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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
"History of Detroit and Michigan," Silas Farmer, 1884, page 794 / THF139107
Fresh food markets have always brought communities of all backgrounds together for nutritional and social sustenance. The markets of the 19th century were different than today’s in terms of sanitation, regulations, and petty crimes, but the desire for community that existed then remains true. Today, Detroit’s Eastern Market and dozens of other markets in southeast Michigan provide citizens with food security and support a burgeoning urban agricultural movement and the local economy.
Interior of a farmers’ market, 1875, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally published in Earl Shinn, A Century After: Picturesque Glimpses of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (published in Philadelphia by Lane Allen & Scott and J.W. Lauderbach, 1875), pg. 156, on the title page of the chapter "Marketry.” This illustrates what we can imagine the inside of Central Market looked like on a busy market day. / THF610498
The Vegetable Building (now being reconstructed in Greenfield Village) opened in Detroit's public market, then known as City Hall Market, in 1861. It remained a hub of community cohesion and commercial competition for 30 years until the city closed it, later dismantling it and relocating it to Belle Isle in 1894. In the three decades that the Vegetable Building attracted vendors and customers, Detroit’s population grew from 45,619 to 205,876 (per Detroit Historical Society) and the market tried to keep pace.
Mounting calls for the demolition of Detroit’s rat-infested “eyesore” resulted in the obliteration of the three-story “Central Market” brick building that housed butchers and market administrators between 1880 and 1894. It also prompted removal of the Vegetable Building to Belle Isle, and its replacement with a retail park (Cadillac Square) and a new public market (Eastern Market). This process destroyed the public market in central Detroit, but ultimately preserved the market’s Vegetable Building.
The Henry Ford acquired the Vegetable Building in 2003. After its reconstruction, the Central Market’s Vegetable Building will allow us to tell the stories of the vendors and consumers that frequented the market. These stories will illustrate that Central Market was a place where Detroiters came to purchase food stuffs, where entrepreneurs (many of them immigrants) were able to make a living, and where vibrant community life (including competition and discrimination) played out.
This year, we’ve been working to establish authentic stories as the basis for living history programming at the Vegetable Building, featuring costumed presenters and dramatic performances. Additional research underscores decisions about modern-day vendors invited to sell their honey, bread, pickles, eggs, flowers, and fresh fruits and vegetables to visitors at weekly markets and specialty markets in Greenfield Village.
Group of women, one with a baby carriage, in front of the Central Market Building, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1890. / THF623829
A partnership between The Henry Ford and the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program resulted in a script for a dramatic presentation that will help guests grasp the numerous ways that the market building affected urban life. Four students from the Museum Studies Program—Kathleen Brown (American Culture), Laurel Fricker (Classical Art and Archeology), Antonello Mastronardi (Classics), and myself, Ayana Curran-Howes (Environment & Sustainability)—crafted a script for a noteworthy Central Market character. The market was filled with characters, but one that captured the attention of newspaper reporters, the police, and a fair number of male suitors was Mary Judge. She became the focus of our investigation.
Our research into Mary Judge unveiled a fascinating and difficult, yet vibrant, individual. Newspaper reports documented her wit, sharp tongue, charm, and self-awareness as a woman staking her claim to independence. Newspaper reports from the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press gave us a foundation on which to build a script for an entertaining and educational performance.
Vegetable Shed at Detroit’s City Hall Market, known as Central Market after 1880. It is identified as “Cadillac Square Market (Detroit, Mich.)” in the George Washington Merrill photographs collection, University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library (BL003974). The original was one of two photographic images likely taken by James A. Jenney for A. J. Brow, Detroit, Michigan, and published as a stereograph. The original stereograph is in the Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library. We believe the woman circled in orange may be Mary Judge, vending flowers.
The script, featuring Mary Judge, is set during a Saturday night market in the 1880s. We chose a Saturday night market to introduce guests to the hustle and bustle of market life that everyday Detroit residents experienced. Farmers saved their best produce for busy Saturday nights when throngs of factory workers and working-class citizens came to purchase fresh produce and meat, as well as to socialize.
Mary Judge enters as a whirlwind. Her livelihood depended on capturing the public’s attention, and the dramatic presentation conveys that urgency. Mary also conveys the tumultuous yet essential relationship that hucksters like herself had with the farmers who grew the products that hucksters resold. Mary’s success at reselling depended on the relationships she cultivated with other vendors and the larger market community. The eight-minute solo act features Mary’s opinions about the role of the market in Detroit life, before the politics around the closing of the market disrupted Mary’s status quo starting in 1891.
What did Mary resell? The Michigan climate lent itself to a wide array of produce. Consumers could choose between market crops such as strawberries and cherries, often eaten to the point of bellyache (Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1874), or other seasonal crops such as rhubarb, cucumbers, and celery worthy of larceny (Detroit Free Press, August 12, 1879). Mary herself sold many different things, including coffee, flowers, fruit, poultry, and “fried cakes, gingerbread, pig's feet” (November 22, 1875). The Free Press reported her doughnuts “were very fillin’ for the price” (February 28, 1876).
