University City (UCity), a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, began its curbside recycling program in March 1973. This makes it one of the first cities in the country to do so. By the early 1970s, many communities had created a recycling drop-off center and encouraged residents to haul their recycling to that destination. This required extra effort, and the city manager and public works staff in University City believed that other solutions needed to be developed. These recycling bins document the launch of this solution and the change required over time to reduce, reuse, and recycle. It certainly required rethinking!
The first Earth Day helped galvanize public engagement in environmentalism, and recycling was one of the primary issues in University City. Residents supported innovative thinking, and city officials assigned Public Works Director Allan Dierckgraef responsibility for figuring out how to get environmental materials out of a home or business while keeping them out of the dump and funneling them to recycling processors. UCity officials decided that they would start with newspapers, so in March 1973 they launched the TreeSaver program.
Recycling Bin, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1973. / THF181541
Dierckgraef reached out to the Monsanto Corporation, headquartered in St. Louis, to design a durable container to hold two weeks of newspaper. The yellow plastic TreeSaver container resulted from this work. UCity purchased 12,000 of these bins for $43,000 and distributed one to each home along with instructions about how to use them. Need exceeded supply, and the city ordered more containers. The one pictured above is from the second run.
The sanitation division picked the containers up every two weeks, and the city contracted with the Alton (Illinois) Box Board Company to haul the materials away for further processing. Two years into the process, in March 1975, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that the "U. City Recycling Program [Was] In Trouble." The fee received from Alton Box Board Co. ($10 per ton) was below the market rate ($35 per ton) for newsprint. This reflected the rapid adoption of newspaper recycling programs—because supply exceeded demand, the amount processing companies were willing to pay dropped. City officials continued to justify the cost by turning to real environmental savings. City Manager Charles T. Henry (1959–1975) called the city-wide newspaper salvage “one of the most important recent accomplishments” (Post-Dispatch, May 15, 1975). Eight years into the program, in 1981, city officials estimated that recycling newsprint kept 85,000 trees from the paper mill.
Recycling Bin, 18-Gallons, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1988-1989. / THF181537
The yellow bins supported one recycling effort—newsprint. When UCity began expanding the program to divert other materials—metal cans and plastics—from the landfill during the 1980s, the city had to redesign its bins. They retained the yellow bin for newsprint and paper but added a blue bin for other materials to support the new dual-stream recycling initiative. The city also had to purchase new equipment to facilitate pick-up. This included new specially designed two-sided trucks. Public works staff picked up the yellow TreeSaver bins and emptied them on one side while they emptied the contents of the blue bins on other side. This physically taxing labor occurred at the transition point from home to recycling stream.
TreeSaver Recycling Bin, 18 Gallon with the Recycling Logo and the Larger Waste-Management System Specified, Designed for Use in University City, Missouri, 1988-1989. / THF181538
During the early days of mixed recycling, markets did not exist for non-sorted materials. Thus, UCity had to build a sorting facility and hire staff to separate the cans, glass, and plastic. Each then had a separate point of sale to recycled material processors.
These recycling bins represent some of the many details that municipalities had to manage to launch and sustain recycling programs. The act of collecting materials at the curb is just one small step in the enormous undertaking of reducing waste streams.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!
Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691
Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922
The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.
In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.
Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.
Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915/ THF38397
Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 /THF291590
Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800
During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183
The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804
The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.
Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian /THF53544
The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail /THF126026
The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966
Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 /THF45318
The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.
The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.
FMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505
The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.
Shortage and Struggle
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail
To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.
Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.
A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.
On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392
The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.
Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages
Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134
By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)
Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767
A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers.In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.
So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Pumpkins offer the perfect opportunity to connect art with agricultural science.
All pumpkins are plants classified within one of five domesticated species of squash (genus Cucurbita). All are native to the Americas. Indigenous people domesticated them and improved them over generations by saving seeds and tending the next crop. Great variety exists because of this long and ongoing process. The histories of heritage varieties within genus Cucurbita acknowledge this legacy.
The following items within The Henry Ford’s collections add some complexity to the great pumpkin story.
Corn and Pumpkins at Firestone Farm, October 2, 2021 / Photo by Debra A. Reid
Connections Between Pumpkins (Squash) and Corn
Today, the story of the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—reminds us of the indigenous origins of these three staple crops. The rest of the story acknowledges the ways that colonization destroyed indigenous cultures, and the ways that Euro-American agriculture co-opted selective agricultural practices over time. Great variation exists across regions and time. From this vantage point, the cultivation of pumpkins with corn represents a strategy adopted by Euro-Americans, especially in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Their goal focused on feeding themselves and their livestock.
