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Flowers: Deep Roots

July 16, 2021 Archive Insight
Card with ripped corners depicting a hand holding a bouquet of flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Choice Flower Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Co., 1880-1900 / THF214403


Sustenance is not usually associated with flowers or the horticultural industry, but cut flowers and ornamental plants have been nourishing humans for centuries. Flowers aid people through hard times by providing joy, mental health benefits, and ephemeral beauty unmatched in many eyes. Additionally, cut flower cultivation is a critical source of revenue and ecosystem service for agricultural entrepreneurs.

Duplicated image of a pink flower with green leaves on a black background
Stereograph of a blooming tree peony, circa 1865 / THF66255

The horticulture industry grew rapidly during the 19th century. New businesses, such as Mount Hope Nursery and Gardens out of Rochester, New York, used an expanding transportation infrastructure to market ornamental plants to Midwesterners starting during the 1840s. Yet, while consumers’ interest in ornamentation grew, so did their displeasure with distant producers distributing plants of unverifiable quality. Soon enough, local seed companies and seedling and transplant growers met Detroiters’ needs, establishing greater levels of trust between producer and consumer (Lyon-Jenness, 2004). D.M. Ferry & Co., established in Detroit in 1867, sold vegetable and flower seeds, as well as fruit tree grafts, direct to consumers and farmers.

At the heart of horticulture lies a tension between respect for local, native species and the appeal of newly engineered, “perfect” cultivars. Entrepreneurs such as Hiram Sibley invested in the new and novel, building fruit, vegetable, and flower farms, as well as distribution centers, in multiple states.

Open wooden box with graphics, images, and text on underside of lid; contains seed packets, with other seed packets arranged outside the box
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Plant breeders such as Luther Burbank sought a climate to support year-round experimentation. As a result, he relocated from Massachusetts to California, where he cultivated roses, crimson poppies, daisies, and more than 800 other plants over the decades. Companies in other parts of the country—Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. in Louisiana, Missouri, and the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—partnered with Burbank or established their own California operations to maintain a competitive edge. These larger farms had to send their flowers by rail across the country and as such, engineered for consistency and mass production.

Field filled with pink flowers; also contains text
Field of Burbank's Rosy Crimson Escholtzia, April 13, 1908, Santa Rosa, California. / THF277209

Advertising fueled growth. Companies marketed seeds directly to homeowners, farmers, and market gardeners through a combination of colorful packets, seed boxes, catalogs, specimen books, trade cards, and purchasing schemes. Merchants could reference colorful trade literature issued by D.M. Ferry & Company as they planned flower seed purchases for the next year. The 1879 catalog even oriented merchants to its seed farms and trial grounds near Detroit. A D.M. Ferry trade card (seen below) advertised more than the early flowering sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) in 1889, featuring twelve “choice kinds” available in Ferry seed boxes or through orders submitted by merchants directly to the company (Little and Kantor, Journal of Heredity, 1941). Customers who returned ten empty seed packets earned a copy of Ferry’s Floral Album.

Card with images of white, pink, and dark purple flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Sweet Pea Seeds, D.M. Ferry & Company, 1889. / THF214415

Additionally, magazines such as Vick’s Illustrated Family Magazine, published by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick, served as a clearinghouse of information for consumers and growers alike.

GIF cycling through a number of images of flowers
Floral lithographs by James Vick / Digital Collections

Flowers were not always grown in isolation. Cultivating and selling vegetables side-by-side with flowers was common practice, as it provided farmers diversity in income with the ebb and flow of seasons. The addition of flowers proved mutually beneficial to both profits and productivity for farms, as they attract pollinators and receive a high mark-up in the market. Furthermore, flowers could be placed alongside vegetables on farm stands as a means to decorate and draw the attention of market goers.

Market gardeners who also grew flowers saw the potential in Detroit, and this helped develop the floriculture industry. John Ford, a Scottish immigrant, gained visibility through his entries at the Annual Fair of Michigan State Agricultural Society, winning awards for cut flowers, dahlias, and German asters, as well as culinary vegetables, strawberries, and nutmeg melons, throughout the 1850s and 1860s (The Michigan Farmer, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1861/62, 1863/64). Ford served on the Detroit City Common Council. After that body approved construction, in 1860, of a new Vegetable Shed for Detroit’s City Hall Market (also known as Central Market), Ford or members of his family operated a stand in the market until at least 1882.

Illustration of a large white lily with yellow stripes in the center of the petals and orangish-brown dots
Nurseryman's Specimen Book, 1871-1888, page 76 / THF620239

Another market gardener, John Breitmeyer, an immigrant from Bavaria, settled in Detroit in 1852 and grew a booming floral business. He anticipated the growth of the floral industry, building hot houses for roses in 1886 and establishing the first florist shop in Detroit in 1890 off Bates Street (The American Florist, April 28, 1900, pg. 1213). He worked with his two sons, who had studied floriculture in Philadelphia, to raise plants and flowers, but “the latter seemed the most profitable” (Detroit Journal, reprinted in Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 12, 1889, pg. 4). There were 200 floral shops in Detroit by 1930, when the Breitmeyer family operation grew to specialize in “chrysanthymums [sic], carnations, and sweet peas” in addition to roses (Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1930).

