Seeds of Democracy

Meet Louisa Yeomans King, the “fairy godmother” of American gardening

HUMANITIES, July/August 2008, Volume 29, Number 4

Long before Martha Stewart, there was Louisa—as in Louisa Yeomans King. In his 2006 NEH-supported book, The Modern American House (Cambridge University Press), Sandy Isenstadt touches on King’s role in American homemaking.

Although famous as a period when large private estates and fine suburbs were built and landscaped, the early twentieth century was equally a time when little gardens attracted great loyalties, and when the conflict between the need for privacy and the desire for visual breadth became a mainstay of discussions regarding the small home site. With professional fees prohibitive for an average middle-class family, many landscape architects argued that writing had become a new professional duty and that what owners of small homes needed most was to develop their taste in landscape design rather than to purchase an actual design. Writing on the outdoors was “one of the most emphatic and significant movements of the time,” wrote Bailey in “What This Magazine Stands For,” the initial editorial of Country Life in America, a magazine that featured larger properties but also often included advice for owners of small homes. Other magazines such as House Beautiful and the more middle-class-oriented House and Garden also began at this time to devote annual issues to gardening. Titles on Japanese landscaping appeared more frequently, explaining various effects such as the practice of “distance-lowering,” that is, grading tree sizes to force perspective.

A central tenet of such literature was that gardening strengthened democracy. Gardening clubs, for instance, founded largely by well-to-do women in the nineteenth century, showed particular concern for small gardens as a means of extending aesthetic education to the middle class through newsletters, meetings, and the camaraderie of shared interests. Whereas the profession of landscape architecture was dominated by men, with some notable exceptions, garden clubs, which arguably affected more of the built American landscape than did professionals, were nearly exclusively run by women. Many women had gained expertise from working their own gardens and began to consult with individual and even institutional clients. Louisa Yeomans King, cofounder of the Garden Club of America, editor of the “Little Gardens” series and author of two of its titles, and named by House and Garden the “fairy godmother” of American gardening, proclaimed in 1925 the democratic implications of the modest gardens surrounding small homes: “There is no other such meeting ground: there is no community of interest such as this of gardens.” All citizens were equal working the soil and so American masses almost instinctively clamored for green. Garden interest would grow only greater, King prophesied, as the United States compensated with quantity what it lacked in antiquity or magnificence.