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Gilded Age Gardens Bloom Again

Gilded Age gardens bloom again through a rare collection of 1,130 hand-colored, glass-plate lantern slides at the Library of Congress. Most of these exquisite gardens that were planted between the late 1800s and 1930s have long since vanished, but thanks to the work of Frances Benjamin Johnston we can stroll through these Gilded Age Gardens today.

Johnston Was A Trailblazing Photographer Of Gardens And Much More

Johnston (January 15, 1864 – May 16, 1952) was one of the first professional female photographers to achieve international prominence. According to the Library of Congress, she has long been acknowledged as an important photographer for her many contributions to early photojournalism and documentation of historic architecture.

The daughter of Frances Antoinette Johnston, a lady correspondent, Johnston was no stranger to trailblazers like Nellie Bly who personified the New Woman. She studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris (1883-1885) so she could illustrate her own articles. On her return to Washington D.C. she became a freelance journalist.

According to the national Park Service, George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, gifted her one of the first cameras to feature roll-film in 1887. She studied under Thomas Smillie, director of photography of the Smithsonian. By 1894, she opened her own studio in Washington, D.C.. Well connected among the rich and famous, she photographed scores of celebrities like Mark Twain, Alice Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington.

Johnston Promoted The Garden Beautiful Movement

Also during this time, Johnston began documenting exquisite Gilded Age Gardens owned by the wealthiest Americans during this period. Her subjects ranged from New York town house yards to Long Island villas, California hillside terraces and Southern plantations.

“But her front and center role in the Garden Beautiful movement as an advocate and artist working with garden clubs, horticultural societies and museums has been neglected, until now. Johnston advocated for gardening the nation back to “America the Beautiful,” one elm, one rose and one fountain and shady terrace at a time.” (Library of Congress)

Johnston became a driving force in the movement to beautify America, using her own garden photos to illustrate articles in magazines including Country Life in America, House & Garden, and The House Beautiful. She also used them to illuminate her lecture series across America.

This remarkable collection of slides held by the Library of Congress was last seen when Johnston projected them during her lectures in the 1910s to 1930s. Her mission was to rally Americans to grow gardens on tenement lots, in row-house yards and in parks, which “had deteriorated from industrial pollution and neglect during the Gilded Age.”

Nearly 300 of her finest photographs are included in Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935. Author-historian Sam Watters meticulously identified the owners and locales of each garden from the Library of Congress Johnston collection. The preface describes her photos as “a time machine and a magic carpet capable of transporting us back to a lost, golden age in the development of the American garden.”

Elaborate Gardens Of The Elite Influenced Landscape Design Of The Less Fortunate

The 1870s to early 1900s are considered a “Golden Age” of prosperity and growth in the United States, particularly for the upwardly mobile. Mark Twain and his collaborator Charles Dudley Warner coined the term in their 1873 book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, referring to the superficial layer of gold intended to improve the appearance of something.

According to National Park Services History, Captains of industry, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and others amassed unimaginable wealth while the average annual income in the US was around $380.

“Established millionaires viewed nouveau riche families like the Vanderbilts, who flaunted their wealth by building ostentatious homes, throwing extravagant balls, and using their money to buy social prominence, as gilded—all show, no substance.”

Fortunately, this rivalry between the wealthy and the class conscious resulted in hundreds of spectacular gardens that helped shape landscape design and urban planning in America. It also resulted in spectacular estates that are now open to the public and under the care of the National Park Service.

World’s Fairs Promoted Movements To Beautify America

World’s fairs allowed millions of people to experience the latest scientific and technical innovations. The Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The fair also gave them a glimpse at the direction of the City Beautiful Movement, a reform effort to improve cities from the 1890s to the 1900s. In part, this was to be accomplished through urban landscapes including parks. The Columbian Exposition showcased spectacular horticulture and garden design. Many of the exhibits were influenced by Gilded Age Gardens.

According to the Smithsonian Libraries:

“Covering some 630 acres, the layout integrated architecture with the landscape, a formula that influenced beautification efforts in cities across the United States. Frederick Law Olmsted, considered America’s first landscape architect, designed the grounds. Olmsted painstakingly laid out views he wanted visitors to experience.”

Through her extraordinary talent and resolve, Francis Benjamin Johnston’s meticulous photographic documentation of  Gilded Age Gardens inspired improvements in Urban Design across America. She is in part responsible for tree-lined streets, home gardens and landscaped parks across America.

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