In the 1960s, during the process of planning a kitchen remodel at its headquarters in New York City, the Garden Club of America (GCA) found thousands of glass lantern slides featuring early 20th-century American gardens in an old closet. The precursor to photographic slides, glass lantern slides allowed photographs to be projected onto a surface for an audience to view, and the GCA originally used these slides to give lectures on gardening and horticulture. Fortunately, instead of throwing these slides away (as was originally suggested), in 1992 the GCA donated the 3,000 lantern slides, as well as 37,000 35mm slides, that document the history of American gardens and landscapes to the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens.
I first came across these photos as I was browsing through the collections on our site. Not surprisingly, what struck me was the beauty of the gardens, but also the charming and intricate hand-painted coloring on many of these slides, most of which were produced in the early 1920s and 30s. I also thought of my mother, who’s an avid gardener, and how the photos would be amazing inspiration for new garden layouts and color combos. But what became clear as I scanned the images is that many of the gardens and homes featured in the slides had been demolished.
The Garden Club of America was founded in 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and conservation, as well as sharing a love and knowledge of gardening, was a part of its original mission. The GCA glass slides now housed at the Smithsonian have been a crucial part of that conservation effort and now provide some of the only clues we have to the original designs and garden techniques in practice early in the century in America (albeit, mainly on expansive upper-class estates). Interestingly, photography also was a big part of the GCA’s efforts to conserve wild flowers and discourage billboards (which many club members considered “visual pollution”). Club members used photographs of billboards and lantern slides of wild flowers as “propaganda” (apparently not a dirty word to them. . .) to influence both public opinion and legislation.
Of course, the GCA was not the first organization to use photography as a means to an end for preservation and environmental concerns. As early as 1857, English photographer James Mudd used photographs to illustrate the effects of a chemical works factory on local flora—this instance being one of the earliest uses of photography to support a case in court! And among more well-known examples of “environmental photography,” William Henry Jackson and Ansel Adams famously used photographs to persuade the US Congress to create National Parks in the American West in the 1870s and 1930s.
In spite of their more humble beginnings, the GCA slides are a great example of how photographs can both incite and aid preservation efforts, and are providing me with some serious inspiration for fall plantings for my patio!
See a sampling of the Archives of American Gardens' slides here.