The degree to which farm families grew pumpkins changed over time and differed depending on region of the country. A correspondent to the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist argued that “the practice of planting pumpkins in the same hill as corn, is not the best. What is gained in the pumpkin is lost in the corn. Where there is a thrifty pumpkin vine, there will be meagre ears of corn” [Eli Wooden, Pulaski, Michigan, May 8, 1843, published in Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 15, 1843), page 49].
Others advocated intercropping. Promotional material for the Triumph hand-operated corn planter urged farmers to purchase a pumpkin seed attachment so they could plant their pumpkins at the same time they planted their corn. “It takes no extra time or labor to plant Pumpkin Seeds when you are planting corn with Kent’s Triumph Planter. It takes no extra ground, no extra care.” In fact, as manufacturer A. C. Kent explained, “No farmer can afford to do without one.” The card described a bountiful pumpkin crop as excellent cattle feed. “Cows fed on them will give rich milk and fine flavored yellow butter,” and the material further asserted that cows fed no pumpkin rations would give neither.
Trade Card for Triumph Corn Planter with Pumpkin Seed Attachment, A. C. Kent Company, circa 1885 /THF208298
The intercropping of squash and corn served a purpose, but worked best in certain conditions. Corn and squash both need nitrogen, which beans (a legume) help the soil retain. Removing beans from the equation leaves two nitrogen-hungry crops competing for limited quantities in the same soil. Squash and corn plants both need large quantities of phosphorus, too, and squash vines also need potassium to thrive.
Farming Pumpkins in Indiana, 1920-1929, detail / THF149097
Farmers already practicing intensive animal husbandry could manure their intercropped fields with composted organic manure—preferably pig, chicken, or sheep manure with higher concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients. This enriched the soil with the nutrients needed to yield a field of pumpkins and corn, as the detail above from a Keystone stereograph, “Farming Pumpkins in Indiana,” shows. Farmers that did not practice intensive animal husbandry needed to plan for decreased yields if they persisted in intercropping corn and squash. Mechanizing the corn harvest, a process that started in earnest during the 1920s, eliminated the tradition of planting squash in corn fields.
Agricultural science factored heavily into farmer decisions, but romantic notions of the pumpkin-corn relationship persisted largely because of associations expressed through poetry and adopted as part of regional popular culture.
Massachusetts abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) waxed eloquent about the pumpkin in the context of corn fields and harvest rituals in “The Pumpkin,” likely written in 1844, and published in Poems by John G. Whittier (1849).
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune
Our chair a broad pumpkin – our lantern the moon…
Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916) further popularized the connections between pumpkins and corn fields with his poem, “When the Frost is on the Pun’kin,” published in 1888. Riley cast the rituals involved with fall harvest—“the gathering time,” as he called it—as fulfilling and regenerative practices. All occurred within the context of corn shocks with pumpkins stacked at their base, likely positioned there for a few days for the rind to “harden” prior to transport either to a storage bin or to market. An educational stereograph emphasized these connections by featuring verses from both Whittier’s and Riley’s poems.
Wagon Carrying Pumpkins at the Ten Eyck Farm, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF149092
The harvest really started the process of marketing the golden pumpkin. Processing pumpkin and squash is time-consuming. During the late-nineteenth century, canning technology created new commercial opportunities for farmers who contracted with canning companies to raise field pumpkins. The canners packed pumpkin and squash pulp into cans and decorated them with colorful labels that indicated the contents: “golden pumpkin.” An illustrated children’s book, The Pearl and the Pumpkin (c. 1904), featured a canner seeking choice pumpkins whose quest was disrupted by carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin," 1880-1895 / THF113859
Cultivars of Cucurbita
Almost all summer squash fall within the Cucurbita pepo or C. pepo variety. Humans consider them most edible when immature—that is, before their rind hardens and seeds form. But mature summer squash can be stored for short periods of time and can be used for livestock feed. The Connecticut field pumpkin, the go-to for many canning companies, is also C. pepo.
The crookneck squash, a native of the eastern United States, makes an appearance in John Greenleaf Whittier’s ode, “The Pumpkin.” The crookneck grows on bush-type vines, yields edible fruit within 43 days of planting, and has either a warty or a smooth rind that protects a firm interior noted for its buttery and sweet flavor.
