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Gardening across ‘the pond’ in the early 20th century

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Front cover of the US ‘Garden Magazine’, March 1922 edition


Most of my garden history research topics relate to the UK, and I’ve always been particularly interested in the UK horticultural press from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods which are a mine of fascinating information. However, in this blog I’m looking at horticulture across ‘the pond’ in the US, mostly through the lens of the development of gardening magazines and one particularly influential garden writer, Wilhelm Miller. Miller was instrumental in the change from 'English gardens' being the epitome of style for the American gardener, to an appreciation, and use of, native plants in their gardens.


And, at the end of this blog, there's information on other sources on American gardening, including an excellent Timeline of American Garden History from the Smithsonian.


Gardening Magazines


In many ways, the development of gardening magazines across the US mirrors that of those in the UK (see my blog The UK Horticultural Press:1840-1920’s) although, in the US, it was initially the inexpensive agricultural journals that carried gardening articles. It was only in1846 that a purely gardening publication appeared – The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, although it still covered, as the title indicates, a wide range of rural pursuits. The Horticulturist was edited by landscape designer, horticulturist and writer, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), whose important Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America was published a few years earlier. In this he introduced what was later considered to be the American Dream, namely: “…an attachment to a certain spot, and a desire to render that place attractive – a feeling which seems more or less strongly fixed in the minds of all men”.


'The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste', Issue no.1, vol.1, July 1846

The editorial in The Horticulturist's first issue introduced the new magazine to the growing numbers of eager readers: "...we offer this new production, which begins to unfold itself now, in the mid-summer of the year. In its pages, from month to month, we shall give a collection of all that can most interest those whose feelings are firmly rooted in the soil… The garden and the orchard; the hot-house and the conservatory; the park and the pleasure grounds…”.


By the 1890’s, as in the UK, the flourishing era of American garden magazines really began. Dramatic technological advances in both printing and photography fuelled the publication of mass-circulation magazines and, as these advances led to the fall in production prices, magazines reached even greater numbers of new readers.


By the early 20th century, an attractive new crop of publications reached millions of American households – with hundreds, if not thousands, of titles appearing during this period, all endeavouring to cater for the enthusiasm for nature and gardening amongst an increasingly urban American audience. Many of these garden magazines had a high level of horticulture and design expertise amongst their authors, including leading landscape architects and designers of the time, as well as some of the best-known garden writers. They also published, just like their UK counterparts, articles by passionate amateur gardeners.


The newly developed technique of halftone printing also added significantly to the quality of the photographic illustrations by the turn of the 20th century. So much so that, according to Virginia Tuttle Clayton writing in The Once and Future Gardener: Garden Writing from the Golden Age of Magazines1900-1940 published in 2000, these magazines "wielded significant influence over the country's gardening tastes and practices" and provided "a new and stimulating reading experience".


Here, briefly, are some of those titles:


Front page of ‘The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser’, vol.1, 1859


Another early publication, The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser established in 1859, was aimed particularly at ‘gentlemen farmers’. Whilst Gardening, a magazine launched in September 1892 in Chicago, had a somewhat different readership in mind. The first volume's editorial announced its intention to be “a plain, practical paper, in plain language, gotten up with the view of aiding every one who is interested in a garden, more especially the amateur. To teach the plain, ungarnished truth about every horticultural subject shall be our mission.” This magazine, full of gardening advice, information on plants, and reports on flower shows across the US, recognised “the multitude of people who have small gardens… who love beautiful flowers, or trees, or shrubs, or other plants, or good fruits or good vegetables, and these are the people we wish to help.


Masthead of 'Gardening' (Chicago), Vol.1, No.1, September 15, 1892

Front cover of the 'Gardeners' Chronicle of America', March 1913


There were also American gardening magazines with names familiar to those of us in the UK - like the Gardeners’ Chronicle of America, The Garden Magazine and Country Life in America. The Gardeners' Chronicle of America was another popular, mass-circulation magazine. First published in1906 it was, for some years, the official journal of the US’s National Association of Gardeners, although from the 1930's it was aimed at the more amateur gardener with a special emphasis on rock gardening. Country Life in America and The Garden Magazine, are detailed in the section on Miller.


