Cultivating American History

The Smithsonian Libraries have produced a summer-long digital and actual exhibition on the history of American gardening titled Cultivating America’s Gardens and it features a Salem garden! I’m not surprised; I’ve consulted the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens on more than one occasion and it has several wonderful slides of Salem gardens, most unidentified. The “old-fashioned” garden of the Misses Laight on Chestnut Street in the 1920s opens up one section of the exhibition, “Gardening as a Link to the Past”, which doesn’t surprise me either: Salem’s Colonial Revival ethic and aesthetic certainly extended to horticulture. Besides “the Past”, Cultivating America’s Gardens has six additional sections/themes: “Gardening for Science” (“botanizing” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), “Rolling out the Lawn” (the emergence of the Great American Lawn from the Victorian era through World War II), “Gardening to Impress” (Gilded Age gardens and World Fairs), “Gardening for the Common Good” (Victory gardens and school gardens), “Gardening as Enterprise” (selling seeds), “Gardening for the Environment” (sustainable gardening), as well as a concluding section on the Smithsonian’s role in preserving America’s garden heritage. My discoveries from the online exhibition? The word “botanizing”, which I never knew was a verb, the “tastemaker” Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934), author of more than 300 articles for Garden and Forest as well as the influential Art OutofDoors: Hints on Good Taste Gardening, and the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women, founded in Massachusetts in 1901, the first of its kind open to women. I definitely want to learn more about that!

Curated Gardens Laight

Curated Gardens Victorian Lawns

Curated Gardens Gilded

Curated Gardens War

Curated Garden collage

Curated Seeds


The Laight Garden in Salem, 1920s; Catalog for Ross Bro’s. Co., Farm & Garden Supplies (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1909); The Blue Garden at Beacon Hill, Newport, Rhode Island, 1920s; Editorial cartoon: “War Garden to Do Its Duty”, drawing after J.N. Darling in the New York Tribune, about 1917 (LOVE THIS); the gardens of Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison as envisioned in 1920 by Peter Henderson & Co.’s Everything for the Garden catalogs; Burpee’s Seeds Contest entry, 1925; The Concrete Jungle, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002, Lawrie Harris, photographer, all Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

4 responses to “Cultivating American History

  • Pamela Hartford

    Donna –

    Agree the Smithsonian is an incomparable resource for American garden history – thank you for writing on this exhibit. fyi the Manchester Historical Society is mounting an exhibit on North Shore gardens and their gardeners this summer, which you might want to check out.

    If you are interested in Mariana Van Rensselaar – all her articles in Garden & Forest are on-line through that publication’s archive, although many of them were penned without authorship. She was an extremely important architectural critic, and was a very passionate advocate for ‘landscape gardening.’ (as opposed to formal gardening.) A bio on her life & contributions was published several years ago, written by Judith Dow. The Peabody Library on Main St has a rare first edition of her incredible biography of H H RIchardson written the year after his death, which includes enormous plates of his works.

    also fyi – the Blue Garden has been restored! The story of this garden and its spectacular opening party – the Blue Mask, which was the talk of Newport society for YEARS and involved nymphs rising out of shells, hundreds of party goers dressed in blue and the owner dressed in blue decorated with sapphires (but of COURSE!) – is recounted in great detail, along with the story of the garden’s restoration, in Arleyn Levee’s book, published last year. See

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    I never watch ads on tv because they break up the flow of the film and invade family peace. But as the 1909 Ross Bro’s. Co., Farm & Garden Supplies catalogue showed, we can learn much more about the social history of an Edwardian community than we might have otherwise thought. Good on the Cultivating America’s Gardens exhibition for including books, catalogues and other paper-based works.

  • Brian Bixby

    Ah, the Lowthorpe School, one of my home town’s few claims to fame. Alas, no longer in Groton, the property long ago sold off.

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