The nineteenth century owners of seed companies and nurseries taught America the importance of the garden.
Sure they had a business, but they were also horticulturalists as well who knew how to garden and how to lay out a landscape.
They were adamant about teaching their customers.
Philadelphia nuseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly clearly let his readers know whose ideas on landscape he preferred. He wrote in the March 1877 issue of his magazine: “We would particularly recommend at this season of the year a consultation of works on taste in landscape gardening with a view to improvement in this respect. Of these are Downing, Kemp, and Scott, within the reach of every one.”
The landscape designers he recommended, New York nurseryman and writer Andrew Jackson Downing, English landscape designer Edward Kemp, and Ohio artist turned landscaper Frank J. Scott, all taught the principles of the naturalistic style of English landscape.
Downing’s books appeared in the 1840s. Kemp wrote an American version of his book on English design, first published in 1850.
Scott published his book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds in 1870.
Since his readers were probably familiar with these three designers, Meehan simply used just the last name on his list of recommended authors.
Thus Meehan supported the English style of landscpe, called the modern, rather than the formal, symmetrical design.
In the nineteenth century American gardening reflected the English landscape because the seed and nursery industries in their mass marketed catalogs preferred English garden design.
English gardeners came to America in the nineteenth century, much like other immigrants, to seek a better life.
The way to that goal for such gardeners sometimes turned out to be owning a seed business or nursery.
But there was always an allegiance to English garden style.
Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) came to seek his fortune in America after he had studied and worked as a gardener in England. He started a successful nursery in Philadelphia. Soon after that, because of his writing skill, he launched a magazine called Gardener’s Monthly that ran for decades.
In the late 1870s he returned to visit England after forty years in America.
He wrote about that trip in GM in 1877, “It is the genius of selection, the art to collect and the taste to arrange, the tact to suit foreign matters to native circumstances, that has given England the gardening fame which she everywhere enjoys. I see clearly that one weakness has been a close copying of other nations. The weakness is only natural, as our literature and all our associatons are founded on theirs.”
The horticultural societies, garden books and magazines, and even plant choices in this country, Meehan argued, depended on the English garden style.
The size of the company’s main office building, greenhouses, and trial gardens frequently became a theme in the nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs.
The owners wanted to let the customer know they were modern and had the latest facilities to provide a quality product.
Peter Henderson (1822-1890) built his seed empire on Cortlandt Street in New York with a five story building. The first floor was the seed store.
The customer trusted such a company.
That’s the power of advertising. You give the customer a reason to trust you, and you have their business.
A nineteenth century customer saw that image in the catalog and thought “If a company shows off such a grand building, it must be worth my business.”
Such boasting worked in late nineteenth century at the birth of modern advertising, and it works today as well.
Today how often do we see dozens of cars in a car lot as part of the marketing pitch from a local dealer?
What about the dozens of varieties of annuals a local nursery offers in the spring?
What images would we use today to market plants and seeds?
During the nineteenth century the preeminent American writer in landscape design was New York nurseryman Andrew Jackson Downing, who followed the principles of English writer and designer John Claudius Loudon.
Downing wrote several books which came out in multiple editions during the nineteenth century.
Another nurseryman Franklin Rueben Elliott (1817-1878) from Ohio also wrote a book on landscape design, based on his experience helping homeowners with their landscape. His family published his book titled Handbook of Practical Landscape Gardening in 1881, three years after Elliott’s death.
Like many other seedsmen and nursery owners Elliott wanted to instruct his customers in the principles of landscape design.
Elliott, who was also an artist besides a writer and editor, had spent time in Newburg, New York with Downing where he learned about landscape design.
Although Elliott wrote for the middle class, with properties smaller than the estates of the wealthy, he recognized his indebtedness to Downing whose work found more acceptance among wealthy estate owners.
Elliott wrote in the preface: “Since the labors of the lamented and talented A. J. Downing, great taste and desire for, and in the improvement of, grounds around our homes, have been developed.”
The landscape advice of both Downing and Elliott proposed the English style.
Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan recognized Elliott’s appeal to the middle class. In the magazine Gardener’s Monthly which Meehan edited he wrote: “For this class this little book of Mr. Elliott’s is just the thing.”
The nineteenth century seed and nusery catalogs often included an image of a suburban home with a lawn and garden. That illustration confirmed what was happening around large cities across the country. People were moving to suburbs because they wanted a lawn and garden which meant a chance to be closer to nature.
Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1876: “Those who have now their town house for winter, and country seat for summer, are among the rarest of American citizens. Gardening at country seats is almost of the past. There is little demand for that class of horticultural talent that this system called for. On the other hand it is a pleasure to note that suburban gardening is largely on the increase. The small places, from one to ten acres, are more numerous than they used to be.”
In his new book Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston Michael Rawson devotes a chapter to growth of the suburbs in nineteenth century Boston. He writes, “The independent pastoral suburb was more than just a new kind of place. It represented a new set of relationships between people and nature.”
People left the cities to find that link with nature, which often meant a lawn and a garden, in keeping with what horticulturalists like seedsmen and nursery owners promoted. The landscape style of course was English with a lawn and flowerbeds of annuals dotting the lawn in true Victorian style.
