Posts filed under ‘Archives of American Gardens’
This article was originally published in the National Association for Olmsted Parks online newsletter. April 26th is Frederick Law Olmsted’s birthday; celebrate by visiting a local park!
Several hundred photographic images dating from the early twentieth century and taken by Olmsted Brothers’ employee Thomas W. Sears were digitized recently thanks to a project funded by the Smithsonian Institution. The glass plate negatives are part of the Thomas Warren Sears Collection at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens (AAG).
The historic images include unpublished views of early Olmsted design projects including the Emerald Necklace in Boston and Roland Park in Baltimore. There are even a handful of images of Fairsted, the Olmsted firm’s office in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Sears started his design career with the Olmsted firm and later went into private practice in Philadelphia. Among his most noted commissions are Reynolda, the R. J. Reynolds estate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (now part of Wake Forest University) and the Colonial Revival gardens at Pennsbury, William Penn’s country estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
An amateur photographer, Sears documented several projects of the Olmsted firm, his own design work, and numerous gardens and landscapes in the U.S. and Europe that he visited. The Sears Collection at AAG includes over 4,500 of his images, dated approximately 1900-1930.
The 900 Sears images digitized for this pilot project are all available on the Smithsonian’s online catalog at www.siris.si.edu . Their resolution is truly remarkable: it is possible to read the caption of a framed photograph seen in the background of Sears’ dorm room at Harvard University!
Approximately 20% of the Sears Collection was digitized during the rapid capture digitization project. The time needed to capture a high resolution digital scan of each fragile glass plate negative was under a minute as compared to 9-14 minutes per scan that AAG staff had been averaging with a flatbed scanner. The Archives of American Gardens hopes to secure funding in the future to digitize the remainder of the collection which includes Olmsted gems like New York’s Central Park, Buffalo’s Delaware Park, and Branch Brook Park in New Jersey.
-Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Smithsonian Gardens is pleased to announce the recent acquisition of the Ken Druse Garden Photography Collection. Druse, a prolific garden writer and photographer, donated his extensive photographic collection of garden and plant images to the Archives of American Gardens. The collection includes several thousand transparencies and slides documenting over 300 gardens across the United States. Druse took the images to illustrate many of his books as well as newspaper and magazine articles for publications like House & Garden and The New York Times and postings published on his own blog, Ken Druse Real Dirt. Among his books are go-to references like Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation; The Collector’s Garden; and The Natural Shade Garden.
Given its huge scale and exceptional quality, the Ken Druse Garden Photography Collection is a wonderful and important addition to the Archives of American Gardens. A multi-year project to make the collection available for research use will involve steps such as rehousing and cataloging the images as well as digitizing select images for inclusion on the Smithsonian’s online catalog at www.siris.si.edu. Please join Smithsonian Gardens and the Archives of American Gardens in celebrating this fantastic acquisition!
-Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Here at Smithsonian Gardens we are celebrating American Archives Month throughout October. In August 2013, we participated in the first of a series of pilot projects, funded by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, to create high resolution images of archival, museum and library collection items at a rapid speed. The pilot project included a week-long open house for Smithsonian staff, fellows, interns, volunteers and contractors, to showcase the rapid digitizating of over 900 historic glass-plate negatives from the Thomas Sears Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. The open house demonstrated all stages of digitizating a glass-plate negative collection, from moving each fragile plate in a custom carrier, capturing it, and performing quality control on the resulting image, to making the digitized output accessible to the public online. The overall process involved an outside contractor performing the image capture and image processing and two staff members from the Archives of American Gardens prepping the images, handling the glass-plate negatives, ingesting the images into the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System and linking them to pre-existing catalog records in the Smithsonian’s online catalog, SIRIS.
