Posts tagged ‘history’

The Thrill of the Grill

Farnham Garden

The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey garden, 1960s. Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens. Note the grill in the background.

Above all else, Memorial Day is a holiday dedicated to honoring those who have lost their lives serving the United States. Unofficially, the long weekend also marks the start of grilling season. As we come together as family, friends, and neighbors to celebrate the arrival of summer and strengthen community bonds, the grill is the hearth around which we gather in backyards across the country. Barbecue and grilling have a long history in America, an ebb and flow of foodways coming together and drifting apart. Each region in America has their outdoor cooking traditions, from the vinegary pulled pork of North Carolina to bean-hole beans in Maine, to tri-tip grilled on the spit in southern California. Immigrants from as far away as Korea and Brazil have introduced new flavors and cooking methods to the American picnic table, expanding our ever-changing menu.

Our newest traveling exhibit is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services and the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the rise of outdoor living in the decades after World War II, as the suburban backyard became the setting for pool parties, barbecues, and family fun. The exhibit is currently on view at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and travels next to the Tampa History Center in June 2015.

Just about every town in America has rows upon rows of suburban tract houses, built as housing for returning veterans after World War II. The GI Bill of Rights placed homeownerships within reach of millions of people; by 1959, thirty-one million people owned their own home. With these homes came backyards, small lots that could be transformed into outdoor living rooms with a little imagination, some elbow grease, and a subscription to Popular Mechanics.

As a garden feature though, the grill really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, gaining popularity on the West Coast before making its way east across the country. Fire pits and permanent brick barbecues complimented the low-slung, L-shaped ranch houses gaining popularity in California. The open architecture of the ranch house seamlessly blended the indoors with the outdoors, expanding the living space of the home. Outdoor kitchens, patios, and swimming pools began to take centerstage in the western backyard.

In the years after World War II, as wartime restrictions on materials were lifted and consumers flexed their newfound buying power, novel products for outdoor living flooded the market. The Weber kettle grill was invented in 1951 by combining two metal marine buoys, and was just one of many popular options sold at department and hardware stores nationwide. Pop culture portrayed grilling as a gender-specific activity, with women preparing side dishes indoors and men toiling away outside at a smoking grill. Cliché imagery of the cave man was often invoked when describing the art of grilling, such as in this quote from a 1956 issue of Kiplinger Magazine: “Give a man a patch of yard to call his own, and soon you will see him, garbed in white hat, funny apron and asbestos gloves, solemnly practicing that most ancient of masculine arts—the cooking of raw flesh at an open fire.”

Popular Mechanics April 1960

The April 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics highlighted a number of options for building an outdoor kitchen, including plans for a permanent outdoor kitchen with storage, a serving cart, and a number of budget-friendly simple grills. An outdoor kitchen could fit any budget, small or large. Courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

Grilling was well established in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Big brands hopped on the barbecue bandwagon as well, even those not peddling grills and ketchup. Want to be reminded of outdoor grilling season in the middle of winter? Why not choose this barbecue-themed wallpaper for your next remodeling project. From aprons to children’s toys, the barbecue motif was as hot as a burger just off the grill. In the 1957 I Love Lucy episode “Building a Bar-B-Q” Ethel and Lucy comically take on the typical suburban do-it-yourself task with humorous results (to which I am sure many homeowners could relate).

Cookbooks provided endless ideas for Jell-O salads and baked beans to accompany your grilled shish kebobs. This weekend, if you’re firing up the grill for a gathering, use it as an excuse to peak into your personal archives. Do you have a favorite family recipe from your mother, grandfather, or great-aunt? Our family recipes are our family stories, whether the ingredients came from the garden or a tin can. I leave you with two summer recipes from my grandmothers, both of whom grew up during the Depression, married veterans of World War II, and raised their families in the Maryland suburbs in the 1950s. Remember, it wouldn’t be a mid-century recipe without either pineapple or mayonnaise—or both!

Isabel's layered salad recipe

Isabel Clough’s recipe for a layered salad from her church cookbook, circa 1960s.

Jean's pineapple recipe

Jean Fox’s recipe for a cream cheese and pineapple spread, written in her own hand, circa 1960s.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard

Do you have a favorite family recipe for barbecue, or a side dish with a story? Memories of your backyard or garden from the 1950s and 1960s? Share it with Community of Gardens, our digital archive! We are collecting stories from the public about gardens and backyards in America and building a digital archive of our shared landscape history.

