a lawn on its catalog  cover. [below]

A 1904 ad for Michell’s Seed Company [thanks to Pinterest] 

Thus in both word and image the lawn took on an importance from the White House to the average American home to the country estate.

Like the English, early White House gardeners used sheep to control the height of the lawn.

Later a horse drawn mowing machine cut the grass.

Eventually fuel-powered lawn movers became the choice of the White House gardeners.

In 1935 the Frederick Law Olmsted firm from Boston prepared a landscape management plan at the request of the White House.

As Marta notes, in the plan the lawn continued its essential role in the design of the area both north and south of the White House.




America’s Most Beautiful Lawns 

America’s most beautiful lawns

[I often write about the lawn. I am grateful to Australian lawn care professional Mark Richmond who contributed the following post about some beautiful lawns here in the US. Most of them are open to the public.]

The United States is the land of the free and the home of the… beautiful lawn? Across the country, there are endless swaths of lush and healthy lawns. The pristine green landscapes are the proud features of many college universities, residential homes, and historical buildings. While there are certainly some stunning landscapes to be celebrated in each of the fifty states, here are a few of the most beautiful lawns that the United States has to offer.

Bloedel Reserve

Bloedel lawn, Washington State

 This Washington-state public garden is a breathtaking example of horticultural excellence. The flowing lawns have been maintained without herbicides and are bordered by the commanding presence of tall pines. One popular area of the reserve features a Checkerboard lawn — concrete squares placed intricately amongst the healthy grass.

The South Lawn at the White House

 The striking contrast between the white of the presidential home along with the rich green color of the healthy lawn has made for a beautiful backdrop for millions of annual photos. The lawn has held many famous historical events, and currently provides an area for many political and social functions. With its design dating back several decades, the beautiful lawn has, and most likely will continue to be, one of the most well-known horticultural masterpieces.

Central Park Sheep Meadow and Great Lawn

 Central Park — the colloquial American lawn and one of the most famous green spaces in the entire world. The great lawn covers 55 acres and is comprised of a healthy mix of high-quality fescue and bluegrass. The smaller 15 acre Sheep Meadow preserve is a popular area for picnickers, sunbathers, kite flyers, and anyone else who wants to revel in the sights of the fine green grass surrounded by the New York City skyline.

Manchester Farm

 The rolling green landscape of this Kentucky farm could be considered the epitome of beautiful American lawns. The rich and healthy Kentucky bluegrass covers over 120 acres of the farm’s property and could easily be incorporated into a picture-perfect postcard.

The Lawn at the University of Virginia

This famous green space was designed by the founder of the University Thomas Jefferson and reflects his interest in Neoclassical and Palladian architecture. The well looked after grassy expanse is considered to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark District and the symbolic center of the University.

Biltmore Estate

 The perfect lush lawn is typically where the eye falls upon when viewing the Biltmore House. This North Carolina estate features a front lawn with what could easily be considered the greenest grass in the country — a mix of tall fescue and bluegrass. The perfectly symmetrical stripes of the lawn makes for a luxurious focal point in a view of the grand mansion itself.

Chanticleer Garden

 Located just outside of Philadelphia in the town of Wayne, this 48 acre botanical garden is a picturesque place for walking and picnics. Not only are there many gardens to explore, but there are also several formal areas of lush lawn. The sleek appearance of the bluegrass and fescue mix is due in part to the always changing mowing patterns that keep the soil healthy and loose. The famous Serpentine area of the pleasure garden features a variety of aesthetically-pleasing crops — as well as comfy chairs to take in the breathtaking sights.

Longwood Gardens Cow Lot

 As the name suggests, the former pasture land is a breathtaking aspect of this Pennsylvanian public garden. The sprawling grassy area is peaceful and serene — a perfect place for a walk or just to gaze at the lush vegetation.

Filoli Lawn

 Just south of San Francisco, this Californian country house boasts over 16 acres of gorgeously stunning gardens and lawns. Considered a historical landmark, the well-maintained lawns accompany reflecting pools and rose gardens and perfectly exemplify the blending of the Anglo-American gardening style.

Middleton Place

 An aerial view of this South Carolina plantation is the best way to see its magnificent lawn. As one of America’s oldest and most famous landscapes, it still boasts the turf terraces that were initially carved in 1741. The rich mixture of Charleston and centipede grass makes for beautiful shades of green that aren’t found elsewhere.


Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller built this spectacular Hudson River Valley, New York property in the early 1900’s. It has retained its splendor ever since. The gardens and lawns are considered to be some of the best in the world, bringing great fame to their designer. The front lawn is manicured to perfection and is one of the many highlights of the National Trust estate.

When one thinks of traditional American landscapes, a lush and well maintained lawn is usually part of the scene. As you can see, there are many such examples across the country that show what the lawn can do for the landscape.

For more articles about the lawn and garden from Mark, check out the Company’s blog.


White House Featured Newest Garden Fashion

White House featured newest garden fashion.

Fashion drives much of the commercial world with gardening a prime example.

People want the newest tomato, the latest dahlia hybrid, and the popular shrub that everyone says is easy to maintain.

The White House landscape serves as an enduring example of how gardeners made decisions on what to plant and not to plant, depending on what was in style.

From the beginning White House gardeners followed the latest fashion.

Marta McDowell describes throughout her book All the Presidents’ Gardens how the White House became a beacon for the newest in garden style and fashion.

The West Wing we see today was once the site of several greenhouses.

The greenhouses were there for decades, keeping safe from winter’s chill among other plants the bay trees that decorated the porticoes and terraces in the summer,

In 1902 the greenhouses were demolished to make room for a Colonial Revival garden. The Washington Post wrote at the time, “Landscape gardeners have noticed the tendency to return to colonial flowers to harmonize with the colonial style of architecture which has become so popular.”