Page with text and image of building
Detroit City Business Directory, Volume II, 1889-1890, page 125 / THF277531

Florists sold cut flowers to satisfy consumers willing to part with hard-earned money on such temporary satisfaction. Many factors influenced their decisions: weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage; brightening a home interior; thanking a host; or treating a sweetheart. Whatever the reason, Breitmeyer and Ford and others responded to the zeal for floral ornamentation.

Black-and-white image of pillow-shaped arrangement of flowers and greenery
Memorial Floral Arrangement, circa 1878 / THF210195

The Michigan Farmer encouraged readers to “bring a few daisies and butter-cups from your last field walk, and keep them alive in a little water; aye, preserve but a branch of clover, or a handful of flower grass—one of the most elegant, as well as cheapest of nature’s productions and you have something on your table that reminds you of the beauties of God’s creation, and gives you a link with the poets and sages that have done it most honor. Put but a rose, or a lily, or a violet, on your table, and you and Lord Bacon have a custom in common.” (July 1863, pg. 32). Though the preferences varied, flowers inside the home were simultaneously a luxury and something that everyday people could afford, and connected them to poets and lords.

Publications encouraged the trade through how-to columns on decorating with flowers. This clipping from the Michigan Farmer explained how to construct a centerpiece featuring cut flowers.

Page with text
Description of simple DIY floral ornaments in the household. Excerpt from Michigan Farmer, August, 1863/64, pg. 84. / Image via HathiTrust

What types of flowers might growers raise to fill their baskets and ornament their tables? The Michigan Farmer indicated that “no garden” should be without dahlias “as a part of its autumn glory” (April 1857, pg. 115) and that growers should “never be without” a Moutan peony (February 1858, pg. 48).

Urban markets featured many more plants and cut flowers to satisfy consumer demand. The Detroit News reported in May 1891 that “tulips of every hue and the modest daisy or bachelor’s button still linger on the stalls, but they are the first floral offerings of the spring, and their day is now about over.” The florists rapidly restocked, filling their southern row of stalls in the vegetable market with “floral radiance and beauty…. The hydrangeas with their pink or snow-white balls; fuchsias, with their bell-like cups and purple hearts; geraniums, in all the colors of the rainbow; the heliotrope, with its light-pink blossom; the begonia, with its wax green leaves; verbenas in pink, purple and white; the marguerite, with its white and yellow star; the kelseloria [Calceolaria] in blushing red or golden yellow; the modest mignonette, with its neutral tints but exquisite perfume; and the blue and fragrant forget-me-not” (“Seen on the Streets,” May 24, 1891).

Florists stood at the ready to satisfy customers’ needs, especially for a beau seeking a bouquet to woo his lover (Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1870). On one occasion, a woman reluctantly bought sunflower seeds and catnip instead of climbers that would make her house look “almost like Paradise,” fearing that this ornamentation would cause the landlord to raise her rent (Detroit Free Press, April 27, 1879). In other instances, men “commissioned” by their wives stopped by the flower stands in Central Market, perusing “roses, pansies, and hyacinth bulbs” (Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1890). 

Men and women crowd around tables displaying potted lilies and cut flowers in an open-air market
Shoppers at Central Market crowd around potted lilies and cut flowers wrapped in paper, undated (BHC glass neg. no. 1911). / Image from Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (EB02e398)

By the late 19th century, customers had many options to satisfy their appetite for flowers. Many Detroiters purchased their flowers and ornamental plants at the Vegetable Building in Central Market. One huckster turned florist, Mary Judge, engaged customers at her Central Market floral stand with a pretty rose bush for a quarter (not 20 cents, or she’d make no profit), geraniums for 10 cents, or a “beyutiful little flower” for 5 cents (Detroit News, May 24, 1891).

They could also frequent florist shops like John Breitmeyer’s by 1890, or purchase seed from merchants to raise their own. Many reasons motivated them, from satisfying a sweetheart to keeping up with their neighbors’ ornamental plantings. No doubt, beautiful trade cards helped stir up allure and demand for popular garden flowers such as pansies.

Image of large yellow, white, purple, and maroon pansy flowers; also contains text
Trade Card for Pansies Seeds, D. M. Ferry & Co., 1889 / THF298777

The entrepreneurs and florists of the 19th century sowed the seeds for an industry that remains vigorous but is far more globalized. There are botanic stories still to uncover and after centuries of cultivation, these beautiful ornaments still sustain something deeper within us.

Secondary Sources:

Stewart, Amy. Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Lyon-Jenness, C. (2004). Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America. Business History Review, 78(3), 381-421. doi:10.2307/25096907


Ayana Curran-Howes is 2021 Simmons Intern at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

entrepreneurship, home life, shopping, farming, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid, by Ayana Curran Howes, Michigan, Detroit, Detroit Central Market, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village

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