American Homes and Gardens, introduced itself to its readers in July 1905 as a magazine that was ”at once old and new” - it being the new name for a well-established magazine catchily entitled Scientific American, Architects’ and Builders’ Edition, which dated back to 1885. The newly named magazine was to be primarily concerned with the home, but would also encompass the “outdoor environment of the house”.


'American Homes and Gardens', Vol.1, July 1905


American Homes and Gardens was not, however, concerned with the yard gardens of ordinary Americans, but with the houses and gardens of the wealthy – those with, as it wrote, broad sweeps of lawn or garden, and those who, having made free use of their broader opportunities for travel, had “enriched” their homes with “intelligently selected art treasures…". One example being the house and garden of a Mr Bergner in Pennsylvania which was featured in the magazine in 1905.


Views of the house and garden. 'The Estate of C W Bergner, Esq. Ambler, Pennsylvania' from ‘American Homes and Gardens’, August 1905

There were also various magazines, aimed at America's middle to upper income households, which concentrated on home design, decorating, and sometimes art and antiques, but which also included high quality articles on the garden: two were House Beautiful established in1896 and House & Garden first published in 1901 - the latter, concentrating initially on architecture, later shifted its emphasis to home decorating and gardening.


As with most of the more upmarket magazines, as printing techniques improved they were able to produce beautifully illustrated front covers. In particular, the invention of a full-colour 'halftone' process made it financially possible to print colourful covers - and especially popular were coloured illustrations rather than photographs, as can be seen below.


Front covers of 'House Beautiful' from March 1905 and August 1933


Front cover of 'House & Garden' magazine, 'Spring Gardening Guide', March 1916


'House & Garden' included pages of 'Garden Suggestions and Queries', 1911


As Clayton points out in her book, "Photographic illustrations, lower prices, and faster-paced writing that addressed timelier subject matter all helped increase the popularity of magazines." Between the years 1885 to 1905, some 7,500 new titles on varying subjects were launched in the US although, according to A History of American Magazines (several volumes1966-68) by Frank Mott, only half of them probably lasted very long. Amongst these survivors were many magazines on gardening and horticulture.


These garden magazines, whether aimed at those with yard gardens to those with sweeping lawns and broad borders, tended to have one thing in common: their covers, often showing charming cottage gardens (big and small), quaint gates, paths, walled gardens, sundials and dovecotes - all depicting the atmosphere most American gardeners wanted to achieve, the atmosphere of an English country garden.


But one influential US garden writer, Wilhelm Miller, wanted to change things. His mission was no less than to encourage "Americans to surpass England in gardening" - and thereby develop an American garden style.


Wilhelm Miller and the 'English' garden


Wilhelm T. Miller (1869-1938), later known as William Tyler Miller, began his career as an associate editor of horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Horticulture. He was fascinated by British gardens which he thought “the most beautiful things of their kind in the world”, especially the “English cottage garden” style so beloved by Americans.


Wilhelm T. Miller (1869-1938), US horticulturalist and landscape designer

Miller later became the garden editor of the popular upmarket Country Life in America (from 1901) selling for 35 cents a copy and modelled after the UK’s own Country Life, and general editor of the Garden Magazine from 1905 - a cheaper publication initially selling for 10 cents, and undoubtedly named for William Robinson’s popular UK journal, The Garden - both titles often featuring articles by UK horticulturalists reprinted from UK magazines.


For example, while browsing the 1924 volume of the US Garden Magazine, I found articles by William Robinson and also the famed UK plant-hunter Ernest Wilson, but here writing in his capacity as Assistant Director of the famed Boston Arnold Arboretum.


In both magazines, Miller promoted his ideas about native planting recognising that, with their myriad photographic illustrations, such magazines were key in communicating a gardening ideal to the American public even more so than books: "We have few books", he wrote, "that have contributed much toward an American style of gardening... compared to the bulk of... magazines which give thousands of pictures of American effects. The... future must... pore over the old files of 'Garden and Forest', 'Country Life in America', 'the Garden Magazine', etc.".