Solidago rugosa or golden rod became popular in the early 1900s in the White House garden.

The old-fashioned plant golden rod became one of the more desirable plants to include in the garden. “What has been termed ‘old-fashioned’ flowers will be given places of honor in the new gardens because of their beauty and hardy nature,'” wrote The Washington Post.

President Theodore Roosevelt and his family enjoyed this new Colonial Revival garden.

In 1913 a new First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson had more modern ideas for the garden.

She arranged for the American landscape gardener Beatrix Jones to design and install an Italianate garden. The garden was simple and symmetrical.

Inspiration from the Italian garden had become the latest in fashion.

In modern times we saw Michelle Obama plant a vegetable garden. Often children worked with her in the garden which people called a victory garden.

Her gardening inspired people around the country to grow their own vegetables.

It was no coincidence that the popular farm to table movement was happening at the same tine.

Growing your own vegetables had become the latest garden fashion. Everybody wanted to do it.

Thanks to McDowell’s book we see that we need go no further than the White House to encounter the newest garden style.


How Much Lawn is Too Much?

How much lawn is too much?

Near us sits a house surrounded by lawn with no trees or shrubs to mar its green covering.

I remember visiting Pittsburgh where I saw a lawn made of gravel. No green grass there at all. [below]

Gravel lawn in Pittsburgh

The question then is how much lawn do we need?

There is much discussion today about decreasing the amount of lawn in the home landscape.

The reasons are many including preserving water and offering plant diversity in the landscape to encourage pollinators.

At the end of the nineteenth century it seemed there could never be too much lawn.

In 1899 the Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning  who had worked previously for

Landscape gardener Warren Manning (1860-1938)

the Olmsted firm wrote A Handbook for Planning and Planting Small Home Grounds.

In the book he said that there should be “the largest available central lawn space, in which there should be but few single specimens of shrubs and trees and no formal beds of flowers.”

Thus he encouraged as much lawn as possible.

He cautioned not to spoil the look of the expansive lawn with too many trees and shrubs, and discouraged formal beds of flowers.

The lawn therefore became the central feature in the landscape.

Today you can find an array of different opinions about the lawn.

Since at the same time Manning supported the lawn he also encouraged the wild garden and using native plants, today he might look at the lawn quite differently.

He was the son of Jacob Warren Manning who owned a nursery in North Reading, a town outside of Boston.  Warren, in fact, worked at the nursery for his father for several years.  Therefore he knew a lot about plants

As homeowners graple with what to do with the lawn, there are many options.

No question the lawn still plays an important role in the home landscape.

The issue revolves around the questions of  how much of a lawn do we want and for what reasons.


Defining the English Garden

Defining the English garden

The sweeping lawn of the English landscape garden developed in the 

Lancelot Capability Brown 

eighteenth century under the inspiration of gardener to the King Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

Tim Richardson writes in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England, and even across much of Europe and parts of America; it was primarily Brown’s example which inspired the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘English garden’.”

So we have Brown to thank for the lawn which has long defined the English garden both in Europe and in America.

Today the term ‘English garden’ is full of so many meanings.

When we use words that have multiple meanings, we tend to be on a higher level of the ladder of abstraction because we are not clear.

Academic and Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction, a concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolve from concrete to abstract.

Thus, for example, the more you want to confuse your audience, the more likely you are to use words that do not have a clear meaning.

You could say that such is the case with the expression ‘English garden’.  Because of its history it has so many meanings.

Which English garden do you mean?  From what period?

One thing we do know however is that the lawn has been an integral part of the English garden since the eighteenth century.

Here is Chatsworth, north of London, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Derbyshire. [below]

England’s Chatsworth 

Over the centuries several landscape gardeners provided its design, but it was Brown that installed the extensive lawn in the eighteenth century.

Today Chatsworth stands as one of his most famous English gardens, marked by his signature lawn.


Public Relations Campaign Attacks Clover

Public relations campaign attacks clover.

The lawn has been a part of the home landscape since the eighteenth century.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both treasured the English lawn, the inspiration for all lawns American.

Clover in the lawn. [Courtesy of Today’s Homeowner]

Clover, the tiny four leafed plant we all love, has been a part of the lawn for decades as much as bluegrass.

Then in the 1950s a chemical company, to advance a weed killer, used a public relations campaign to declare white clover a weed.

Warren Schultz tells the story in his book The Chemical-Free Lawn. He writes that in the 1950s “a major producer of grass seed and chemicals launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover. Clover is a weed, the company declared. It doesn’t belong in the modern lawn.”

The goal of the campaign was to sell a chemical to kill lawn weeds, including clover.

Schultz says, “Its point of view carried the day, and now homeowners spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of this once-popular plant, blind to its fine qualities.”

Clover has long been a part of lawn seed mixes. 

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about the value of clover in 1878 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick said, “Kentucky Blue Grass, with a little White Clover, about a pound to the acre, and a few ounces of Sweet Vernal Grass, will make a good lawn.”

In 1936 Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening also noted the value of clover.

Under the name, white clover, or Trifolium repens, Taylor’s says, “It is the chief clover in grass mixtures and makes a valuable constituent of lawns.”

In the past garden books and magazines often said that clover was valuable for the lawn.

More recently in Pennsylvania the Lehigh Valley Master Gardeners wrote in their blog, “Clover is a legume, like soybeans, and it has the ability to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a form readily available to plants, including the grass it shares soil with.  People liked clover for this reason and it lessened the need for fertilizing the lawn.”

The public relations campaign in the 1950s was succesful. Today it is common for companies selling herbicides to consider white clover a weed.

In this time of frequent draught and renewed interest in native plants, why not reconsider the case of the clover, and even, as many people are doing, welcome it as an integral component of the lawn?