Additional carnival-like attractions included strong-man machines, magic tricks, and exotic pets for sale. The variety of attractions created a bustling crowd that made it “often a feat to swallow a cup of coffee, without having it spilled” (Detroit Free Press, December 19, 1869).
The research plan we devised included numerous stages.
We reviewed other dramatic performances at The Henry Ford, including “The Disagreeable Customer” at J.R. Jones General Store and “How I Got Over” at Susquehanna Plantation. We also reviewed expert advice about living history programming collected in the Living History Anthology (Katz-Hyman et al., 2018). These informed the structure and style of our script.
Then, we asked ourselves “What was the social and economic function of the market? Who was allowed to keep a stall in the market and in what ways were they restricted, supported, and able to survive in this market economy?” Answers to these questions were revealed through secondary sources including Gloria Main, “Women on the Edge: Life at Street Level in the Early Republic” (2012); Jen Manion, “Dangerous Publics,” in Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015); and Melanie Archer, “Self-Employment and Occupational Structure in an Industrializing City: Detroit, 1880” (1991).
We also looked at Detroit’s demographic data to understand the composition of the consumers in the market space. Then we conducted primary research, reviewing news reports published in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News that featured Mary Judge over 30 years. These conveyed the verbiage of the time, the historic perspective on events, the politics of the past, and the atmosphere of the market. The newspaper coverage of the market generated a body of evidence that continues to inform us.
From left to right: Ayana Curran-Howes, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid, and Antonello Mastronardi, looking at the site where the Vegetable Building is being reconstructed in Greenfield Village, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Laurel Fricker.
The low capital investment required to become a huckster allowed some immigrants to Detroit, including Mary Judge, to carve out a space in the public market. Other immigrants, including English and Irish individuals as well as Germans, Poles, and Italians, gained a toehold on economic independence. German butchers dominated the fresh- and processed-meat markets. They had more capital and political influence and, therefore, access to better stalls. In contrast, the Italians, newcomers during the 1880s, tried their hand at selling fruit.
Long before these European ethnic groups arrived, Black Detroiters faced racism in the marketplace and endured discrimination and violence. Nonetheless, they used the marketplace, as did other entrepreneurs, to sell their labor as chimney sweeps and whitewashers (those who painted cellars and building interiors, even the Vegetable Building interior, to intensify natural light).
The portrayal of Mary Judge will show guests how women used huckstering to gain financial independence. This was one of few alternatives for single women at the time, other than domestic service. Secondary readings and primary evidence indicated that women rarely held public-facing positions comparable to that of Mary Judge, the Central Market huckster. When they did, they were harassed by men and police alike. The consequences compounded for poor unmarried women, identified as “unladylike” in demeanor, and disruptive in action.
Hierarchies based on privilege kept many vendors marginalized. Female and immigrant vendors had to overcome language barriers, and had to navigate racism, sexism, and xenophobia when they tried to obtain permits, rent a stall, and obtain goods to sell. As an example, anti-immigrant sentiment followed Italian fruit vendors wherever they went. Mary Judge perpetrated this herself, verbally engaging with Italians and decrying their business decisions: “Go an’ absolve yerself of your business, sir; an’ not be hawkin’ ye’r truck on the streets this blessid day [Sunday]” (Detroit Free Press, July 25, 1887).
From left to right: Debra Reid, Kathleen Brown, Ayana Curran-Howes, Laurel Fricker, Antonello Mastronardi, and The Henry Ford’s Director of Greenfield Village Jim Johnson, standing outside the fenced off area where the Vegetable Building was being erected, March 6, 2021. Photo taken by Jeanine Head Miller.
All vendors faced other societal pressures. One of the most pernicious threats, petty theft perpetrated by those “sampling” products, undermined market vendors. Mary turned to market administrators to mediate her grievances, as did other vendors. She also reported abuses to the police, who intervened in some situations.
Despite these barriers, hucksters made this their way of life and stayed in the market for decades. Mary Judge, a twice-married devout Catholic, was as durable a huckster as one could be. She kept a stall from 1863 until city officials dismantled the market in 1894.
Starting in Spring 2022, you will be able to visit the Vegetable Building in Greenfield Village to meet the “queen of the market,” Mary Judge, selling coffee and decades of wisdom as a huckster from her stall. This one-woman show (as Mary would have preferred it) illustrates huckstering as an occupation and as a way of life.
Thanks to the following people for research support and guidance during the Winter 2021 term:
Gil Gallagher, curatorial research assistant volunteer, The Henry Ford
Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes, The Henry Ford
Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, The Henry Ford
Patricia Montmurri, author/journalist, Detroit Free Press
Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford