Friday, December 7, 2012

Bloomin' Kewriosities

In December, 1868, a very ordinary woman took her first steps into history when she rescued a seedling from what was kitchen scraps or compost and nurtured it into a tree. She was Maria Ann Smith, an immigrant to Australia and mother of nine. The seedling went on to become a new variety of apple called the ‘Granny Smith’ and ultimately world-famous as it was especially suited to baking. Granny Smith herself can be read about here and here.
Sadly, she never knew about the great commercial success of her discovery, although her granddaughter who lived to be 101 carried on the tradition of apples and on her final birthday in 2011, one of Australia’s top chefs baked (naturally!) an apple pie in celebration.

This led me to wonder about other women who have left legacies in the way of commercial horticulture, especially having new varieties of fruits named after them, but they are not that easy to find.

Catherine Horwood has written a book on the history of women in gardening, how difficult and controversial just having them involved in horticulture could be, as can be seen by this observation in the Guardian:
" ... But after training, the problem was still where to find work – and what to wear. The first female gardeners taken on at Kew in 1896 (dubbed the “Kewriosities” by the London press) were attired in bloomers. When passing omnibuses were crowded with rubbernecking sightseers and songs were published with such refrains as “Who wants to see blooms now you've bloomers at Kew?”, the girls were quickly told to wear knickerbockers (not trousers) instead. ..."

Here is an extract from Woodward’s Record of Horticulture by A.S. Fuller, published in 1866 which considers whether it is a suitable occupation for women. For all its amusing, quaint and patronising content, it was also a valid attempt to improve the lot of women, to get them out into the open air and away from unhealthy, poorly paid and soul-destroying indoor occupations like sewing. Aside from curious notions such as agriculture being “repugnant” to most women and“Fashion” being often responsible for degradation, there is also the positive suggestion that more women in horticulture would be a good thing for the profession, that it would make men improve their behaviour as well.
Is Horticulture a suitable occupation for women? Is there anything degrading in the cultivation of fruits and flowers? We are told in sacred history that the first gardener had a woman given him for a helpmate and partner; then why should we not only admit, but encourage women to assist in producing those blessings that our Creator in his beneficence has given to mankind? We have some excuse for not urging women to engage in general agriculture, for besides needing strength in that position, she would come in contact with many things repugnant to the finer feelings of her nature. But in Horticulture she would seldom meet with anything distasteful. True, we would not ask or expect her to do the coarse drudgery of the business, leaving that for such men as seem to have been created to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. But what could be more agreeable to refined tastes than to cultivate and handle our ordinary fruits, especially the smaller kinds? Is it less noble than sitting idle, or waiting upon customers in some close, half stifling shop in a city, or plying the needle for sixteen hours a day, for scarcely enough to keep soul and body as partners for a few years, with no time for relaxation from toil or to enjoy the exhilarating pleasure of breathing the free air of the country?
Fashion, the tyrant, and the near relative of Want, has excluded woman from many channels of usefulness, and often compelled her to walk the downward road to degradation. Shall these influences continue to exist when her labor and society are needed in many positions of life where at present she is seldom admitted? Would not the very presence of women in horticultural society be a benefit to the profession? for out of respect for the ladies some of us would be more gentlemanly in our deportment, and more civil in all of our dealings with each other. We think that it would have this desirable effect, at least it is well worthy of a trial.
This is no insignificant subject, nor one that should be passed over with indifference. We do not wish to harp upon the already much abused subject of women's rights or wrongs, but we respectfully submit these remarks in behalf of the general welfare and progress of Horticulture. If our mothers and sisters are so fortunate as to have been born in or raised to a position of comparative freedom from manual labor, we should not forget those who are not so well situated, but endeavor to find or make employments that while they furnish the means of subsistence will be the less arduous because of their congeniality.
Our government has liberally endowed the prospective agricultural colleges of our country for the education of men; would it not have been well to give a portion to the endowment of horticultural departments for the education of both sexes? Must the mothers of great men, yes, of nations, be circumscribed in their usefulness, and be compelled to walk in channels unsuitable to their proper development because of fashion or false education of both their own and the ruling sex? Thousands of women, old and young, are now crowded into our cities who would gladly seek employment in the fruitful fields of the country if they could be assured that the finger of scorn would not be pointed at them.
We all honor a Mrs. Loudon who did not think it beneath her dignity to prosecute the work her much lamented husband had begun. There are a few such noble examples in Horticulture, and we have to regret that the record contains so small a number. At the time Mr. Loudon published his “Encyclopedia of Gardening”, there had been about four hundred authors of works on gardening in England;out of this number only five were women. We do not doubt they had given assistance in many instances in which they have received no credit.
We are glad to record the fact, that within the past year one lady has announced herself a member of the horticultural profession. We refer to Miss J. L. Waring, of Amenia, Dutchess County, N. Y.
Miss Waring has built four large propagating houses, which cost nearly $10,000, besides purchasing ample grounds for carrying on an extensive business. The propagation of grapes has been the main business the past season, and we believe her success has been excellent. From a very slight personal acquaintance with this lady, we do not hesitate, in behalf of horticulturists in general, to welcome her among us, believing that she will be an honor to the profession and of benefit to the country at large.
As to the two women mentioned in this article, Miss Waring is difficult to find, but Mrs. Loudon became famous for her gardening books and is also interesting as being the author (as Jane Webb) of early science fiction, in particular her book The Mummy, written in 1827.

More about the early UK horticultural college for women here.
Plus this document on other notable early women in horticulture.
Library of Congress reading list.