Urban Farming for the 1900s Child

In 1902, Mrs. Henry Parsons (or Fannie Grissom Parsons, if you prefer) launched an experiment. Her idea was to find a way to city children to have the rural experience. Basically, she brought the farm to New York City.


Our feature this week is The First Children’s Farm in New York City, from 1904. This publication is the follow-up for three years worth of work on a project. It taught city children the basics of planting, caring for, and harvesting a garden plot by creating opportunities to work in De Witt Clinton Park. The report details how the project started (by inviting children to participate), covers what children learned, and, to some extent, documents the effect it had on participants and the neighborhood.

Based on Mrs. Parsons’ report, we can surmise that she had some success in the endeavor. She was even awarded a medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. In addition to recounting the how of things, her report includes a section titled, “Farm School Work in Aid to Schools, Hospitals and Asylums.” What follows is an account of where such programs are needed, the disconnect between city and rural settings in the start of a new century, and the benefits of teaching children about the environment, essentially. The report also contains a number of photographs (I’m partial to the before and after shots above).

While I don’t know how, more than 100 years, we can necessarily judge the effectiveness of Mrs. Parsons’ program, I think it does convey a message that still has bearing: finding a connection to what we eat. We might argue Mrs. Parsons’ work is a precursor to urban gardening and local food movements today. Our campus was host to a 4-H camp last week, and that has me thinking about what we are still teaching children today, whether in school, camp, or at home. The good news is that we haven’t lost sight of work that began over a century ago.

Seeding Spring: Catalogs Galore

Diggs & Beadles seeds, 1930
Diggs & Beadles seeds, 1930

Spring has (at least for now) arrived in Blacksburg. (Although this week we seem to have crashed headlong into summer…) A new box of materials arrived with some new seed catalogs, which got me thinking about the seed catalogs we already have. That, and the wonderful post on our Special Collection blog by my colleague about the first edition of another seed catalog I didn’t feature here. They represent both the History of Food & Drink Collection and the materials we have relating agricultural history. Whether you’re talking heirloom varieties in the past or common varieties today, seed catalogs can tell us a good deal about what people were growing both commercially and privately in the 19th and 20th century. And, you can still find print seed catalogs today from companies that have been in business for more than 100 years, in some cases! (Burpee, I’m looking at you!) Certainly, there are online ones, too, but the fact that print seed catalogs are still made says something about the link between form and physical design.

Seed catalogs as a items themselves, if we ignore the content for a moment, are fun to consider. They feature brilliantly colored covers that make it hard not to stop and look! (What can I say, I’m fond of cover art, whether it’s seed catalogs, cookbooks, or science fiction!)

Most seed catalogs do contain illustrations inside, too. (It’s important to know what your plants will look like!). However, most are in black and white. The occasional catalog will surprise you, though, as with Vaughan’s Gardening Illustrated from 1927. It features full color flowers (although the vegetable pages are still black and white).

Even catalogs without too color are fun. And you never know what might be inside! The 1870 Vick’s Illustrated Catalogue and Floral Guide features a Victorian-decorated cover and large illustrations. The 1899 J. A. Everitt catalog still includes the original order form and envelope. (The cover almost makes it look like tomatoes grow on trees, as suggestion of the quality of the seeds you can get.)

Of course you can use seed catalogs to see what be being bought and sold, what the prices were, and how companies were marketing their seeds. But today’s post is meant to remind you that we can think about them (and many other items in the History of Food & Drink Collection) as objects (and maybe even objets d’art) and not just as a mechanism to convey information.

We have LOTS more where these came from (not even counting the new ones I mentioned that just arrived this week), so if you like seeds, cover art, or agricultural history, feel free to stop by. We can find something fun for everyone. And happy gardening!