Gardening as a link to the Past

The gardens of America's past inspire and endure.

Colonial Revival Gardens

Nostalgia for America's colonial past inspired a uniquely American style of gardening that flourished from the mid-1800s and peaked in the 1920s. These gardens drew inspiration from the colonial era, but they were not exact reconstructions. Instead, they were fanciful variations of colonial garden design. Beds and paths were laid out in formal symmetry. Boxwood hedges, picket fences, classic arches, and sundials mixed with plantings of "old-fashioned" flowers like lilacs, old roses, hollyhocks, mock orange and snowberry shrubs.

Laight Garden, Salem, Massachusetts, 1920s

Laight Garden, Salem, Massachusetts, 1920s
Hand-colored glass lantern slide.
Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

Garden clubs and preservation groups organized to protect colonial houses and gardens and played an important role in documenting these historic sites through photographic surveys. House and garden tours became common from the 1930s, inspiring gardeners to adopt the Colonial Revival style at home.

Colonial boy on cover of Landreths' Seeds catalogue, 1918

Colonial boy on cover of Landreths' Seeds catalogue, 1918

Romantic nostalgia and patriotism drove the Colonial Revival style. Social status also played a part. It was a style that signaled an identification with traditional American values. These revivals tended to be much prettier and more flower-laden than the hard-working colonial originals.

Reflecting the popularity of Colonial Revival gardens, seed catalogs of the 1920s and 1930s featured idealized scenes of colonial days. Peter Henderson & Co. regularly published catalogues featured homes and gardens of prominent figures from America's colonial past.

On the cover of this catalog, Hamilton Grange, the federal-style Harlem home of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, has been embellished with lavish flower gardens

Peter Henderson & Co., Everything for the Garden, 1926, New York

On the cover of this catalog, Hamilton Grange, the federal-style Harlem home of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, has been embellished with lavish flower gardens

Here, First Lady Dolley Madison is imagined in her garden at the White House.

Peter Henderson & Co., Everything for the Garden, 1920, New York

Here, First Lady Dolley Madison is imagined in her garden at the White House.

 This catalog features Sulgrave Manor, George Washington's ancestral home in England.

Peter Henderson & Co., Everything for the Garden, 1935, New York

This catalog features Sulgrave Manor, George Washington's ancestral home in England.

As chief gardener of London's Chelsea Physic Garden, Philip Miller (1691-1771) drew up idealized plans that inspired gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic. Miller's book, along with other written and archaeological evidence, provides clues on how to recreate colonial gardens today.

Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary, London, 1768 Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary, London, 1768
Frontispiece from Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary (1731)

Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary, London, 1768

This was the largest and final edition of Miller's influential and informative work, which was first published in 1731.

Frontispiece from Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary (1731)
Hand-colored glass lantern slide Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

American historian Alice Morse Earle wrote extensively about the colonial era in America. She was among the first to document historic landscapes, beginning with this 1901 publication. Immensely popular, her books about colonial and colonial-inspired gardens remained in print for three decades.

Alice Morse Earle Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, New York; London, 1901

Alice Morse Earle Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, New York; London, 1901

American landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950) created many residential gardens throughout the United States over the course of a 40-year design career. She hired a number of graduates from the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women, founded in Massachusetts in 1901, the first of its kind open to women.

Chatham Manor, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1920s

Chatham Manor, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1920s
Hand-colored glass lantern slide
Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

In 1922 she was commissioned to design a Colonial Revival garden on the site of a former cornfield at Chatham Manor. Visitors thought the lush garden was a restoration; actually it was an artistic interpretation of a colonial garden.

The West Coast saw a revival of Spanish Colonial gardens. Located primarily in Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and Montecito, California, these gardens featured such elements as enclosed courtyards, fountains, and colorful tiles.

Las Tejas, Santa Barbara, California, 1920s

Las Tejas, Santa Barbara, California, 1920s
Hand-colored glass lantern slide
Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

Garden clubs in the South pioneered the documentation of American gardens. Historic Gardens of Virginia (1923) by the James River Garden Club and Homes and Gardens in Old Virginia (1930) by the Garden Club of Virginia were among the first.

The Garden Club of America

Documenting and preserving historic gardens was an early initiative of The Garden Club of America, founded in 1913. In the 1920s the GCA began to amass a collection of lantern slides that recorded America's gardens. The assemblage of more than 3,500 glass slides came to the Smithsonian in 1987 and is now preserved in the Archives of American Gardens.

Home of wealthy industrialist George Owen Knapp.

Arcady, Montecito, California, 1920s. Home of wealthy industrialist George Owen Knapp.

Thornewood, Tacoma, Washington, 1920s

Thornewood, Tacoma, Washington, 1920s

Gardens designed by Warren Manning, Jens Jensen and Rose Standish Nichols.

Wyldwood, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1920s. Owned by Clyde Mitchell Carr, president of Ryerson Steel. Gardens designed by Warren Manning, Jens Jensen and Rose Standish Nichols.

Casa Ananda, Palm Beach, Florida, 1920s. Owned by Alfred G. Kay and his wife, Elizabeth.

Casa Ananda, Palm Beach, Florida, 1920s. Owned by Alfred G. Kay and his wife, Elizabeth.