The 8×10 negatives, which had previously been digitized in the 1990s on a video disc at 640 pixels on the image’s longest side, were obviously pixelated in SIRIS. New scans of the negatives created by the vendor through rapid capture were digitized with an 80 megapixel camera. The quality of the new scans, measured at roughly 10,000 pixels on the longest side, ensures that the Archives will likely never have to scan the glass plates again. Rapid capture is not new, but the tools to measure the quality that can be achieved through rapid digitization are. For any large scale digitization projects of like materials, the Archives of American Gardens hopes to secure funding to digitize archival images through the rapid capture process instead of its current method of digitizing on a flatbed scanner.
To put it into concrete terms, the time that it takes to scan one image on a flatbed scanner is roughly 12 to 15 minutes. To digitize one image using rapid capture, it takes less than one minute. Rapid capture has opened our eyes to a highly efficient method that enables an entire collection to be digitized in a quantifiable time frame. The piece of the puzzle that remains to be addressed is the time-intensive process of cataloging that is needed to make the collections readily searchable online.
Background on Thomas Sears
Thomas Sears graduated with a degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1906, where he also studied photography. He worked for Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects in the 1910s out of their Brookline, Massachusetts office before establishing his own landscape design office.
A set of images scanned during the rapid capture digitization project included the Edgewood estate in Baltimore, Maryland, photographed by Thomas Sears and designed by Sears and Wendell of Philadelphia.
Learn more about the Thomas Sears Collection.
Click here to learn more about the Archives of American Gardens.
-Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
We’re used to looking at Detroit as a symbol of economic collapse and decline, especially after the city filed for bankruptcy under the direction of a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager in July. Factories, cars, and images of abandoned buildings remain powerful symbols of the city’s past and present. Yet often against the odds, generations of residents and city leaders have also imagined Detroit as a “green city.” Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s was one of the first environmental visions to imagine the landscape of Detroit as a space valuable for more than the products and byproducts of manufacturing and industry.
The project to turn Belle Isle, a long, narrow island of approximately 700 acres in the Detroit River into an urban park became official in 1879. After years of debate over the location of a large city park, members of Detroit’s Common Council voted to purchase the site from private owners for $200,000. As George Lothrop, chairman of the Detroit Park Commission wrote, this park was needed “alike for beauty and salubrity…the rich cannot afford to overlook a great popular need like this. In no way can they so well check the spread of communism and the growing hatred of poverty to wealth as by taking a hearty interest in every rational project for the promotion of the health, comfort and enjoyment of the people.” Lathrop and other advocates imagined a park might change relationships between classes by offering residents the opportunity to temporarily leave the city and experience a different kind of environment in relatively close proximity to their homes.
Situated upriver from the docks and disarray of Detroit’s downtown waterfront, Belle Isle had a long history of informal use by residents during the nineteenth century prior to becoming an intentionally designed park. Even so, the suitability of the site for a park was less than ideal. It was marshy, and nearly all of the areas were prone to becoming water-soaked or even completely submerged. When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to transform the island into a park in 1881, he was not all too pleased with the site the city had selected. As Olmsted noted in one of his preliminary visits to the island,
Conditions could not be more favorable to the breeding and nursing of mosquitoes…the pools, in September, I found discolored, and covered by bubbles and a green scum; and there was putrescent organic matter on their borders. They are thus available to the propagation of typhoid, malarial, and other zymotic poisons; and it may be questioned whether the city is justified in allowing, not to say inviting, ignorant people and children to stray near them.
As it was, the island would require much thought and human labor to transform it into an intentionally designed, manicured, and managed city park.
Although a relatively minimalist design from an aesthetic standpoint, Olmsted’s carefully crafted plan sought to make Belle Isle a more pleasant place for residents of Detroit to enjoy the outdoors, while also preserving some of the island’s important natural features. It was complete with picturesque views of the surrounding landscape and city, walking paths, a grand promenade, fields for sports, and idyllic arched bridges over a network of gently curving canals, which assisted with drainage in addition to their use by canoeists. Until a bridge was built in the 1890s, visitors used ferry boats to reach the island park. Olmsted consolidated the ferry docks and major activity sites at the western end of the island. From the moment visitors stepped off the boat, they entered into a choreographed experience that took them from the more highly designed area of activities to the eastern end of the park that Olmsted left in a more natural appearance, including an old-growth forest that remains today.
