Monday, June 22, 2020

Gardens Decline in Importance as Economy turns from Agricultural to Industrial

The Coming Machine Age & the Declining Importance of the Pleasure Garden

George Washington (1732-1799), who had gone from fumbling young military officer to plantation owner to leader of the Revolutionary army to president of a proud new nation, actually devoted much time & effort to organizing his garden. Despite all of his amazing life experiences, or perhaps because of them, Washington wrote that gardening was among “the most rational avocations of life.”

He believed, as did former Baltimore judge John Beale Bordley (1727-1804), who retired from the political & adversarial life of an attorney to become a gentleman farmer, that gardening contributed to the spiritual health of America's citizens. In 1770, his wife Margaret Chew inherited half of Wye Island, in Queen Anne's County, on the Chesapeake Bay. The Bordleys maintained a winter residence in Annapolis, but they moved to this beautiful estate on Wye Island.

Ever feisty John Adams (1735-1826) wrote to his beloved wife Abigail from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1776. "I long for rural and domestic scenes, for the warbling of Birds and the Prattle of my Children. Don't you think I am somewhat poetical this morning, for one of my Years, and considering the Gravity, and Insipidity of my Employment? - As much as I converse with Sages and Heroes, they have very little of my Love or Admiration. I should prefer the Delights of a Garden to the Dominion of a World."

George Washington stated in his 8th Annual Message to Congress in 1796, "It will not be doubted, that with reference either to individual, or National Welfare, Agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as Nations advance in population, and other circumstances of maturity, this truth becomes more apparent; and renders the cultivation of the Soil more and more, an object of public patronage."

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote of the importance of working on the land to artist Charles Willson Peale from his secluded retirement retreat Poplar Forest on August 20, 1811, "I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest, a continued one thro' the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table. I am still devoted to the garden. But tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener."

But Jefferson saw the age of the spiritual expericence of gardening ending, as he wrote of the British during the War of 1812, “Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan on removing our first parents from Paradise: from peaceable & agricultural nation, he makes us a military & manufacturing one.”

The garden did wither as a symbol of power & moral force; as the agricultural gave way to the industrial, & factories flowered on the American landscape. As the gentility of pleasure gardening became available to greater numbers of the middling sort in the emerging republic, it declined in importance to the ruling class. The symbol of might & right shifted from the garden to the machine.

Annapolis gardener William Faris (1729-1804) was a clockmaker at the end of the America’s agricultural age, when people’s perception of time still relied on nature’s manifestations, the rising & the setting of the sun & the changing of the seasons. Industrialization would dramatically change the significance of time & the clock. The clock would soon become the mechanical indication of units by which work, & therefore pay & worth, were measured.

In the earlier agricultural economy of 18th-century America, a man’s worth was measured by his harvest. When he had succeeded in having some leisure time & extra money from his crop production, he devised a pleasure garden in order to control, in an abstract & artful form, at least a small part of unpredictable nature, which otherwise controlled him.  He knew that the setting sun halted his day’s work. An unexpected storm or drought could destroy his daily plans or his yearly harvest.

Irish-born Philadelphia author & seed dealer Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816) & English-born Annapolis clockmaker & silversmith William Faris were wedged between the old world & the new world, and between the ancient agricultural order & the coming technical age. The looming 19th century industrial era would see cities burgeon & replace the wilderness as the frightening place in the minds of the American people.

Citizens working in the urban machine economies would retreat to bucolic woodlands for the serene security of nature, much as farming citizens of the earlier colonial era clamored for the safety of towns with ordered streets & tidy, fenced gardens, when threatened by the terrifying unknown lurking in the uncivilized nature of the frontier.

Gardening would become just of many diversions in an industrial & technological world, where individuals’ livelihoods were no longer dependent on manipulation of the land & the rising and the setting of the sun.

M’Mahon & his fellow seed dealers & nurserymen contributed to this trend in 19th-century America, as they promoted gardening to all classes & both sexes in the new nation. M’Mahon hoped his book might “make any person…his own Gardener.” 

Working in the soil helped a person understand the cycle of life & death. Many plantation owners, farmers, & gardeners chose to bury their loved ones in their near-by gardens & went there to remember departed relatives & friends.

Whether they gardened or not, early Americans easily understood that gardens, economies, & men are ultimately under nature’s control. Perhaps they found some comfort in the knowledge that nature, not man, renews life year after year. In an agrarian society, people understood the symbolic & symbiotic relationships of people, plants, soil, weather, & the seasons.

Eighteenth century American gardeners understood that there is an order to nature but not always a kindness. People whose lives depended on the success of crops understood that nature controls floods, hailstorms, droughts, tornadoes, & death.