This post originally published on the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ blog, Unbound.
A garden is a place to rest, relax, rejuvenate. It also provides an opportunity to learn about nature. Staff at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives are also learning and developing new skills. Some of these new skills are related to digitization and accessibility of biodiversity literature.
During these months of telework, I am assisting the Digital Library and Digitization Department to enhance page-level and image-level access to previously digitized books for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). This involves improving page-level metadata for items in BHL, uploading full-page illustrations to the BHL Flickr, and tagging the images in Flickr with species’ common and scientific names. These digitized books include a variety of content: plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, and so much more. In the course of this work, I have the opportunity to view lovely illustrations. Recently a horticultural catalog caught my attention. The item is titled Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Garden (1878) by James Vick.
James Vick was born in England and arrived in New York City at a young age. There, he learned the printer’s trade. He later moved to Rochester, New York. In Rochester, he set type for several newspapers and went on to serve as writer, editor, owner, or publisher of various publications. In 1862, he issued the first Floral Guide and Catalogue. Due to his past experience in the printer and journalist fields, he created a personal style offering gardening advice, anecdotes, correspondence, a complaint section, a children’s section, and color prints. James Vick also began a seed store which later became a well-known seed-display garden. After his death, the company continued into the 20th Century until it was sold to Burpee Seed Co.
This particular item, Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Garden (1878) by James Vick, is filled with gardening advice, botanical descriptions, and many illustrations. It seems to speak directly to the reader with a conversational tone and focus on learning. As it states on page 5,
“The study of Agriculture and Horticulture has engaged the attention of the wisest from the earliest ages, and yet what wonderful discoveries and improvements have we witnessed in our own day; and we are still learners.”
The catalog includes practical suggestions for selecting seeds, preparing soil, and planting gardens. On the subject of garden design, it suggests keeping the future in mind. When planting trees, it emphasizes the awareness of knowing the size, form, and habits of the full-grown tree as opposed to only thinking of its small size when planted. For those with little outdoor space, there are ideas for creating balcony gardens and window boxes.
Another section focuses on floral decorations, such as incorporating greenery and flowers into decorations. This might include covering letters with greenery to form welcoming words for a guest, adorning a table with a floral centerpiece, decorating a room with garlands, or creating bouquets and button-hole flowers.
Let’s take a closer look at one of these floral decorations, forming and covering letters with greenery and flowers. Perhaps, someone wanted to welcome a guest by displaying a “Welcome” sign or, as in the example below, decorate the words, “Peace on Earth.” As the catalog explains, the first step was to determine the height of all letters. Then, the width of each letter was determined proportional to its height. For example, if six inches was chosen for the height of all upper-case letters, the proportional width for “P” would be four inches, “E” three and a half inches, “A” four and a half inches, and so on, as detailed in the explanation shown in the image below. Once the letters were outlined on heavy straw board, each letter was cut out and dark thread was used to fasten small branches of evergreens or dry moss to the letters. Finally as a finishing touch, berries or everlasting flowers were added to brighten the decoration, as detailed below.
Another floral decoration is the button-hole flower or bouquet. The button-hole flower was simply that, a single flower with a “pretty, sweet-scented leaf” positioned behind it. Thread or string was used to attach the two together (below, bottom right), and then it was inserted into the bouquet holder which was already filled with water. To fasten the button-hole flower to clothing or hair, a pin was attached to the bouquet holder.
On the other hand, the button-hole bouquet was composed of “a few very fine flowers” (below, bottom left). Once the flowers were nicely arranged, the stems were covered with damp moss or cotton and then tinfoil. The button-hole bouquet was inserted into the bouquet holder or attached directly to clothing with a pin.
Almost every page of Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Garden (1878) includes an illustration. With its conversational style and focus on learning, it encourages readers to try their hand at something new. This might be designing their own garden, planting a small garden in a window box, placing vases or ornamentation around the garden, or creating a floral decoration for a party. For reference purposes, it includes a handy “Botanical Glossary” and guide to “Pronouncing Vocabulary of Botanical Names.”
Towards the end, there are many pages illustrating and describing specific plants. A page focusing on “Classification and Names of Flowers” assists with understanding the divisions of plants as described in this catalog. These divisions include Annuals, Perennials, Greenhouse, Bulbs and Plants, and Holland Bulbs. There is also a section devoted to Vegetables. Detailed information for specific plants includes such things as descriptions, origin, and tips for planting. Every so often, the reader might stumble across a full-page illustration, like the Annuals shown below. Perhaps an illustration such as this might have inspired a bouquet or floral decoration to brighten a room for a holiday or special occasion.
Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Garden (1878) by James Vick is located in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. A digitized version is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and a Flickr album of its full-page illustrations is available on the BHL Flickr. For more information about James Vick, take a look at this BHL Blog post.
Other seed catalogs by James Vick’s Sons are located in a horticultural collection within the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library. For more information on one of these catalogs, take a look at this post about Vick’s Garden and Floral Guide (1898) by James Vick’s Sons.
“Vick, James.” Biographies of American Seedsmen & Nurserymen, compiled by Marca L. Woodhams, Librarian, Horticulture Branch Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, December 1999. Accessed January 8, 2021. https://www.sil.si.edu/SILPublications/seeds/bios.html#Vick,%20James