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.



Four Kinds of Garden Advertising by 1900

Four kinds of garden advertising by 1900.

Advertising garden products like plants and seeds has long been an avenue for increased sales.

By 1900 at the launch of modern advertising  there were four kinds of appeal in advertising messages, according to Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915.

Schlereth writes: “Four overlapping cycles of advertising ‘styles’ appeared in the brief compass of two generations:

  1. plain talk, direct and factual copy
  2. jingles and trade character style – like Quaker Oats
  3. a concrete ‘reason why’ the product was worth buying
  4. advertising by suggestion or association – opulent art and striking layouts.”

In the January 1856 issue of Genesee Farmer, Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick first advertised French vegetable and flower seeds, because he “found it impossible to obtain in this country a good article of the finer sorts of seeds.”  The advertising resulted in customers buying his seeds. It convinced Vick of the important role advertising played when selling his seeds.

By 1872 Vick spent $15,000 yearly on advertising. Today that amount would be $270,000.

The Vick Seed Company advertised in 3,300 newspapers and magazines like the American Agriculturist, the most popular agricultural magazine at that time. Vick wrote that this magazine “has a larger subscription list than any similar journal in existence.”

In his ad in the American Agriculturist of 1879, the following words appeared: “Vick’s seeds are the best in the world. Five cents for postage will buy the Floral Guide, telling how to get them.”

As an early advocate for advertising, his appeal was more closely alligned with the plain talk appeal with its use of direct and factual copy.

By 1901 New York seedsman Peter Henderson approached advertising by suggestion in selling his  garden seeds. [below]

Notice the association with upper class social status in this ad: the mansion, the extensive landscape, the dress of the woman cutting hollyhocks.  All of that opens up the idea that planting hollyhocks is linked to upper class fashion, money, and style.

You can have it all, as they say.

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper’s

The same idea is presented here in another Henderson ad from that same time. [below]


Peter Henderson 1901

By 1900 you could no longer simply state the name of the product and provide factual copy.

You needed to motivate the buyer by associating the product with the buyer’s dreams and hopes.


Nineteenth Century Gardeners Needed Seed Companies

Nineteenth century gardeners needed seed companies.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries played an important role in what gardeners planted.

Many new plants were coming into Europe and America from plant collectors traveling the world in search of new garden plants. Sometimes a nursery would sponsor such a trip.

The seed companies made available the seeds from these new plants.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered dozens of flower seeds in the various Departments of his catalog. [below]

Thus he made the newest plants available to Victorian America.

1873 list of seeds for sale in Vick’s catalog

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “Plant collectors might have braved the Himalayan and Andean snows in vain, and the work of the plant breeder all ars gratis Artis had it not been for the coincident growth of the nursery trade to propagate and distribute the new garden plants.”

Thus Vick could display this illustration of a tranquil landscape filled with garden annuals from his collection of seeds in the Department he called ‘Annuals.’

In this scene from Vick’s  catalog of 1874 the parents stood on a summer deck to admire their landscape and take in the joy it brought their children, playing down below on the lawn. [below]

Vick Floral Guide 1874

The garden industry, to this very day, is instrumental in spreading the knowledge of new plants to the home gardener.

Hyams writes, “During the eighteenth century about 500 new plant species were introduced into English gardens; in the next century the newcomers were counted in the thousands.”



Victorians Encouraged Winter Houseplants

Victorians encouraged winter houseplants.

It is the dead of winter and the house interior seems to provide nothing but dry air.

For this time of year the Victorians encouraged indoor plants.

Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book cowritten with her sister Catherine Esther Beecher The American Woman’s Home in 1869 recommended growing house plants to help bring humidity to the dry winter air in the house.

This black and white illustration appeared in the book, showing the detail of window and plants. [below]

From The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe

The nineteenth century garden industry provided decorative flower pots, hanging baskets and even miniature greenhouses, according to Thomas Schlereth’s Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915.

In 1873 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his catalog, “A bay window connected with a warm room, especially if facing South or East, makes an excellent place for keeping plants in winter.

“Few plants can endure the high temperature and dry atmosphere of most of our living rooms. The temperature should not be allowed to go above seventy in the day time, and not above forty-five in the night.”

Vick frequently shared instructions for taking care of the plants.

He said, “The main thing in keeping house plants in health is to secure an even temperature, a moist atmosphere, and freedom from dust. Sprinkle the leaves occasionally, and when water is needed, use it freely.”