Two Members of the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association Feature Crookneck Squash while the Woman in the Middle Displays Two Cabbages, 1918 / THF288950
The pattypan squash, also known by many other names (including scallop squash), grows on bush-type vines, starts to yield about 50 days after planting, and produces squash for weeks. Gardeners hauled these attractive squash to market, as seen in the left foreground of this photograph of street vendors at Richmond, Virginia’s Sixth Street Market. The squash, along with watermelon, other melons, and sweet corn, affirmed the bounty of summer.
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870
Winter squash species of Cucurbita are meant to be harvested only when fully mature. The largest of these species, C. maxima, includes one of the most marketable of all squash, the Boston Marrow. It takes approximately 105 days to mature and weighs around 15 pounds on average.
Hiram Sibley & Co. "Squash Boston Marrow" Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF278982
Seed companies described the Boston Marrow as having “excellent flavor” (from a Hiram Sibley Co. seed packet) and being unsurpassed in sweetness (from the D.M. Ferry & Co. 1882 catalog, page 56). The flavor, much celebrated, got the attention of canning companies from coast to coast. Olney & Floyd, located near markets swayed by the Boston Marrow’s reputation, featured the squash on its label. Across the country, the California-based Del Monte brand included a prototypical Boston Marrow on its “Squash” label, but the generic name implied the inclusion of other pie-worthy squash.
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Boston Marrow Squash," 1890-1920 / THF294193
The Hubbard squash, another C. maxima, gained market share during the late-nineteenth century. Seed purveyors, including Detroit seed company D. M. Ferry, described it as “the best winter squash known … sweet and rich flavored” and “as good baked as the sweet potato” (page 56). A polychrome print in D. M. Ferry’s 1882 seed catalogue included a dark-green Hubbard among the “12 best varieties of Vegetables.” The illustration did not do justice to the squash, however, which averaged around 15 pounds, but could top scales at 50 pounds.
Winter squash could survive months in storage. Research by horticulturalists hoped to extend that life to take advantage of higher market prices during late-winter months. William Stuart of the Vermont Experiment Station in Burlington recorded changes in weight and moisture levels for one ton of Hubbard squash to document best storage practices. He explained that farmers could minimize loss by harvesting the squash only when they were fully matured. He advised farmers to cut the fruit from the vine, leaving the stem attached, and to “harden” the fruit for two to three days in the field before moving them to storage bins. Farmers needed to handle their harvest “as one would handle eggs” because breaking stems or bruising them would hasten decay. Such care could return $50 per ton at market during February and March, compared to $15 to $20 per ton during the fall harvest season (“Storage of Hubbard Squash,” Farmers’ Bulletin 342: Experiment Station Work XLIX (1908), pages 18–19).
How Big Does Your C. maxima Grow?
Prize Pumpkins, Yakima Valley, Washington, 1904 / THF122617
Agricultural publications often celebrated exceptionally large squash. The Michigan Farmer noted “A MAMMOTH squash” weighing 126 pounds was displayed at the Horticultural Exhibition in New Haven, Connecticut [Vol. 1, no. 17 (October 16, 1843), pg. 133]. Might the MAMMOTH squash have been a Mammoth Gold or other member of C. maxima? Was Charlie Brown’s great pumpkin a Mammoth Gold?
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1967 / THF610382
Concerns about the preservation and perpetuation of indigenous squash and other Cucurbita cultivars led to the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983. Volunteers collected and preserved endangered traditional seeds from the Southwest. Today the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank includes nearly 2,000 crops suited to arid southwestern North America, from Colorado to central Mexico. This area factored prominently in domestication of Cucurbita, and the urgency to understand biodiversity in context has only increased in the decades since its founding.
Today, Native Seeds/SEARCH remains committed to seed preservation and propagation, but also emphasizes the knowledge required to grow them. Adapting crops to ensure sustainable ecosystems and food security into the future now represents the mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH:
The resilience of our food systems depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and plant breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases—all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine.
Hopefully these variations on Cucurbita inspire you to learn more.
Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist. 1843.
[Riley, James Whitcomb]. “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” in “The Old Swimmin’-hole” and ‘Leven More Poems by Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. Sixth Ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bowen-Merrill Co., 1888. Pages 31-33.
William Ford’s farm, depicted in an 1876 county atlas. / THF116253
Farm families in the late 1800s often maintained orchards. Just a couple of apple, pear, plum, or cherry trees could ensure a varied diet and foodstuffs to preserve for winter. And those with land to spare could raise enough excess produce to bring to market.
