A Diary Reveals the History of the Nineteenth Century American Garden

In restoring a garden from an earlier time period any documents about the history of the garden certainly may help to understand what it looked like at a particular time.

A southern Louisiana garden called Rosedown Plantation has been restored to its nineteenth century charm, thanks to a detailed diary that the owner Martha Turnbull kept.

Turnbull book cover LSUpressMartha’s diary, along with excellent commentary, has recently been made available in the new book The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull Mistress of Rosedown Plantation (Louisiana State University Press).

I loved the book because it traces how we gardened here in America before and after the Civil War.

Martha writes in detail about what she planted on her 28 acres, though many more acres made up the plantation.  The reader comes away with a sense of how horticulture changed in the nineteenth century.

In the earlier years her gardening focused on vegetables and fruit, especially strawberries, but later her concern  turned to ornamental gardening with roses, dahlias, and chrysanthemums.

Slaves left the plantation after the Civil War, but some stayed at Rosedown to help with the gardening. Martha provided housing and wages in exchange for their help.

Martha gives us a window on the nineteenth century American garden since she lived until 1896, the day before her 85th birthday, and began the diary in 1836 when she put in the garden.

Since I am interested in nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, I was happy to see how much she depended on garden companies, especially in the northeast.  She purchased seeds and plants from the Robent Buist Company in Philadelphia and Prince Nurseries on Long Island in New York.


Rosedown Plantation

Landscape architect Suzanne Turner who did a superb job of editing the book, says “The predominant  theory or aesthetic that Martha Turnbull would have encountered in [John Claudius] Loudon and [Andrew Jackson] Downing was that of the romantic picturesque landscapes, or the ‘modern’ style, as opposed to the old or ‘formal’ style.” Thus the garden design of Rosedown was based on the popular English romantic style.

Turner provides a wonderful commentary on Martha’s work in the garden, often quoting horticultural books and articles of that period.

This is a more than a book about a Louisiana gardener. For me it is the history of American gardening in the nineteenth century.


Boston’s 19th Century Rawson Seed Company Supplied the Latest Varieties of Plants

The east coast in the United States was home to  several seed companies and nurseries in the late nineteenth century.

It was a combination of the rail service, ease of mail delivery, and an express package system that crossed the country that together made such businesses flourish.

W. W. Rawson [Images courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society]

One such east coast company was the W. W. Rawson Company in Boston where the company sold to the farmer and to the gardener.

Owned by Mr. William Rawson, the company was in business for several decades and published its catalog regularly.  Rawson brought twenty-eight years in horticultural experience to his seed business.

The seed store was located at 34 Market Street in the Fanuiel Hall area of downtown Boston [below].

The first floor of the Rawson Company offered customers seeds and tubers that could be purchased for home gardening [below]

One of the plants Rawson offered in his catalog of 1897 was the ‘Madame Crozy’ canna.  In 1892 the Madame Crozy canna was described as the “grandest canna of them all.” In 1893 at the World’s Fair in Chicago it was awarded a Bronze Medal.

The Rawson Seed Comapny was a modern business, selling to American farmers and gardeners the latest in seeds and plants.

Rawson Seed Company in downtown Boston – 1897

The first floor of the Rawson Company featured this store with framed chromos of flowers on the walls.

The Perfect Lawn Appeared in 19th Century Seed Catalogs

Since by the late nineteenth century the lawn had become an integral part of the home landscape, it was a common practice to sell grass seed in seed catalogs.

To persuade the buyer the catalog sometimes included an illustration of a lawn as it should look.

The W. W. Rawson  Company from Boston offered its own grass seed called ‘Arlington’ which was named after the town outside of Boston where Mr. Rawson lived.  His store and warehouse were located at 34 South Market Street in the Faneuil Hall Square area in downtown Boston.

Here is an illustration from the Rawson company catalog of 1896 [below].  Notice the prominence of the lawn.

1896 Rawson Catalog

Illustration from the 1896 Rawson Seed Catalog [Courtesy of Massachusetts Horticultural Society]

The name of the article below the illustration was simply “The Preparation of Lawns and their Management.”

Rawson then described how to prepare the soil for a lawn, and, how much seed a homeowner would need.

He wrote: “For forming new lawns, four bushels  are required per acre, or about one quart to each square rod of land, which should be regularly and evenly distributed.  Sixteen pounds to the bushel.”

Thus the seed company provided not only the seeds but instructions on how to install the lawn with the necessary steps of rolling and leveling the area.

Rawson’s seed was called ‘Rawson’s Velvet Lawn Grass Mixture’.

No surprise that  the consumer wanted that perfect lawn the catalog included in this kind of illustration.  By the 1890s Images in advertising had become an important vehicle to sell any product.

The Historic Landscape of Downton Abbey Inspired Book Trailer

Season five of Downton Abbey will return to American television on Sunday, January 4.