Front cover of 'Country Life in America', Vol 1, No 1, November 1901. First published in 1901 as an illustrated monthly magazine, it closed in 1942


Country Life in America concentrated mostly on gardening, keepings its readers informed of the latest garden fashions and featuring articles on the gardens of the wealthy. As The New York Times pointed out in its review of the first issue of November 23, 1901: “The publishers of this handsome monthly… seem to have felt that there was a want and to have supplied it. The first issue for this month, November, was certainly [a] fine a specimen of American typography… The initial number could not be better, and it is the intention of the publishers to keep up this high pictorial standard. As to the text, the services of the most competent writers in the country have been put under requisition.”


The 'Garden Magazine' – US version, March 1924. Volume 1, 1905 through to volume 39 for 1924 are available online


The editorial in its first issue in February 1905, presumably written by Miller, informed its readers that English gardening papers and magazines, with circulations in the hundreds of thousands and with the "best authorities" represented in their columns, were not, with a few exceptions, "beautiful" (a fair comment I think - especially since some American magazines had both colour cover pages and advertisements earlier than their UK counterparts). The intent, the editorial declared was to do better than "their English cousins", with good quality illustrations, printing and paper, devoted "to that most fascinating and refreshing of all subjects, the garden."


Colour advertisement in the 'Garden Magazine’, April 1907

In the early years of the 20th century, it was the norm for many well-to-do Americans to cross the Atlantic to visit English gardens and, as one American blog points out, they "certainly returned home buoyant from their travels and receptive for a piece of Europe.”

(See my blog A Christmas Present for 1909 which mentions one particular wealthy American gardener, Henry du Pont, who did just that in the years before the 1st world war.)


Miller himself spent most of 1908 in England visiting gardens, and was particularly taken with the ideas of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor (which he visited), and Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas on colour. Miller then spent the next two years writing extensively about his tour in a series of articles which proved so popular that they became the basis for his book, What England Can Teach Us About Gardening (1911), advertised as laying the foundations of an American style of gardening.


Advertisement for Miller's book in the ‘Garden Magazine’, December 1911 which sets out some of his principles for an American style of gardening


American magazines certainly espoused the English cottage garden ideal but, following his trip, Miller quite sensibly concluded that every country would benefit from using its own native trees, shrubs and plants. For Miller, an American style of landscape gardening could result from the adaptation of the English technique of naturalistic planting – as practised by Robinson, Jekyll and others, "to the American needs of privacy, relaxation, and comfort, using chiefly native plants".


In the Preface to his book, Miller set out his main objectives: the first being "To help towards making America one great garden as England is" but, importantly, "To help lay the foundations of an American style of gardening". While still advocating a devotion to the "spirit" of English gardening, Miller wanted his readers to stop wasting "millions of dollars" on unsuitable plants which struggled in the range of climates across America, and to use native plants – and he obviously did his homework, highlighting this point in the table below.


From 'What England Can Teach Us About Gardening', Wilhelm Miller, 1911

Incidentally, Miller’s book was published in the UK under the title, The Charm of English Gardens in that same year, with a preface by Gertrude Jekyll, who agreed with Miller that an English-style garden couldn't be exactly imitated in most of the United States (due to climate, etc), and agreed with Miller that Americans could achieve "the spirit" of an English garden using the "best of [their own] native equivalent plants".


While Miller generally spoke to the larger gardens of the American middle classes and above, most gardens were of course much smaller. One article, appearing in the Garden Magazine in September 1911 discussed these types of gardens but, again, in relation to the English style. Titled A Garden of Little Labor and Much Delight with a sub-title setting out its purpose: Stating the case on behalf of the average busy man who cultivates a ‘yard’ without trained help – the kind of gardening that is a recreation for the million, the author, Aldred Scott Warthin, while pointing out that it was in the “development of the yard that American gardening will find its greatest rewards”, still thought that those gardens would be “an idealised”, “improved” or “an evolved English cottage garden developed in accordance with the exigencies of our climate, flora and national temperament.”


With all due respect to both Gertrude Jekyll and Mrs King he wrote, who had acres of garden to play with, their kind of what he called “impressionistic color gardening” was not suitable for the yard gardens that most Americans had. [Louisa Boyd Yeomans (1863-1948) – better known under the name Mrs Francis King, was an American gardener and author, who became a leading advocate of gardening and horticulture in the US – called by some the “fairy godmother of gardening in America”.]