May 24, 2015 at 8:00 am 1 comment

A Millionaire, a Missionary, and a Mutant Marigold

When David Burpee took over as president of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company in 1915 he set out to find a new flower to surpass the popularity of the sweet pea. Always the progressive thinker, Burpee knew the sweet pea craze of the late 1800s was nearing its end and felt it was the perfect time for Burpee & Company to thrill the gardening world with a new “all-American” flower.

Sweet peas. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

Sweet pea blooms. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

The sweet pea had been a favorite among American gardeners for decades, but by the early twentieth century its popularity was waning. Sweet peas were temperamental and difficult to grow. While they looked beautiful in a garden, they were too delicate to use in floral arrangements.

Burpee sought a new flower that would appeal to more gardeners and developed a list of requirements. It needed to be strong and resistant to disease, easy to cultivate, and adaptable to growing conditions throughout the country. In addition, Burpee wanted a flower that had large showy blooms with all the aesthetic appeal of the sweet pea, but none of its less favorable qualities.

It was a tall order, but Burpee felt he found the right flower in the marigold. Marigolds had large, full blooms and long, sturdy stems, making them ideal for cut flower arrangements. They could also be grown throughout the U.S. They seemed perfect except for one flaw: marigold leaves have small sacs containing an oil called terpene which gives the plant a foul odor. The oil protects the plant against natural predators, but also makes it unfavorable among gardeners. Burpee decided rather than giving up on the marigold that he would just ‘fix’ it by getting rid of this unpleasant characteristic.

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

Burpee searched the globe hoping to find a terpene-free marigold variety. By 1931 he had collected hundreds of specimens and seeds. Experts at Burpee’s experimental farms grew thousands of plants from these samples, but met with no success. Every marigold had the odor-causing terpene sacs. All, including Burpee, feared the experiment would never succeed.

Then in late 1933 a letter arrived from Carter Holton, a missionary in China who had seen Burpee’s request for marigold seeds in an American magazine. Holton claimed to have found a completely odorless marigold and offered to send Burpee its seeds for $25. Skeptical, Burpee nonetheless had the requested funds wired to Holton.

Four months later a package of seeds arrived. They were planted at the company’s farm in the spring of 1934. As Burpee watched the plants struggle to grow, he remained doubtful. The Chinese marigolds bloomed late and produced unimpressive flowers. Unconcerned with the bloom, Burpee wanted to know if this variety suffered from the same odiferous curse as other marigolds.

As a test, Burpee fed foliage from the Chinese plants and other marigolds to the barnyard animals at his farm. To his delight they ate the foliage from the Chinese marigold, but ignored the others. Burpee had found his treasure! His horticultural experts immediately began crossing the Chinese marigold with other varieties to develop a plant that was robust and odor-free.

This first generation of marigold hybrids were grown at Burpee’s trial grounds under the protection of armed guards. One of the plants in the trial stood out. By definition a mutant, it bloomed early and produced a large orange flower. Most importantly, its foliage was odorless.

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee employees collected and planted seeds from this new hybrid. Soon dozens of Burpee’s “gift-from-God” marigolds were growing and replicating the favorable characteristics of their mutant parent. By late 1936 Burpee & Company began selling seeds for this miracle flower named the Collarette Marigold “Crown of Gold” to the public. It was even showcased on the cover of the company’s 1937 seed catalog. Just as Burpee hoped, the introduction of a scentless marigold took the gardening world by storm. The plant was the only flower to receive a gold medal at the All-America trials in 1937.

David Burpee helped create a scentless marigold which quickly became a beloved classic among American gardeners. He didn’t stop there, however. As he hinted to a reporter in 1937, “There might be marigolds in many colors—some day—perhaps!”

– Thomas Hull, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

May 22, 2015 at 8:58 am 2 comments

Flanders Field Poppies at the National Museum of American History

The poppy became an international symbol of remembrance of World War I through the efforts of an American professor from Georgia, Moina Michael. While working at the 25th Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries in New York City Michael heard a reading of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Michael was so moved by the poem that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war and bought them for attendees of the conference on November 9, 1918. Two days later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies thus ending the war. Michael carried on work to make the poppy a symbol for honoring the war dead as well as a way to raise funds for veterans, a symbol that endures today.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I, Smithsonian Gardens planted corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) outside the National Museum of American History. The seeds sown were, in part, collected from the Flanders Fields of Belgium.

