Posts tagged ‘garden history’

The History of the Christmas Tree

What is the history of the Christmas tree? As far as common historical accounts are concerned, it all started with customs of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Scandinavians and other cultures that displayed evergreen trees, boughs and garlands during the winter. These decorations were symbols of everlasting life and reminders of the growth of spring, and they were also believed to ward off evil spirits, ghosts and illness.

The Christmas tree tradition as we now know it is thought to have begun in Germany in the 16th century when devout Christians began bringing trees into their homes and decorating them. Early decorations included nuts, fruits, baked goods and paper flowers. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther was the first person to add lights to the tree. During a walk home one evening, he was struck by the twinkling stars through the evergreen trees and decided to recreate that feeling at home for his wife and children by erecting a tree and decorating it with candles.

Victorian Christmas Tree

The Illustrated London News print of Queen Victoria and her family around the Christmas tree was revamped for America and featured in the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850.

In the early 19th century, the custom of the Christmas tree began to spread to European nobility. It wasn’t until 1846, however, that the tradition gained widespread public adoption. In that year, the popular British royals, Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were sketched for The Illustrated London News standing next to a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle with their children. Being popular amongst the British people, the practice became very fashionable and soon spread to the east coast of the United States. Due to this rise in popularity, tree ornaments were manufactured in large numbers, and U.S. patents for electric tree lights (1882) and metal ornament hooks (1892) were issued.

Christmas tree on beach,

Underwood & Underwood. Santa Claus on beach with swimmers splayed around Christmas tree, 1927. Image courtesy of National Museum of American History Archives Center.

With their increasing popularity and acceptance, along with readily available ornaments and electric lights, Christmas trees began appearing in town squares and other public places and became commonplace in private homes.

Smithsonian Castle holiday tree, 2010.

Smithsonian Institution Castle holiday tree, 2010. Photo by Eric Long.

The most popular species of trees for the holidays are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white pine. Although artificial trees are popular with some, growing, living trees clean the air and water, trap atmospheric carbon, and provide wildlife habitat. When they are ready to be discarded, they can be turned into mulch and recycled back into the environment.

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist

December 18, 2013 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

The Archives of American Gardens Welcomes a New Collection

Ken Druse Garden Photography Collection

One of thousands of garden images from the Ken Druse Garden Photography Collection at the Archives of American Gardens.

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

November 12, 2013 at 7:30 am 8 comments

Rapid Capture Open House at the Archives of American Gardens

Rapid Capture open house at Smithsonian Gardens.

Rapid Capture open house at the Smithsonian Gardens offices.

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.

Edgewood, Baltimore, Maryland.

Unidentified man, Edgewood estate, Baltimore, Maryland by Thomas Sears, 1914. Archives of American Gardens.

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

October 23, 2013 at 9:24 am 1 comment

Belle Isle Park and Olmsted’s Legacy in Detroit

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.

Map of Detroit with Belle Isle Park, 1897. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Map of Detroit with Belle Isle Park on the right side, 1897. David Rumsey Map Collection.

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.

Workers on Belle Isle, 1888. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Workers on Belle Isle, 1888. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

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.

Preliminary plan of Belle Isle Park.

Preliminary plan of Belle Isle Park.

Preliminary rendering of Belle Isle Park with ferry docks, 1882.

Preliminary rendering of Belle Isle Park with ferry docks, 1882.

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.

Belle Isle Conservatory. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Belle Isle Conservatory. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Canoeists on Belle Isle Park, c. 1905. Detroit Publishing Company,  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Canoeists on Belle Isle Park, c. 1905. Detroit Publishing Company, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Belle Isle promenade, c. 1900-1910. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Belle Isle promenade, c. 1900-1910. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

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.

Construction of the Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, c. 1926. Cass Gilbert Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Construction of the Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, c. 1926. Cass Gilbert Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Plan for the lower end of Belle Isle Park by Cass Gilbert, c. 1925. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Cass Gilbert’s plan for the lower end of Belle Isle Park altered Olmsted’s more organic design by introducing a geometric pattern. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

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.

Detroit's skyline from Belle Isle Park, 2009. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

Detroit’s skyline from Belle Isle Park, 2009. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

September 3, 2013 at 10:00 am 6 comments

Summer Solstice Celebrations

Friday, June 21 marks the 2013 summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis reaches its steepest incline towards the sun. It is the longest day of the year, as the sun hangs at its highest point. The solstice represents only an instant in time, but the day of its occurrence encompasses celebrations around the world throughout history. The day of the solstice, or midsummer, offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the sunny days ahead as well as reflect on the approaching decline into autumn and winter.

In Western culture, midsummer has many ties to pagan magic. Folklore links many plants with the event in many magical capacities, like being able to see the fairies that emerged for the night, protection from natural and spiritual forces, and healing. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) maintains a strong connection to the holiday. Traditional wisdom tells us that the bright yellow flowers hold the sunny energy of midsummer, making the herb effective at treating depression, and that it can protect against thunderstorms.

St Johns wort

St. John’s wort, NMNH Botany Collections

European midsummer festivities also have abundant connections to fertility. The Swedes have an excellent saying:  “Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” Cultural traditions provide ample opportunities for young people to pair up and sneak into the night, such as looking for the flower of a fern that only blooms at night in Estonia. Midsummer celebrations often involve bonfires, which play an important role in many myths, such as a jumping through a fire to aid fertility.

The West does not, however, hold a monopoly on summer solstice celebrations. Eastern cultures often observe solstice festivities, as well as Native American cultures. The ancient Chinese celebrations of the summer solstice, honoring the earth, femininity, and “yin,” complemented the heavenly, masculine, and “yang” centered winter celebrations.

Native American rituals varied by culture, and some traditions survive today. The National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center (New York) hosted an event on June 15th entitled “Circle of Dance! Inti Raymi.” The event included a family-oriented activity session to create gold foil pendants to recognize the importance of the Inti (sun) to all life, as well as a lecture session on the celebration of Inti Raymi by indigenous peoples of the Andes. The traditional festival included music, dancing, colorful costumes, and the sharing of food.

Despite being the longest day of the year, the solstice isn’t necessarily the hottest day, which means it could be a wonderful day to enjoy the outdoors. Celebrate the height of summer by working in the garden, hosting an outdoor solstice party, or building your own Stonehenge.  There are plenty of beautiful flowers in bloom right in time for the solstice, like this great flower in bloom at the Smithsonian Gardens, Oenothera fruticosa ‘Summer Solstice.’  It’s vibrant “sundrop” flowers will brighten up any day!

summer solstice

Summer solstice flowers, NMNH Botany Collections

Amber Schilling

Education and Outreach Intern

June 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment


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