This period drama has captured the imagination of viewers across the country. The characters, the clothes, the time period, the setting and, of course, the story all contribute to make this British drama attractive to fans everywhere.

Let us not forget however the importance the landscape plays for an American gardener audience.

The lawn and gardens of Downton Abbey [really Highclere Castle] we owe to Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783), the landscape gardener to the King.  Thus the opening shot of the lawn which extends all the way to the walls of the castle contains a bit of history. The five acre kitchen garden and cutting garden behind the house which often become part of a story line on the show are also part of that history, the handiwork of Capabiity Brown in the eighteenth century.

Brown’s romantic style of landscape has appealed to Americans since the beginning of the country. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson chose that garden style for their own properties.

In the nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries sold their seeds and plants with a promise that the gardener could have a landscape like the one on the cover of the catalog, which was often an illustration with the elements of the English garden, especially the lawn.

Since the theme of my book America’s Romance with the English Garden  hinges on the marketing of the English garden in seed and nursery catalogs of the nineteenth century, we prepared a video book trailer which links the book to the television program Downton Abbey.

Here is the book trailer which I made with the help of Mac Capen, a talented media student at Bridgewater State University.  I hope you enjoy it.


1904 Fall Garden Catalog Sold More than Spring Bulbs

The words and image in any ad work together to promote a product.

Owners of the seed companies and nurseries of the late nineteenth century referred to the garden catalog as an advertisement. Thus, like Mr. Burpee, they carefully crafted each word for both the Introduction and any information linked to  a particular plant or seed.

The W. W. Rawson Company in Boston included an illustration of tulips within the pages of its fall catalog of 1904. [below]

The image also includes a house and a lawn in the background.

An illustration that appeared in the W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904

An illustration that appeared in the W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904

It was not by accident that the lawn appears, but was chosen probably because it provided such an ideal setting for planting the bulbs near-by.

Of course, everyone knew how important the lawn had become for the home landscape. Here Mr. Rawson confirms the importance of the lawn.

At a time when the field of advertising for any business was assuming an essential role, to include the lawn in the image for tulips was, of course, also selling the lawn.


New Book Traces Origin of Current Local Food Movement

The victory garden continues as a culture icon. When Michelle Obama planted vegetables at the White House, people called it a victory garden.

Learning about the origin of the victory garden could shed light on the importance of growing food locally today. That hope inspired a new book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I ” (McFarland).

Hayden-Smith_978-0-7864-7020-4Historian and gardener Rose Hayden-Smith, the author, traces the ‘grow your own vegetables’ movement from the United States Government in both World War I and again in World War II.   During both wars Victory gardens became a way to support our troops. If Americans could grow their own food at home, more food supplies from farms could be sent to American troops across the sea.

Hayden-Rose, an advocate for local food for the local table, writes that from the beginnings of the victory garden movement in WWI children were introduced to gardening in schools as a way to put them in touch with nature. Home gardens became a way that women could show their support for the war movement.

Organizations we meet along the way as she tells her story include the National War Garden Commission and the United States School Garden Army. Both illustrate the intensity in which the United States sought to encourage gardening, especially growing vegetables. The Government incorporated a public relations committee called the Creel Commission to spread the word to every American that growing food for the family table was a serious issue.  The many wartime posters with a gardening theme included in the book present the visual message that spread across America.

The book traces the important role that women have played in agriculture through the victory garden movement. During WWI 20,000 largely middle-class urban and suburban women worked on American farms as wage laborers. Thus farming was not only providing food but also a way to incorporate women in the workforce.

Hayden-Smith discuses the problems in the Victory Garden campaign including the lack of knowledge about the source of the food for the table, especially among urban children. That is certainly something we face today as well.

She says, “Gardens can help reshape social and spatial life in our communities.” Your garden is not just a garden but also a way to build community and grow as a responsible citizen.

Hayden-Smith lays out her goal in writing the book. She says, “My greatest hope for this book is that it may be used as a lens through which to view our current situation.” Today people around the country participate in urban farming, community gardens, locally growing produce, and even the food to table movement called Slow Food. Such activities belong to the current food systems movement but more people need to join for it to have an impact on the way we garden.

The fact that the author is a passionate gardener who has traveled the country to witness how people are getting in touch with the land and growing their own food makes her words that much stronger. At the end of the book Hayden-Smith makes the claim, “I am a Victory Grower.” By that point you can’t help but believe her.

Estates in Early America Followed English Landscape Style

The east coast here in the United States is home to early examples of the modern landscape garden style from England’s eighteenth century.

Julie S. Higginbotham wrote an article about the history of the US nursery industry called “Four Centuries of Planting and Progress.”  She presents an excellent chronology, listing the Prince nursery of 1737 as the first commerical nursery, located in Flushing , New York.

She writes, “By 1800, the East was dotted with landscaped estates, including properties on the Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, the shores of Connecticut, and the environs of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.”