The English influence on American gardening began with the Colonial period on the East Coast.
Much of the garden design followed the geometric, old fashioned style of straight lines and symmetry in the landscape.
A few versions of the modern, more natural approach to the landscape appeared as well.
Woodlands became an early example of that design style.
Woodlands in Philadelphia was the garden of Thomas Hamilton (1745-1813). His landscape followed the modern, picturesque English view of extensive lawns, winding paths, and water features. He also included a plant collection that totaled 13,000 plants.
Thomas Jefferson visited Woodlands, probably for ideas for his own landscape which he designed at Monticello, also in the English picturesque view.
Well before the nineteenth century we can see evidence of the English influence on American gardening, including colonial gardens and plantations in the south, and also gardens of the wealthy around large cities in the northeast like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
It is no surprise that seed companies and nurseries grew after 1870 when suburbs spread around the perimeters of large cities.
Patrice M. Tice in her book Gardening in America 1830-1910 wrote that the number of men employed as seedsmen, nurserymen, and gardeners increased 275% between 1870 and 1930.
The seed companies and nurseries provided the homeowner with every garden and landscape need in the new suburb. The companies presented some products unfamiliar to the homeowner but, in the ads from the companies, essential.
In 1894 the C. P. Lines and E. F. Coe Seed Company from New Haven, Conn. wrote in its catalog called Attractive Home Grounds: “From the most restricted city lot to the more liberal setting of the suburban home and country estate, the possibilities of completing the effect by the judicious manipulation of nature’s furnishings—her grass, shrubs, trees, with their varying tints and shades of every imaginable color and form—give possibilities that should not be neglected by any one.”
Lovett’s from New Jersey said that its 1882 catalogue was “indispensable to all owners of country and suburban homes, whether it be a mere village lot, or the extensive grounds of the rich man’s country seat.”
The green industry grows with a strong housing market.
As suburbs spread around the country, seed companies and nurseries emerged to provide the homeowner with seeds and plants, but also instruction on how to design the home property.
The English garden, with its signature lawn, provided the model for that instruction.
Mount Auburn Cemetery in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts has always been a special place for me. The Cemetery dates from 1831.
Over the years I have visited it many times.
The weeping purple European Beech tree that greets you as you enter certainly stands out as a wonder. You can walk under its branches.
Dorchester nurseryman and President of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Marshall Wilder (1798-1886), a popular speaker and writer, once said “It was intended by the founders of the Garden and Cemetery at Mount Auburn that these grounds should ultimtely offer an example of the best style of landscape or picturesque gardening.”
The same English picturesque landscape style also served later as the model for Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted loved the natural landscape with the extended lawn, careful placement of trees, water, and curved walkways.
The seed and nursery industries of the nineteenth century were just going along with the prominent ideas on the landscape and the garden when they wrote essays and included illustrations of the landscape that were often in the same style.
To visit Mount Auburn today is to step back in time, but also to experience the English picturesque landscape.
Just returned from the Smith College annual Fall Chrysanthemum Show in Northampton, Massachusetts which runs through November 20.
It is a worthwhile show to visit. The number of plants and the colors of the flower take your breath away.
I thought of the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs and what they had to say about this marvelous flower.
The following quote from the Robert Buist Seed Catalog of 1895 came from my work at the catalog collection at the Library of the Department of Agriculture.
Buist’s catalog of that year said: “It has not been many years since the Chrysanthemum was regarded by the masses as being unworthy of cultivation, the flowers although of brilliant colors were common in their appearance, and their color obnoxious; but today our Chrysanthemum exhibitions throughout the country are great and fashionable events, and it may be classed as the great American favorite. This change in sentiment is owing to the great improvements made in the coloring, size, and exquisite form of the flower.”
The improvements in the flower certainly show at the Smith College exhibition.
In 1891 American gardener James Morton wrote in his book Chrysanthemum Culture for America that “numerous works have been devoted to this favorite flower, but they are chiefly of English origin, and in view of the great difference in our climatic conditions, they can only with uncertainty be adopted as guides in our country”. So he wrote his book for American gardeners.
Morton mentioned a yellow mum called ‘Golden Empress’. You will see several pots of it at the Smith Exhibit.
Peter Henderson (1823-1890), a Scottish immigrant gardener, became one of the most successful seed company owners in nineteenth century America.
His five-story seed company was located on Cortlandt Street in New York. He had gardens in New Jersey where he would trial his seeds.
It was not uncommon for seed companies and nurseries to present landscape advice in their catalogs, books, and magazines.
He wrote: “The more modern style of flower borders has quite displaced [herbacuous borders], and they are now but little seen, unless in very old gardens, or in botanical collections.”
He advocated the carpet-bed style of planting on the lawn, as you can see in the cover illustrating his book.
The seven plant varieties, all annuals, he proposed included a dark-leafed Canna in the center and Alternanthera versicolor at the edge, bordering the lawn.
He had exhibited a f lowerbed with the same annuals at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Landscape design is tied into what is in fashion at a particular time. In Henderson’s advice Victorian carpet bedding with annuals was popular in both England and America and so that was the landscape style he recommended.