William Ford, Henry Ford’s father, raised apples for market on his Dearborn, Michigan, farm. The image above, from an 1876 county atlas, shows orchard trees, and the 1880 census of agriculture (collected by the census taker in the summer of 1879) reported 200 apple trees on 4½ acres of the Ford farm—a number that would produce apples well beyond the Ford family’s needs.
Forty years later, apple trees remained part of the landscape at the farmhouse, which was restored by Henry Ford in 1919. Ford’s historical architect, Edward Cutler, drew a map that situated the homestead among outbuildings and trees. It’s difficult to make out, but Cutler identified three varieties of apple trees there—Wagner, Snow, and Greening—that were presumably grown during Henry Ford’s childhood.
At that time, illustrations from horticultural sales books and descriptions in period literature would have helped customers like the Fords determine what fruit tree varieties to buy. An 1885 book on American fruit trees described the Wagner as an early bearer of tender, juicy apples that could be harvested in November and keep until February. A nurseryman’s specimen book itemized the merits of the Snow, “an excellent, productive autumn apple” whose flesh is “remarkably [snow-]white, tender, juicy and with a slight perfume.” And an 1867 book touted the Rhode Island Greening as “a universal favorite” that bears an enormous fruit superior for cooking.
Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening apple varieties, as illustrated in nurseryman’s specimen books. / THF620189, THF620326,THF620178
When Ford Home was relocated to Greenfield Village in early 1944, Edward Cutler made efforts to represent the surrounding vegetation as Henry Ford remembered it. He included apple trees, though age and condition took their toll on those plantings in the decades that followed. In 2019, The Henry Ford’s staff collaborated with Michigan State University’s Extension Office on a plan to keep the fruit trees of the historic landscapes throughout Greenfield Village healthy. Their strategy involved replacing heritage trees with young stock of the same variety. As part of this project, in April of that year, groundskeepers at The Henry Ford planted new Wagner, Snow, and Rhode Island Greening trees at Ford Home.
Kyle Krueger of The Henry Ford’s Grounds team plants a new Wagner apple tree near Ford Home in Greenfield Village, April 18, 2019. / Photograph by Debra Reid
It will take as many as five years before these new trees bear fruit—as long as weather conditions and the trees’ health allow it—but in the meantime, visitors to Greenfield Village can walk the orchards to check on their progress!
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content. It originally ran in a spring 2019 issue of The Henry Ford’s employee newsletter.
Civilian Conservation Corps Company No. 1614, 1934. / THF293207
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began during an economic crisis unmatched in U.S. history. One out of four Americans was out of work in March 1933 as consumer demand reached an all-time low. Congress authorized the CCC to put some of these unemployed men to work. The U.S. War Department oversaw the program, building camps and undertaking projects in all 48 United States, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Enlistment peaked during September 1935 when 505,782 enrollees worked in 2,652 camps. Overall, between 1933 and 1942, approximately 5% of the U.S. male population, around 3 million men, participated in the CCC.
Stanley J. Zaleski at 1614th Co., Civilian Conservation Corps, Camp McComb, Munising, Michigan, April–September 1934. / THF274652
Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the quantity and quality of CCC work in his re-election campaign booklet, “This Generation Has a Rendezvous with Destiny” (1936). Between its launch in March 1933 and 1936, the CCC had erected 4,200 miles of new telephone lines, cut nearly 47,000 miles of new fire breaks, and cleared 64,000 miles of new truck trails. In cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority, its members had constructed over 200,000 stone and stone-and-log dams in that area. Members also engaged in extensive educational activity with 71% of enlistees taking part, including 90,000 attending elementary classes and 212,000 enrolling in special courses (pg. 12).
This detail from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign booklet, “This Generation Has a Rendezvous with Destiny,” 1936, featured Black and white enlistees at work. / THF132716
The legislation that created the Civilian Conservation Corps prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.” Promotional material such as the photograph (shown above) of CCC work in Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign booklet illustrated integration. Yet, implementation often appeased anti-integrationists and perpetuated the separate-but-unequal doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson (1896).
We must also acknowledge that CCC work occurred on lands formerly occupied by indigenous people. Each CCC camp site and CCC project represents an opportunity to remember those who previously occupied the place.
A separate Indian Emergency Conservation Work program began in 1933 in response to requests from Bureau of Indian Affairs administrators and sovereign Indian nations. It was renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps—Indian Division (CCC-ID) in 1937. It undertook work on federally recognized reservations and emphasized land preservation, soil conservation, forest restoration, and sustainable ranching practices, among other projects. Within six months, the CCC-ID had camps on 33 reservations in 28 states. As many as 85,000 men worked on CCC-ID projects. Its success laid the groundwork for a larger “Indian New Deal,” authorized in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act.