Corn Poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Corn poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

To learn more about WWI, visit The Price of Freedom exhibition on the 2nd floor, East Wing of the National Museum of American History.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, 1872 – 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

May 11, 2015 at 10:34 am 1 comment

Digging Deeper: Making Cross-Curricular Connections

We are kicking off the start of the new school year with a guest blog post by Michael Torguson, a teacher in Medford, Oregon who spent the summer teaching school at a juvenile detention facility. He used soil as a jumping off point for his students to study the science, history and geography of locations across the globe, widening their world. 

Teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Teaching summer school at a juvenile detention facility, the challenge gets kicked up a notch (or two!).

When I asked the kids what they wanted to learn over the summer, they said they wanted to learn botany. So we did the usual: planted an herb garden, studied water ecology and how pollution affects the land (and by extension, plants), and the properties of soil. In a regular school setting, the usual procedure would be for students to scatter around the school grounds, locate their patch of soil, mark it on a school map, and do their analysis.

But how do you teach soil and plant biology when students cannot leave the building?  Answer: bring the soil from outside . . . in. I was originally going to take a weekend, drive around town, and collect soil from different areas. Then I had an idea: why not collect soil from all over the country? I reached out to various “famous places” and requested soil from their grounds for the kids to analyze. I got some very interesting responses, from “This is unprecedented!” to “You just want … dirt?”

Preparing for the soil tests.

Preparing for the soil tests.

Mixing the soil and chemicals.

Mixing the soil and chemicals.

I also got some happily unexpected responses, from “Soil from the Trinity Nuclear Test Site will always be radioactive” to the one from my new friend, Smithsonian Gardens’ own Supervisory Horticulturist Brett McNish. McNish said he did a similar project a while back and offered to send some soil that he was able to collect from overseas. So Brett sent me soil from the U. S. Embassy Grounds in Kabul, a Forward Operating Base in Iraq, sand from Omaha Beach, as well as from the garden near the National Museum of the American Indian.

In all, we received and tested soils from:

  • Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  • Central Park, New York
  • Dodger Stadium, California
  • Forks, Washington (We had a Twilight fan in class!)
  • Haleakala, Hawaii
  • Harvard Yard, Massachusetts
  • Los Angeles Coliseum, California
  • Monticello, Virginia
  • Mt. Vernon, Virginia
  • Old North Church, Massachusetts
  • Pike’s Peak, Colorado
  • The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Trinity Nuclear Test Site, New Mexico
  • Very Large Antenna Array, New Mexico
  • White Sands Missile Testing Range, New Mexico
Extracting the chemicals.

Extracting the chemicals.

Reading the results of the soil tests.

Reading the results of the soil test.

A Social Studies teacher by training (and excitable by nature), I decided not to limit the science project just to science; I decided to add geography and history to the mix.  The project was getting really interesting!

The project evolved, and ultimately each student:

  •  Learned the Scientific Method and proper observation and documentation methods;
  • Performed Soil Properties Classification (all students classified all soils);
  • Conducted Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (NPK) and pH testing;
  • Researched what each of the above tests mean in terms of soil health;
  • Researched the climate and geography of the region;
  • Researched the history of the location where they received the soil;
  • Created and presented their report to the class.

Best of all, the students rose to the challenge! Not only did they follow correct analysis procedures, but they also wrote very good historical and scientific summaries. As a bonus, they got to keep their dirt as a souvenir. (Except for the Trinity Soil – I didn’t want to have to answer questions about why I was giving radioactive material to students!)

In the end, the students had fun, learned a few things, and got to “visit” places they otherwise would not have been able to go. I also learned an important lesson about creatively teaching across the curriculum.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the student who analyzed the Smithsonian soil reports that:

 “The soil was dark brown, with lots of small roots. It was rich and healthy. The Phosphorous level was low (0-50lb/acre), there were trace amounts of Nitrogen and Potassium, and the pH level is 7.0.”


-Michael Torguson. During school year Michael is a substitute teacher at Central Medford High School in Medford, Oregon.

August 26, 2014 at 11:22 am Leave a comment

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

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

Armillary Spheres

This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

Finale, Carmel, CA. 2009. Bonnie Brooks, photographer

Finale, Carmel, CA. 2009. Bonnie Brooks, photographer.

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.

Armillary Sphere

Marschalk-Spencer, Natchez, MS. July 2002. Sarah G. Tillman, photographer.

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.

Brittany Spencer-King
Intern, 2013

June 18, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

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