Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts

Over 1,600 items spaning the period from 1835 to 1955

Scope of the Collection

Now numbering over 1,600 items, Smithsonian Gardens Furnishings and Artifacts Collection spans the period from 1835 to 1955. Hundreds of pieces are exhibited in the Smithsonian Gothic settee and chair in Haupt Gardengardens and interior plant displays in the Smithsonian museums surrounding the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Think of the many ways that horticulture, in the guise of flowers, houseplants, fruits and vegetables affect our lives and surroundings each and every day. Plants appeal to many of our senses; they attract us by their color, and appearence, and sometimes by the way they smell or taste. The Smithsonian gardens preserves and showcases this evidence of how horticulture has played a vital role in supporting and embellishing society for hundreds of years.

Smithsonian Gardens is responsible for maintaining the objects and their supporting documentation. Through exhibition, public programs, and scholarly resources including internships and fellowships, the public is invited to enhance their awareness of America's rich horticultural heritage.

Garden Furnishings Collection Griffin Detail

Mass production techniques fo the Industrial Revolution in mid-nineteenth century America enabled cast iron furniture and urns to be produced quickly and cheaply. Manufacturers published catalogs with elaborate engravings and descriptions of their wares to encourage sales. Customers could choose an urn and pedestal that reflected their personal style from a number of interchangeable pieces in a foundry's inventory.

Given the huge variety of designs available, the importance of choosing a style and from that complement the architecture of a particular home and garden becomes clear. Formal ornate pieces might be found on a grand terrace, while plainer and small pieces would be used in more exclusive areas.

The Smithsonian Gardens' collection includes dozens of different seating designs and numerous distinctive motifs on urns and vases. Ornate cast iron fountains provide grand centerpieces for some of the Smithsonian gardens.

There are dozens of distinctive design motifs found on urns and vases in the Smithsonian Gardens collection. Everything from lions and griffins to morning glories and seashells appear on containers which are used to showcase plant and flower arrangements in the Smithsonian gardens.

Urns Historic urn in Folger Rose Garden

Urns and vases in the 19th century garden came to prominence with Sir Charles Barry (1795 - 1860) who laid out a number of large formal gardens in the Italianate style that were much admired by Americans.

In the Smithsonian Gardens, plant containers are used to create atmosphere, drama, grandeur or whimsy.

Urns echoed furniture motifs to help achieve a uniform garden style. This griffin from the handle of a cast iron urn represents strength and agility. Mythological figures apppear in a number of historical decorative art styles. Archeological finds of the time also helped inspire classical design motifs.



Bouquet bench in Mary Livingston Ripley Garden There are at least two dozen different seating designs currently in the Smithsonian Garden's collection. The many chairs, settees and benches show a range of styles dating as far back as 1840. These pieces show how styles and tastes evolved throughout time leading up to the present from the very ornate to the more understated arrangements. The seating collection can be found throughout the gardens providing a respite where one can relax and admire the beautiful scenery.


Fountain Two nineteenth century cast iron fountains are currently on display in the Smithsonian's Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden. These historic fountains serve as visual centerpieces and provide tranquil spaces in urban garden settings.


Horticultural Artifacts

Practically every aspect of our lives is affected in one way or another by horticulture. The food we eat, the plants we decorate our homes with (both inside and out), the flowers we use to mark special occasions -- these are all necessary components of our lives that also tell us a lot about ourselves.

The Horticulture Artifact Collection includes artifacts related to the horticulture trade, gardening, interior home accessories, and floral stands for funeral arrangements, primarily from the nineteenth century.

Commercial Floral and Seed Industry

SeedsShaker gardeners in Mount Lebanon, New York are credited with having first marketed seeds in individual packets or “papers.” In the nineteenth century, seed packets were often displayed in wooden boxes that acted like a “silent salesman.” These boxes, with colorful decorative labels that were designed to catch the gardener’s attention, were left with the retailer, filled with seed packets, and replenished as needed. They were often recycled by having new labels pasted over old ones.

Nursery and seed catalogs were a vital tool for selling seeds, plants, and gardening tools a century ago, much more so than today considering that these items can now be found everywhere from home improvement stores to gift boutiques. By 1900, several hundred thousand elaborate catalogs were distributed each year to people who could not easily get to shops and nurseries. Companies encouraged buyers to purchase more wares by including plant lists, garden plans, advice on plant culture, and testimonials from successful home gardeners in their colorful catalogs.

For more information, see these Smithsonian Institution Libraries websites:
Bibliographies on the History of the American Seed and Nursery Industry
Biographies of American Seedsmen and Nurserymen

Bouquet Holders From the Frances Jones Poetker Collection

Frances Jones Poetker Collection

Frances Jones Poetker of Cincinnati, Ohio, was a noted floral designer, author, and lecturer on floricultural history. Her personal collection of floral accessories, ornaments, and nineteenth and early twentieth century bouquet-holders was donated in 1987 to the Smithsonian’s Horticulture Services Division (now Smithsonian Gardens). Mrs. Poetker’s wish was to present Smithsonian Gardens with a body of authoritative objects to be used for “illustrative teaching and research purposes” by horticulturists and scholars.

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