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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.