Besides offering some leverage against indoor dry conditions, plants are also fun to see. It is a bit of the garden indoors.


1876 Centennial Exhibition Featured Conservatories

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition featured conservatories.

The Victorian gardener in the late nineteenth century sought exotic plants that displayed color and form whether in the garden or in the house.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia showcased the love of such plants, especially in the windows of the house and in the glass houses or conservatories that many homes could then afford.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “The horticultural hall [at the Exhibition in Philadelphia] represented the Victorian love of exotic gardens in glass conservatories.”

The Victorian conservatory became an extension of the house.

Such greenhouses served an important role in the life and work of the nineteenth century gardener.

When glass became less expensive in the late 1830s, the middle class plant lover could afford to have such a conservatory or greenhouse.

In 1892 the Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston issued a seed catalog with a black and white drawing of an upper middle class house. Two men and two women were playing badminton on the front lawn. (below)

You also can see  a large conservatory attached to the house at the left. The conservatory provided a setting for tropical plants that the owner could cultivate and perhaps during the warm months position outdoors so the plant could enjoy the season’s warmth and rain.

A potted plant like a palm or lemon tree also added an exotic touch to the garden.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Attached conservatory in Parker and Wood Seed Catalog of 1892 [Mass Hort]

The Victorian conservatory, attached to the house, appeared both in England and America, assuring hours of gardening pleasure for its owner.


We All Garden for Different Reasons

We all garden for different reasons.

As you know, people garden for various reasons.

Every gardener you ask would probably give a different answer.

Recently I came across a letter from one of the readers of the nineteenth century garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, published by Rochester, New York seed company owner, James Vick (1818-1882).

 Every issue of the magazine included letters from his audience of readers, spread around the country.

 In the August 1878 issue of the magazine one reader wrote, “Thousands of people grow flowers and derive no happiness from their culture, and often a good deal of pain. They grow flowers for the same reason that they build costly houses and dress extravagantly – to excel their neighbors, for display and ostentation.”

Vick’s Flower Chromo E, 1874

Gardening to such a person, according to the writer, meant keeping up with the latest garden fashion.

It was important to such a gardener to display that fashion as well.

The writer makes the point that there was “a good deal of pain” in this type of gardening.

Perhaps because it was done not for the joy of it, but for the display it provided for one’s neighbors.

For many gardeners there is a physical, emotional, and even spiritual joy that comes from spending time in the garden with plants, water, earth, and stone.

Perhaps that is one reason today we read about the focus on meditation and contemplation associated with gardening.


Newport Mansions Feature Christmas Poinsettias

Newport mansions feature Christmas poinsettias.

Everyone knows that Newport, Rhode Island is home to the grand mansions of America’s Gilded Age.

Right now three of the mansions have taken on a festive holiday look.

Until January 1 you can visit these three Newport mansions, The Breakers, Elms, and Marble House, decked out in lights and the holiday colors of red, green, and gold. The Preservation Society of Newport County, the group that oversees eleven historical properties in Newport, has made this holiday display at the mansions available to visitors for more than twenty-five years.

Decorated Christmas trees dot the rooms of the mansions. The trees sometimes surprise you when you turn a corner and see a tall evergreen decked in gold and red as in the Gothic Room of Marble House.

The dining room tables are set with period silver and china, and individual white candles illuminate the windows. Christmas wreaths and evergreens decorate walls.

Three thousand poinsettias add color to the rooms of the three houses. The plants, grown in the Preservation Society’s own greenhouse,

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

are removed and replaced several times during the six-week holiday season to ensure the displays remain fresh.

The poinsettias at The Breakers really stole the show for me.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built in 1895, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad.

Its interior includes rich marbles and gilded rooms, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, and open-air terraces with magnificent ocean views.

In the Grand Hall of The Breakers stands a 15-foot tree made of red poinsettias. The room with its walls of yellow stone and a 50-foot high ceiling that seems to go up forever shines with the red color of the poinsettia.

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas Tree to the left

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas tree, made of poinsettias, to the left

When The Breakers was built, the poinsettia, originally from Mexico, had become popular throughout the country.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced the poinsettia to the garden industry, once said that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876.

Meehan said that this plant “has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

And that is truly what you find at The Breakers. The blossoms of the poinsettias brighten up the mansion in a holiday spirit.


We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.