Belle Isle Park quickly became the city’s most popular gathering spot for residents and visitors alike. In 1894 alone, some sixty one thousand persons patronized the bathhouses for the three months they were open. While Olmsted’s general design theme still remains relatively intact, the city gradually altered the park over time. To more directly advance an educational mission, the city built an aquarium and horticultural conservatory (both designed by Albert Kahn) in 1904. Now, in addition to the leisurely activities of the park, visitors could also learn about nature through curated displays of plants and aquatic life.
In line with the architectural design tastes of the City Beautiful Movement in the early twentieth century, a beaux-arts style fountain and gathering space designed by architect Cass Gilbert was added to the lower end of the island during the 1920s, which replaced Olmsted’s more organic design with one of rigid symmetry and geometric forms. Over the years, the city’s projects also increased the park’s landmass to its current size of some 985 acres.
When the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, the swampy island may not have been the best suited place for a park. Yet through careful human design and continued use, generations of Detroiters transformed Belle Isle into an enduring piece of Detroit’s urban fabric despite the city’s rise and fall. Today, amidst the city’s precarious financial situation, non-profit organizations have partnered with the city to help maintain and preserve the park, which remains a popular spot for residents and visitors to the city today.
Although the park’s meaning, design, and use have changed since Olmsted’s time, and the city’s bankruptcy may change the park’s relationship to the city (plans in recent years have included leasing or selling the park to the State of Michigan, charging an entrance fee, and one individual who has proposed selling it to private developers), preserving the legacy of Belle Isle Park remains important to understanding the city’s past in addition to changing tastes and styles in landscape design. Belle Isle’s lasting significance in the present is a reminder that the historic, natural, and human resources that come together in the design of parks and gardens are key ingredients to sustaining Detroit and cities like it into the future.
- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens.
This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.
Like any number of inventions, the origins of the armillary sphere are debated, credited to everyone from an ancient Greek philosopher to a Roman mathematician to a Chinese astronomer. The one commonality: it was created with the faulty supposition that the earth was the center of the universe!
Armillary spheres served as a model of the heavens with intersecting rings marking everything from latitude and longitude to the tropic of Cancer. (No wonder the name was derived from the Latin word ‘armilla’ meaning bracelet or ring.) Early spheres were fabricated out of wood but as they became more complex they were made of brass which withstood the elements out of doors. As with most objects of science, armillary spheres progressed as new discoveries were made. The Chinese used them to make calendar computations and calculations. During the Middle Ages, they served as sophisticated instruments used to map the solar system. Soon rings were added to mark the equator and the rotation of the sun, moon and known planets, making these spheres some of the first complex mechanical devices.
Because they were used outside where the sky was visible, armillary globes have become a common decorative feature in gardens. Today’s armillary spheres for garden use are strictly decorative in nature and much more streamlined than their ancient counterparts (think fewer rings inside the globe). While they no longer serve as a way to monitor the stars, they remain a symbol of progress and ingenuity throughout time.
Have you ever caught a glimpse of a bottle tree shimmering in the sunlight of your neighborhood? Made from brightly colored bottles placed over the branches of a tree (or in more recent years a metal frame), these garden sculptures catch attention in any space, such as the one pictured below in the Gibson Garden in Dallas, Texas. Although they are not a particularly common sight, they have a long history as an element of spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic significance in American history and garden design.Folklore and written sources from as early as 1776 indicate that this centuries-old custom originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast, where vessels were combined with tree branches. When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, some were able to continue this practice, using whatever resources they had available. Variations appeared on islands in the Caribbean. The more familiar bottle trees we recognize today were likely a Creole invention, becoming particularly prominent in the southern United States from eastern Texas to South Carolina, where bottles were often placed on the branches of crape-myrtle trees.