Indian Relief Project, McCurtain, Oklahoma, June 18, 1934. / THF290170
The CCC-ID’s worker policies differed in significant ways from the CCC’s policies toward Black and white men. This reflected its autonomy as a division of the Bureau of Land Management and not of the U.S. War Department, and the independence of separate indigenous nations negotiating their own CCC structures that supported families in different ways. For example, married men could enlist in the CCC-ID and live at home, receiving as much as $42 per month for work (including a stipend otherwise spent by camps on housing and feeding enlistees). In contrast, Black and white CCC enlistees, all single, earned $30 per month. They retained only $5 while the remaining $25 went home to their parents or extended families.
All CCC enlistees, regardless of race, color, or creed, worked hard and in all kinds of weather.
Man standing outside a Civilian Conservation Corps barracks in winter, circa 1935. / THF620731
Their rest came on cots in barracks with tar-paper walls.
Interior of Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, 1934. / THF620729
Work schedules allowed some time for recreation, but even then, the company dog warranted attention.
Stanley Zaleski and a dog outside Civilian Conservation Corps Barracks, 1934. / THF620737
The CCC followed strict protocols, including formal enlistment and discharge procedures and paperwork.
Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1614 completion certificate, September 30, 1934. Stanley “Toots” Zaleski’s Discharge Certificate confirmed the reason for his discharge as “expiration of term of enrollment for convenience of the U.S.” / THF293211
Communication took the form of monthly newsletters produced by enlistees in camps and in CCC regions. CCC camps held as many as 200 Black or white enlistees while CCC-ID projects incorporated 30–40 enlistees at a time. The newsletters represented a proactive effort to create a community identity. Sporting events and other organized leisure activities also helped generate collegiality.
The Northlander: A Mimeographed Publication of the Fort Brady CCC District, March 1939. / THF624987
Pennants helped convey the identity and camp purpose, much as pennants symbolized allegiance to schools. Some pennants conveyed standard CCC imagery. The lone pine tree symbol appeared on pennants of companies doing work in national forests and others working in state parks. Colors varied as well, even as the logo remained the same. Other pennants emphasized camp features, including barracks. Some carried additional artistic expressions.
Civilian Conservation Corps “1614th Co.” pennant, 1934. This company started in June 1933 near McComb and Munising, Michigan, and worked in the national forest. / THF293213
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1712. This company started in October 1934 and worked near Kaiser and Bagnall, Missouri, likely on Lake of the Ozarks State Park projects. /THF238732
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps Company 3745. This company worked near Columbia, Missouri, starting in September 1940, on Soil Conservation Service projects. / THF238734
Pennant, Civilian Conservation Corps, with no company number designated, but featuring illustrations of a typical CCC camp, 1933–1942. / THF238736
Civilian Conservation Corps "Co. 713, Camp Jeanette" pennant, 1936–1941. Camp 713 undertook Soil Conservation Service work near Lake Jeanette in Superior National Forest, near Lake City, Minnesota, starting January 16, 1936. / THF188542
Other souvenirs included sweetheart pillows, designed to remind loved ones back home of their son, brother, betrothed, or friend at work in a CCC camp.
Civilian Conservation Corps sweetheart pillow cover, 1938–1940. Camp 4603 worked on revitalizing grazing land near Harper, Oregon, starting in July 1938. / THF188543
The Civilian Conservation Corps never officially ceased to exist. Bipartisan support sustained the work through 1940 and 1941, even as potential enlistees pursued different opportunities and obligations. The U.S. Congress authorized the Selective Training and Service Act in September 1940, the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Veterans of the CCC often chose enlistment in their preferred branch of the military over conscription into military service. After the United States entered World War II, Congress closed remaining CCC camps, discharged personnel, and disposed of camp assets (including non-issued clothing) to the U.S. Army.
Today, private-public partnerships sustain CCC work in various ways. Organizations such as Conservation Legacy provide service opportunities to youth, young adults, and veterans, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forestry Service, and AmeriCorps. The Veterans Fire Corps helps veterans transition to civilian life while earning Firefighter Type 2 training. Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps engages Indigenous youth and young adults in conservation work that links ecological work with cultural heritage.
