Online Botanical Prints Include Local Artist

Drawings and paintings of plants, especially flowers, often appearing in books and journals, have long been an important part of garden history. 

Recently the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the oldest such Society in America, founded in 1829, made available on line 1000 of its rare botanical images from the MHS library’s Botanical Print Collection. Some of the artwork dates to the year 1620.

Over a period of three months the MHS, located at Elm Bank in Wellesley, Mass., partnered with Digital Commonwealth and the Boston Public Library to digitize the images. 

Executive Director of the MHS Katherine Macdonald says, “People want to access information on line.” Now, what was once available in the MHS library only to experts, is accessible to everyone.

Isaac Spague's Wild Columbine (1882), part of the MHS' Digital Collection

Local artist Isaac Spague’s Wild Columbine (1882), part of the new MHS’ Digital Collection

The collection includes almost 60 illustrations from the nineteenth century artist Isaac Sprague  from Hingham, Mass. He supplied the drawings for the book Lessons in Botany by Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard. Gray, with whom Sprague worked for twenty years, called Sprague “America’s greatest living artist” and “the most accurate of living botanical artists.”

The MHS collection includes Sprague’s black and white drawings from books with Gray, but also over 50 colorful chromolithographs from the book The Wild Flowers of America, published in 1882. The first illustration in the book is Sprague’s’ painting of the native flower called Wild Columbine, Aquilegia japonica, which is also included in the new digital collection from the MHS. [above]

You can access the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s botanical prints online at the Digital Commonwealth repository. The images are available for the purposes of viewing and studying but not for commercial use.

Now anyone from around the world can view this digital print collection of botanical art from the MHS. The collection is no longer confined to the four walls of the oldest horticultural library in the nation. Macdonald says, “People can enjoy these prints from home.”


The Coleus Arrived in America during the mid Nineteenth Century

One of my favorite plants has to be the coleus. I cannot think of my garden without it.

The coleus has been part of the American garden since the Victorian period.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century.”

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

The W. Atlee Burpee catalog of 1893 included this unforgettable chromolithograph based on several coleus plants. Notice the brilliant colors in the catalog’s illustration.  [Below]

Burpee catalog of 1893

The Philadelphia seed company W. Atlee Burpee featured the coleus here in its catalog of 1893.

According to the online coleus nursery Rosy Dawn Gardens,  “Coleus found their way into Europe and later, America, by way of traders and botanists…Plant aficionados seized upon Coleus as the new ‘it’ plant, and a sort of Coleus Fever swept through Victorian gardens, reminiscent of the Tulip Fever of the Netherlands in the 17th century.”

It was probably because the plant was so important to Victorian gardens that the coleus made its way to America from England in the late 1800s.

Today there are dozens of coleus on the market which help maintain its status as an essential ornamental plant for the American summer garden.



Garden Catalogs Reflect the Times

Catalogs sell products, but also the company’s values for that period of time.

Seed and nursery catalogs might offer seeds, bulbs, vines, shrubs, trees, and even house plants.

They also incorporate the company’s ideas about their business at that particular time.

Cultural historian Thomas Schlereth once wrote, “All written literature–folk, or class–is simultaneously a commodity, a physical art object, a cultural window.”  In that group he placed mail-order catalogs of the nineteenth century.  He said the following about them: “Mail-order catalogs, whether analyzed individually, researched sequentially, or studied comparatively, afford scholars many approaches for an interdisciplinary study of the past.”

Ross catalog of 1910

Ross catalog of 1910

In the 1910 garden catalog [left] from Ross Brothers in Worcester, Massachusetts we see the catalog cover with a woman cutting the lawn. The company might have appeared modern – encouraging women to do what they want, even cutting the lawn, at a time when women wanted more freedom in both the home and in civic life.

Whether or not the company sold more lawn mowers because of this cover we don’t know but we can see the company recognized a new role for women in society.

That the freedom for women meant they, rather than men, cut the grass might seem trivial but that difference is how Ross chose to express it on the catalog cover.

Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes, “Printed materials [including the catalog] held a special significance in nineteenth-century United States. Books, periodicals, and printed art represented both progress and the potential for future progress.”

So perhaps Ross simply reflected the changing role of women.


Nineteenth Century American Industrialists Built their Estates, and just like the English, with a Grand Landscape

In nineteenth century England the wealthy could afford a country house.

In America a similar growth in the number of estates built by wealthy industrialists took place in a period late in the century that was referred to as the “Gilded Age.”

Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States: “In England some five hundred country homes were built or remodeled between 1835 and 1889. In the United States the brewing, shipping, railroad, iron, and banking millionaires followed this British tradition of the country gentleman.”

At that time in Milwaukee Captain Fred Pabst, owner of the largest brewery in the world, built his neo-Renaissance style mansion on Milwaukee’s main street called Grand, today renamed Wisconsin. The year was 1892. Pabst, through hard work and persistance, had earned the title of  ‘brewery baron’.

The Fred Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee

The Fred Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee

The Pabst Mansion was only one of over sixty residences on Grand Avenue, housing Milwaukee’s elite.

Not far away the banker Alexander Mitchell  had built his home in that grand style as well. His landscape included a lawn, trees, and shrubs, all enclosed in a wrought iron fence. A large conservatory stood to one side of the house as well.  Mitchell loved gardening.

Today his home is the Milwaukee Club.

I remember visiting the Pabst mansion  a couple of summers ago. It still stands as a sign of that period when the rich could afford elaborate homes and a landscape to complement it.

The landscape, of course, included a lawn, the ultimate symbol of status and respectability.


The Lawn in 19th Century America Revealed Social Status

The home landscape reveals something about both the homeowner and the culture.

In nineteenth century America the lawn became a way to define the middle class.

The home landscape thus reflected the homeowner’s social status.

Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “Although the elaborate lawn would be attainable only by the wealthy in England, in the United States carefully tended grass became the mark of respectability.”

Jackson Kenneth Crabgrass NationEven before it reached America, the lawn had  become an essential component of the romantic English garden style.

Jackson writes, “The new suburban yard in the United States followed a naturalistic or romantic approach. It was inspired by the English, with antecedents in the Orient, and seemed well suited to the spaciousness of New World suburbs. The style sought to use the existing terrain, with gently curving paths, irregular groupings of trees and shrubs, and rustic pavilions.”

So when the seed and nursery catalogs promoted the importance of the lawn, it was no surprise that the green grass on the home landscape appeared from coast to coast.

Jackson wrote,  “The ideal house came to be veiwed as resting in the middle of a manicured lawn or a picturesque garden.”  It did not matter if the house was in California or Maine.

In 1884 the Vick Seed Company from Rochester, New York wrote in its garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “What we do in the gardening way is done for the appearance, the respectability of the thing, done for the same reason that we have a coat of paint put on the house, or renew the wall-hangings.”


Springtime Still Means Lawn Care

The lawn remains the living remnant of the romantic English garden in America.

Though there is much talk today about reducing the size of the lawn or eliminating it altogether, Americans still spend $40 billion a year on lawn care.

The lawn is alive and well.

On Sunday the Boston Globe Magazine included an article called “7 Steps to a beautiful lawn”.

The contents of the article reminded me of what nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote in the March issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1879: “There is nothing in the whole range of American gardening that is the subject of so much solicitude as the proper care of the lawn. ”

The lawn [from Wikipedia]

The Globe article listed the stops needed for a good lawn:

  • test your soil
  • add air
  • get planting
  • feed your lawn
  • mow it right
  • water but not too much
  • control weeds and pests

That amounts to the same information that nineteenth century  garden catalogs, books, and magazines told American gardeners.   Instructions for planting a lawn have not changed much in two hundred years.  Nonetheless, we enjoy reading it every spring.

Perhaps Meehan was right when he said: “Much as the lawn plays a part in English gardening, it is of much more account with us.”


By the end of the Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Had Become Big Business

When you think of a simple seed or a single plant that would be perfect  in  your garden, the image of your ideal garden might also come to mind

That image stems from the experience of gardening or at least a desire to garden.  What could be more simple than a seed or a plant?

The business of selling seeds and plants in a consumer society took on proportions no one expected.

By the late nineteenth century with new printing technology and new methods to deliver products, along with national advertising, the garden industry became big business.  Seeds and plants, often illustrated in color, were sold in catalogs that were printed in the millions and sent from coast to coast.

By  then the business of selling seeds and plants had changed drastically through mass production and distribution.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America”, which appeared in Business History Review (2004), writes: “Between 1850 and 1880, demand for trees and flowers boomed, spurred on by worldwide plant exploration, the introduction of many new ornamental varieties, and a plethora of agricultural and horticultural publications that encouraged hands-on horticulture and delivered practical advice to would-be gardeners and orchardists.”

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

This catalog cover from Maule illustrates the dynamics of a consumer culture.

The garden industry evolved from a close-knit community of horticultural professionals who knew one another like Thomas Meehan, James Vick, and Peter Henderson  and who also knew their customers.  Businessmen  around the country sought to sell their garden products to a consumer eager to buy what the company catalog offered.

Seeds and plants in packages big and small  traveled the country on railroad, express delivery, and through the post office.  It almost seemed that everyone could have a package delivered, no matter where you lived.

As the consumer culture grew, so did the selling of products like seeds and plants. Maul’s catalog cover of 1900 [left] illustrated so well that the garden business, as depicted in the two large buildings of the Maule Seed Company in the catalog pages, had evolved not only  to fill the needs of the modern consumer but to announce to the world how big the business had become.



Monrovia Continues Tradition of Selling the English Garden

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries sold American gardeners the English garden.