Miller thought the chief considerations of the yard garden were: “to give the owner the greatest possible amount of pleasure for the greatest length of time with the least possible expenditure in time and money”. Something I think all gardeners would probably agree with! Warthin also wrote that “To articles like those of Miss Jekyll and Mrs King and others ‘we of the yard’ may turn for pleasure and inspiration, but their way of doing is not for us, even if it be the most desirable way of gardening.


Miller seemed to agree with this viewpoint. In 1911, he gave up his magazine editorships and in the following year took a University position as an assistant professor of landscape architecture, becoming a close friend and follower of Jens Jensen (1860-1951). Jensen was a Danish landscape architect who had emigrated to the US and became famous for his harmonious use of the natural terrain and native flora in the American mid-west – the naturalistic, so-called prairie style of landscape design. And in 1915, Miller finally moved away from ideas of the garden ideal as being English, and set out his own ideas on this in his book The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, where he encouraged the use of native plants like grasses and wildflowers in the landscape – plants previously considered by Americans to be weed-like.


Described as “one of the most significant early treatises” on the topic of a truly American style of landscape design in a review by the Library of American Landscape History, Miller's book featured projects by Jensen together with photographs of designs by other well-known American landscape architects of the time. The many images in the book vividly demonstrate Miller’s use of hardy native plants in landscape design with emphatic captions such as “Away with Gaudy Foreigners and Artificial Varieties!” and “Restore the Native Vegetation!” – leaving little doubt as to his viewpoint on what his fellow Americans should be doing in their gardens and landscapes.


Front cover of Miller's book 'The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening', 1915 with excerpt showing perennials for obtaining a 'prairie style'



While horticulture in America thrived, the end of Miller’s story is a rather sad one. As described by Clayton in The Once and Future Gardener, Miller lost his academic position in 1916 due to lack of funding, and never recovered from this professional setback. When he died in 1938, Miller’s huge contribution to American horticulture and landscape design was largely forgotten and unacknowledged in the gardening press.


However, Miller's ideas on the use of native American plants spread, and the gardening ideal in the US began to take on its own identity.


Today, an American style of garden can be seen in the UK at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath. The gardens, originally developed in co-operation with American landscape architect James van Sweden, use naturalistic prairie-style planting which UK garden historian Tim Richardson, writing in Gardens Illustrated magazine in January 2020, described as “considerably bolder and more robust in appearance than the European look, chiefly because of the difficulties created by the extremes of climate across much of the US.


Planting at the American Museum and Gardens, Bath


The American market for gardening and horticultural publications continues to flourish, with many local and country-wide titles, while a National Gardening Survey (2016) reported gardening as an increasingly popular activity with 74% of all US households participating in ‘lawn and garden care’, spending some $36 billion (2015).



References:

Virginia Tuttle Clayton, The Once and Future Gardener: Garden Writing from the Golden Age of Magazines1900-1940 (2000)


Further Reading:

For up-to-date American gardening ideas see websites for The American Horticultural Society https://www.ahsgardening.org/ and The American Gardener (The Magazine of the American Horticultural Society) https://www.ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/gardening-publications/the-american-gardener


Many of these magazine titles and Miller's books are available online at Biodiversity Heritage Library (biodiversitylibrary.org)




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6 Comments


Eleanna Sakka
Eleanna Sakka
Aug 20, 2022

I find this blog absolutely fascinating! I don't know exactly where I can address my question, so I am writing it here. In your expert knowledge, I wanted to ask you whether the hiring of a gardener in the 1920s was something only the rich could afford? Or even middle class could keep their gardens beautiful and tidy with the help of a gardener?

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Eleanna Sakka
Eleanna Sakka
Oct 15, 2022
Replying to

Thank you very much for your reply! It is really helpful. I will check the Gardener's Chronicle, also.


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sandra
Apr 01, 2022

Fascinating as ever, Paula. Did you ever find any writeups on the gardens of Mrs Bayard Henry?

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