The legacy of the CCC remains all around us, but is not always obvious. We travel on roadways that CCC workers helped survey and build. We stop at roadside overlooks and stay in guest lodges that CCC workers built in state and national parks across the country. They also built dams and fire look-out towers, planted trees, improved grazing lands, and restocked lakes—among many other projects. Their signatures remain on the landscape in all these ways, preserving their history while inspiring current conservation work.
A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.
This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.
You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264
School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808
The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
This 1885 Harper's Weekly cover celebrated the freedom of enslaved African Americans 22 years after emancipation with the text, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants." / THF11676
Liberty stands as one of the ideals that inspired the United States from its beginning, as the following quotes from founding documents indicate:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” –Declaration of Independence, 1776
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general Welfare, and ensure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” –Constitution of the United States, 1788
National aspirations for liberty resonated, but “liberty” for some trapped others in servitude. United States expansion came at the highest cost to indigenous and enslaved individuals. For them, liberty rang hollow.
The Union victory in the Civil War affirmed the nation’s authority to abolish slavery, expand citizenship and civil rights protection, and grant universal manhood suffrage. The Fourteenth Amendment affirmed that “No state shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” Yet, newly freed Black Americans faced discrimination that deprived them of these unalienable rights.
Throughout this tumultuous history, the word “liberty” has been on all U.S. coins. The Coinage Act of 1792 established the U.S. Mint and decreed that all coins include an “impression emblematic of liberty” and the word “liberty.” Thus, the lawful tender in the United States, from the start of our national currency, emphasized liberty—even as the nation built its economy on and around the enslavement of people of African origin and descent.
The United States marked its 170th anniversary in the year that the U.S. Mint first linked “liberty” to Black history. Congress authorized production of a 50-cent coin to “commemorate the life and perpetuate the ideals and teachings of Booker T. Washington,” about 30 years after Washington’s death, on August 7, 1946 (Public Law 610-79th Congress, Chapter 763-2D Session, H.R 6528 August 7, 1946). Washington, noted educator and advocate for economic independence and Black autonomy, built his reputation as he built a segregated public school in Tuskegee, Alabama, into an engine of Black economic development. The Tuskegee alumni networks enthusiastically sustained his ideals, including liberty achieved regardless of racism and separate-but-equal segregation.
Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring Booker T. Washington, 1946. / THF170779
In addition to the word “liberty,” the coin’s reverse side summarized Washington’s evolution, from his birth as an enslaved person to his induction into the Hall of Fame for Great Americansin 1945.
The Black sculptor who designed the coin, Isaac Scott Hathaway, summarized Washington’s life story on a trajectory from enslavement to recognition. Hathaway had pursued this work for most of his life, convinced that Black Americans warranted representation in classical forms—specifically on busts and bas-relief plaques—that rivaled those of gods and goddesses. He mass-produced plaster busts and plaques of more than 200 Black women and men for customers to purchase and display in homes, schools, and churches. He divided his time between memorializing Black individuals and teaching in Tuskegee Institute’s Department of Ceramics, which he founded. His connection to Tuskegee helped secure his appointment as the first Black artist to design a coin for the U.S. Mint in 1945.
George Washington Carver Plaque, 1945. Hathaway knew Carver, and he cast this small bas-relief plaster plaque out of respect for “this venerable man whose acquaintance and friendship I enjoyed for 40 years.” He donated this plaque, as well as a plaster cast of Carver’s hand, to The Henry Ford in December 1945. / THF152082
The commemorative half-dollar coin featuring Booker T. Washington remained in production between 1946 and 1951. Sales of the commemorative sets, however, fell short of expectations. The U.S. Congress amended the August 7, 1946, act, reauthorizing a redesigned coin that added Tuskegee Institute agricultural scientist George Washington Carver to the front, and a patriotic message on the back (Public Law 151-82d Congress, Chapter 408, 1st Session. H.R. 3176 September 21, 1951). The Mint again retained Hathaway to design this second coin. One and one-half million Washington coins were melted and recast into the new issue.
Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, 1953. / THF152213
Reverse Side, Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, 1953, Produced at Denver, Colorado. / THF152214
Proceeds from sales of both of these commemorative coins were ear-marked for completion of the only national monuments documenting Black history at the time—the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial in Virginia and the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri. But sluggish sales did not generate the anticipated income for these two projects. When the amended act expired on August 7, 1954, the remaining million coins minted but not sold were melted and used for other coins. The practice of issuing commemorative coins for private initiatives—funding historic sites and memorials, in the case of these two coins—also ended with the expiration of the Washington commemorative coin act.
Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
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