That message appeared in the company catalogs, in garden magazines like Gardener’s Monthly, and books by landscape designers like Elias Long and Frank Scott.

The plant grower Monrovia now promotes the cottage garden in a new marketing campaign for its plants.

The cottage garden has a long tradition in the history of the English garden.

The English nurseryman and writer William Paul in his book The Hand-Book of Villa Gardening (1855) recommended the periodical Cottage Gardener, first published in 1850.

William Robinson (1838-1935)  recognized that we could learn a great deal from the gardening skill of the cottage gardener. He wrote in his book The English Flower Garden: “Why should the cottage garden be a picture when the gentleman’s garden is not? The reason is that one sees plants and the vegetation not set out in any offensive geometrical or conventional plan.”

On its webpage simply alled Cottage Garden Monrovia  writes, “The romantic English cottage garden is the ancestor of American country. Both were born in the spaces around ordinary homes filled with extraordinary flowers.”

Monrovia's illustration of the Cottage Garden

Monrovia’s illustration of the Cottage Garden

The essentials of the cottage garden, described in detail, include the arbor gate, white lattice, containers, and, of course, old-fashioned plants like flowering shrubs, roses, lilacs, and trees like the magnolia. Flowers from perennials add a bit of color.

The tradition of recognizing the garden skill of the English continues.

Nurseries have always been at the forefront of telling their customers that the English garden is the model.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1862 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “All of our readers have heard of the excellence of English gardening.”

In 1862 Philadlephia


New Film Captures NH Poet Celia Thaxter and her Nineteenth Century Garden

Recently I saw the new short video Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden about the late nineteenth century poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

During the summer she  lived on Appledore Island, located off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. Her family owned the hotel on the island and Celia worked there for many summers.

In the garden she loved  Celia grew annuals to decorate the hotel during the summer. Her garden measured 50 feet by 15 feet.

The new video, which runs for about thirty minutes, captures the spirit of her garden, past and present.

The house went down in a fire in 1914, but volunteers have preserved Celia’s garden.  In the garden today you see the flowers in the same spot that Celia planted them. She left the details of her work in the garden in her book An Island Garden, probably her most famous book and still worth reading today.

The video uses photographs from the nineteenth century as well video of the present garden. Several interviews of volunteer gardeners appear as well.

Celia Thaxter's island garden measures  50 feet by 15 feet.

Celia Thaxter’s island garden measures 50 feet by 15 feet.

Today the plants for the garden are started at the UNH greenhouses in Durham.

The most popular flower, and the one many people ask about, is the Scabiosa. The hop vine that Celia grew in her garden continues in the same spot.

Marigolds and Calendula were her favorite flowers, along with the blue Batchelor button.

Celia collected her seeds from friends who came to the hotel, but also from seed companies. Perhaps one of her seed sources was  the James Vick Seed Company from Rochester because she mentioned his death in a letter to a friend within weeks after his passing.  She wrote, “Old Vick has died.”

Today, as the film portrays, people visit the garden every summer from the end of June until the third week of August.  The property provides a learning environment as part of Cornell University’s  Shoals Marine Laboratory.

What astounded me was that the garden today includes every plant variety Celia details in her book. The total number planted each summer is 1600.

If you get a chance to see the video, take the opportunity and learn about one of America’s most celebrated nineteenth century gardeners.

Here is a chance for you  to check out the video.  I have included here the video’s trailer [below].  Enjoy.




Nineteenth Century Newspapers Cultivated a Practice called Puffing

When you read the newspaper, you generally know the difference between an article and an ad.

The Boston Globe, for example, in its Sunday magazine sometimes offers a section of several pages labeled at the top center simply ‘Advertisement.’  Thus the  reader knows that the organization or company behind this material paid for this insert.

Things were a bit different for newspapers in the nineteenth century.

At that time it was common to include articles in the paper about products and organizations that had agreed to advertize. The articles offered a positive evaluation of the product or organization. The practice was called ‘puffing’.

Ellen Gruber Garvey writes in her book The Adman in the Parlor: “Puffing meant touting products or businesses in what appeared to be editorial matter in magazines and newspapers, and was a long-standing if sometimes controversial practice.”

Stephen Fox The Mirror MakersPatent medicines like Lydia Pinkham advertised extensively in nineteenth century newspapers and magazines. Stephen Fox in his book The Mirror Makers writes: “Newspapers might print editorials or news stories about the remarkable Mrs. Pinkham in the hope that she would renew their ad contracts.”

Thus there were was little separation between news stories and advertising.

The garden industry of that time took part in this practice as well.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness writes in her article “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth -Century Horticultural Boom in America” that editors sometimes “puffed” the  products from seed companies and nurseries.

The division  between advertising and news articles is not always clear even to this day, but in the nineteenth century when readers were sold goods in news columns, that division was even more difficult to discern.

The goal, of course, was to entice the consumer to buy a particular product.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries participated in the practice of puffing, much like other businesses of that time.