A property near Boston that I have often visited is the Lyman estate in Waltham, about nine miles from the city.  Mr. Lyman’s estate went by the name “The Vale”.

The Vale is one of the finest examples in the United States of a country estate laid out following the principles of eighteenth-century English naturalistic design. For more than 150 years, it was the country home to four generations of Boston’s prominent Lyman family. [below]

The  lawn that sweeps up to the walls of the house is, of course, the predominate symbol of the English garden style called naturalistic, referred to also as modern landscape gardening in the eighteenth century.

Lyman Estate in Waltham, Mass. [Courtesy of the Waltham Tourism Council]

Lyman Estate in Waltham, Mass. [Courtesy of the Waltham Tourism Council]

The English Taught America How to Garden

The English garden has long served as a model for the American garden.

Often American garden writers make sure that we recognize our debt to the English for teaching us about gardening.

One such author was Wilhelm Miller, a Chicago landscape architect in the early 1900s. He wrote books and articles, and many entries in L. H. Bailey’s The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, first published in 1901.

What England Can Teach Us About Gardening2In 1909 Miller wrote a popular book called What England Can Teach Us About Gardening. [left] Notice the romantic English garden scene at the top of the book’s cover.

He also wrote an article with the title “English Effects with Hardy Plants” which appeared in The Garden Magazine, September 1909.

In the article Miller said, “The English have a deeper passion than we for ‘collecting.’ Everywhere you find someone who grows fifty or more varieties of his favorite flower, e.g. German or Japanese iris, or peony, or the florists’ penstemon. One English catalogue contains 346 varieties of phlox, 224 of border carnations, 180 chrysanthemums, etc. – fully three times as many as you can get in America.”

American gardeners continue to look to England for garden ideas. The gardens and retail center for the mail order nursery Whte Flower Farm sit in a beautiful country setting among the fields of northeast Connecticut.  It features  an English perennial border near the garden center. [below] The border measures 280 feet in length and 20 feet in width.

Dozens of varieties of perennials and annuals make up this collection along the walk. It is truly a beautiful border.  The number of plants of one variety contribute to that grand view.

I am sure Mr. Miller would love this English garden.

White Flower Farm

White Flower Farm

Does a Collection of Plants a Garden Make?

Sometimes I think that I have no more room in my garden for any more plants.

Then a friend gives me a plant and everything changes.

I have found myself often at that spot.

I think that a garden can be both a collection of plants and a work of art at the same time.

writing the garden 4In Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’  book Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation across Two Centuries I came across the English garden writer E. A. Bowles (1865-1954).

Bowles wrote, “It is in the making and remaking that a garden remains alive; without the gardener’s passion to incorporate new plant varieties and to redesign the garden in pursuit of a never quite-acheived dream of perfection, it will become merely an exercise in routine maintenance or else suffer the all-too-common fate of neglect and oblivion.”

It is alright to collect plants and simply enjoy them as your garden.

I remember a Rhode Island garden on tour a couple of years ago during the American Hosta Society’s annual meeting.  The garden featured over 1000 hostas. That award-winning garden certainly was a collection of plants but beautifully displayed. (below].

A garden on tour in the annual meeting of the American Hosta Society.

An award-winning garden on tour in the annual meeting of the American Hosta Society.


That proved to me that a garden can certainly be a collection of plants, as Mr. Bowles suggested.

Advertising in Color Became the Standard for the Late Nineteenth Century American Garden Industry

I just finished reading Rose Hayden-Smith’s new book Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.

Hayden-Smith_978-0-7864-7020-4The book discusses the campaigns of World War I and then World War II to encourage people to grow vegetables and thus help the War effort.  The Victory Garden became the enduring symbol of the advertising campaign from the United States Government.

Hayden-Smith discusses the changes in advertising at the beginning of the twentieth century and  how such new advertising enabled the Government’s gardening movement to sweep the country to help the War effort.

She writes, “Advertising was greatly influenced by the use of color…Skillfully rendered lithographs and advertisements influenced and changed consumer behavior…Visual information and advertising thus entered a new era between 1880 and 1915.”

The seed and nursery industries of that time employed colorful lithographs on their covers, especially after 1880.

When seedsman John Lewis Childs from Floral Park, New York sent out his catalog in 1875, he distributed 7,500 copies to his customers.  In 1895, with a colorful lithograph cover, he mailed out 1,500,000. That time was the height of the colorful advertising that Hayden-Smith discusses. Here are two of the Childs Company catalogs from the 1890s [below].

Childs seed Co. 1890 catalogThus the change in the use of color in advertising, along with the invention of modern advertising, swept along the garden industry as it did other businesses and organizations of that time period.

Marketing, advertising, and public relations changed the way people received information about products and services.  No longer would simple information be enough. The new mass media demanded color that became an integral part of  a persuasive message to impact an audience .

Childs catalog 1898 rose