While the meaning of bottle trees continues to evolve as it has for centuries, one of the more common interpretations is that they protect the home and garden by catching evil spirits, which some say are attracted to the bottles by their bright colors (sometimes made by swirling paint on the inside of a clear bottle). Once inside, the sunlight destroys the spirit. Other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom.
Writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took the bottle tree from the landscape onto the pages of American literature in her short story “Livvie,” giving her work a distinct sense of place in the American south. As she described the scene,
Coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house…Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house…
This story, as Welty said in a 1987 interview, was inspired by bottle trees she saw and photographed in rural Mississippi during the 1930s and ’40s: “it was the place, really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it.” In the same interview, she lamented that “there are hardly any anymore because of the highways. You know, the interstates have come through….They have vanished now, and the roads have come in…But there probably still are some away back in somewhere.”
Although they continue to take on varied forms and uses today, bottle trees still have a presence in gardens and cultural landscapes across the United States, such as those photographed by Vaughn Sills and in the Gibson’s garden in Dallas. Through a long journey encompassing slavery and freedom, and into the Archives of American Gardens, the bottle tree continues to be a garden feature with an American story to tell.
- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow
“Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet.
And so are you.”
The sweet and playful lyrics of this poem are found among the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and often make their way into the sentiments of Valentine’s Day cards.
Is there more to this sweet refrain? Attaching meaning to certain flowers has occurred throughout history, but during the Victorian era the ‘language of flowers’ was turned into a studied exercise. This was a code that attached characteristics and expressions to all types of flora. Entire dictionaries were also published to pair each flower and its color to a specific meaning.
When we consider the verse again using the language of flowers as our guide, the words of the familiar poem have a renewed sense of purpose.
Roses are red: The meaning of roses varies according to their color; the red rose is one of the flowers most associated with Valentine’s Day because of its connotations of love, passion, desire, and beauty. To give a red rose is to say, “I love you.”
Violets are blue: Though we see violets used less frequently than roses in a valentine bouquet, they are forever associated with one another in these verses. Meanings of modesty, faithfulness, humility, and simplicity are embodied in the delicate violet, and it holds the answer to the bold statement of the red rose. To give a violet is to reply, “I return your love.”
Reconsidering this simple rhyme with the meaning of the red rose and its companion the blue violet, the words and the flowers they invoke reinvigorate the quaint nursery rhyme, and reveal truly romantic sentiments to be combined in the perfect bouquet on Valentine’s Day.
-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative ArtsThe Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University
As we enter the deepest winter months, thick tomes of eye candy for gardeners are beginning to arrive in mailboxes across the country, a small reminder that spring is just around the corner. ‘Mortgage Lifter’ or ‘Tasty Evergreen’ tomatoes this year? ‘Tennis Ball’ Lettuce anyone? And peppers that come in every color of the rainbow with names like ‘Purple Glow in the Dark’? Thick with gorgeous pictures, mail order seed catalogs offer a seemingly infinite variety of choices. It’s no wonder that a gardener could easily order more seeds than they have plot to plant.
Mail order seed companies have a long history in the United States. When you order from a seed catalog, you’re engaging in a time-honored winter ritual. One of the most recognizable names in the mail order business, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, was founded in 1876 in Philadelphia. In addition to flower and vegetable seeds, the company also sold livestock and poultry. W. Atlee Burpee sought the best seeds from the United States and Europe, following leads to strange and faraway places, and his mail order business quickly grew to a national level. He founded Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to develop hybrid plants and test new varieties, ensuring only the best seeds were mailed to consumers.
With the introduction of the Rural Free Delivery Service in the 1890’s, the company took advantage of the service to widen their audience for their yearly catalog. By that time Burpee was the largest seed company in the United States. Some of the varieties made famous during the company’s early years are still known and loved today. ‘Iceberg’ lettuce was introduced in 1894 and ‘Golden Bantam’ corn in 1902. Both remain favorites with gardeners today. The lush watercolor illustrations of the early catalogs gave way to color photography, and now it’s just as easy to visit the website as it is to browse the catalog.
