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We debut our online History section with an article on how plant catalogues in the nineteenth century influenced middle class landscape design.



Marketing and the American Garden in the Nineteenth Century

Courtesy of the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana � Seed Industry and Trade, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.Figure 1: Courtesy of the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana: Seed Industry and Trade, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.


By Thomas J. Mickey

Colonial American gardens were functional, producing food for the table and medicines for the family. Later, encouraged by America’s first landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, middle class suburban Americans became increasingly interested in ornamental gardening. The nineteenth century's prevailing style, developed in England over decades, became the romantic English garden with its sprawling lawn, dotted with trees, shrubs and flowerbeds. 

The middle class garden contained elements of both the American colonial food garden and the English country estate, but evolved its own form with the inspiration of seedsmen and nursery owners, like James Vick of Rochester, New York. Downing found his inspiration in English horticulturalist and writer John Claudius Loudon. Vick, in turn, thought that Downing represented the best for America in landscape gardening.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener's Monthly in 1874 "At times, when reading in English horticultural magazines the immense amount of interesting matter freely contributed to the great cause, and which has been the great means of making English horticulture the great power it is today, we have wondered whether the time would ever come when American horticulture  would ever be blessed by the same true love." The English model of gardening, written about in English garden magazines, but also expressed in England’s initiative in public parks and horticultural societies, had long inspired the  American seed company and nursery owners. The owners who were also often garden writers like Vick looked to England for garden inspiration.

Garden Catalogs

The young Englishman Vick made his way to America in 1833, eventually combining his journalism and horticultural skills to develop a garden business, the selling of seeds through mail order catalogs. Along with other seed companies, like Philadelphia’s Robert Buist and New York’s Peter Henderson, Vick promoted the romantic English garden in the catalog’s essays and illustrations. That garden included the lawn, groups of shrubs, a vine climbing the wall of the house, flowerbeds on the lawn, and a kitchen garden behind the house. The Peter Henderson catalog cover of 1886 illustrated a landscape that reflected a gardenesque style, first proposed by Loudon in his books and magazine for the English middle class. [Figure 1]

Mass produced catalogs became vehicles to sell products, but also dreams and hopes. Though the company owners knew the Spanish, Italian and French garden styles, the American garden industry sold its customers the dream of the English garden. Late nineteenth century American gardeners experienced mass media for the first time through national magazines and catalogs shipped in the hundreds of thousands around the country. Since that time, the media have provided the gardener with products, but also hopes and dreams in its advertising. No longer was advertising simply information about a product. Advertising created a need for the product.

 Advertising and the Garden

Advertising since 1850 enabled United States companies to control both product demand and price. Products for the garden were no exception. At that same time, nurseries and seed companies, especially in the Northeast, created a mass market for “branded” products like plants and garden accessories. From the vantage point of advertisers, the growing uniformity of taste was simply evidence of progress.[1]

Forms of advertising in the nineteenth century included the catalog, first and foremost, but also articles and ads in national garden magazines and newspapers. Trade cards and chromos also illustrated gardens for Americans. Popular garden magazines like Gardener’s Monthly often discussed the important elements of garden and landscape, including the lawn.  Most of the illustrations reflected the prevailing romantic English garden.

As advertising and the mass media became increasingly essential for the economy, products became standardized. Branding became essential to sell anything. Customers no longer requested just oatmeal but Quaker Oats, no longer bar soap but Ivory. The look of the landscape in garden promotion too took on a standardized style, the English garden. Garden product promotion became one way of identifying a new middle class, especially in American suburbs where every home needed a lawn. National advertising, a creature of the modern corporation, played a key role in a more streamlined commercial culture that sought to stabilize market relations and product representations. [2]

The Standard for the Garden

The success of the plant and seed business coincided with progress in printing, advertising and transportation. As a result, seed and nursery catalogs arrived in more rural homes throughout the country, supporting an ever-growing readership. Standardization gave America a new garden style, a garden for the middle class, enthralled by the new mail order catalogs that offered them products along with advice for the home landscape. Illustrations and essays told them what the garden and landscape should look like. Advertising historian Jackson Lears wrote that mail-order catalogs helped America submerge local and regional idiosyncrasies in a standardized commercial style.[3] The garden industry, after all, was a business seeking to sell its products. The Childs Company of New York, among dozens of companies, sent out 750,000 catalogs in 1875, but by 1896, the number increased to 1,115,000. That same year Ladies Home Journal, the leading American magazine of its type, reached a circulation of more than one million.

The nineteenth century American seed and nursery industries promoted the English garden as the standard, and so it was no surprise that same garden appeared in suburbs across the country from California to Maine.

About the Author: Thomas Mickey, graduate of the Landscape Institute, class of 2006 with a certificate in Landscape Design,  is Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies at Bridgewater State University. This article is based on his new book America's Romance with the English Garden (Athens: Ohio University Press, May 2013). His blog can be found at www.americangardening.net.



[1] Jackson
Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 205.

[2]_________, 88.

[3]_________, 205.