The W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection at the Archives of American Gardens contains business records, catalogs, diaries, and other company materials spanning the years 1873-1978. You can read more about the collection here:
If you are looking for new ideas for your own garden, Joe Brunetti , Horticulturist at the Victory and Heirloom gardens at the National Museum of American History, has a few suggestions:
Tried and True!
- Tennis Ball Lettuce
- Pepper ‘Sweet Banana’
- Tomato ‘Djena Lee’s Golden Girl’
- Tomato ‘Wins All’
- Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’
- Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena)
Cool & Unusual:
- Holy Basil (Tulsi)
- Stevia ‘Sweet Leaf’
- Toothache Plant (Spilanthes acmella)
- Red Malabar Spinach
- Pepper ‘Fish’
- Pepper ‘Purple Glow in the Dark’
- Zinnia ‘Burpee Rose Giant Cactus’
-Kate Fox, Museum Educator
Thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund and just in time for its 25th anniversary, the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) recently completed a project to digitize nearly 3,500 historic glass lantern slides dating from the 1920s and 1930s in the Garden Club of America Collection. These images are some of the most popular ones in the archives and document a wide range of gardens throughout the U.S., many of which no longer exist.
Glass lantern slides were projected on a screen with a ‘magic lantern’ to illustrate lectures. (You might think of them together as the precursor to the now-rare slide carousel.) No two slides were alike as each was hand-tinted, sometimes with colors that weren’t historically (or botanically) accurate. Given the garden owner’s wishes or the colorist’s artistic license, a batch of flowers may have been transformed from their actual yellow tint to a livelier red with the stroke of a paintbrush. In spite of their fragile nature (and any capricious colors), the glass slides are sometimes the only evidence left of a once opulent and fastidiously maintained garden. Without these handsome artifacts, important components of America’s garden heritage would go missing.
High resolution scans of all of AAG’s glass lantern slides—as well as thousands of other historic and contemporary garden images–are readily available on the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center at www.siris.si.edu . The images provide an invaluable resource for landscape designers, historians, preservationists, scholars, students and garden enthusiasts engaged in the study and appreciation of gardens and garden design. By capturing the changing uses, trends, fads and popular traditions embodied in gardens, AAG holdings foster a better understanding of gardening’s far-reaching contributions to America’s social and cultural history.
By the time Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2062, who knows what current image format will be considered as fragile—and as valuable in terms of the lost information it holds—as the glass lantern slide?
-Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Garden trends seem to be forever changing. Some develop because even gardeners who stick with a roster of proven reliable plants like a change now and then. There are, however, numerous trends that last. For example, Penjing, or the art of depicting landscapes in miniature, is an ancient pastime that developed in China and is still seen by the use today of bonsai plants. One interesting trend currently emerging out of these gardens in miniature is what’s known as a “fairy garden.”
Lemon Hill’s fairy garden is composed of young plants, diminutive trees and bonsai that are in scale with its miniature castle and houses, fountain, stone walls, gates and furniture, and fairy figurines. The Fairy Garden takes its name from the Meyer lemon trees grown in the vicinity. Its design was inspired by miniature gardens found in Ireland and in books. It is visited often by school and scout groups.
Though gardens can reflect many things, such as taste and style, they can also reflect function, such as creating a special place for children and grandchildren. Just look at the Fairy Garden on Lemon Hill. Lemon Hill was a special project for the owner and her grandchildren. Her own daughter helped her build the garden and she implemented suggestions from her other three daughters as well as her 13 granddaughters. She created the garden with all her girls in mind.
Building a fairy garden can be a project that you enjoy with your children or grandchildren that can get them excited and participating in the art and act of gardening. They can be found in any number of small spaces, such as bird baths, pots, or large plant saucers.
Images from the Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens.
By Jessica Short
Archives of American Gardens Intern