As I start to think about pruning the roses later this month, even in our small garden it’s a job requiring secateurs, bypass and anvil loppers, and a long handled pruner with a pole-mounted blade, operated by pulling a cord. These indispensable tools have their origins in early 19th century France, and over time, they began to replace the traditional pruning knives and bill-hooks used in previous centuries.
Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier: Répresentant les Utensiles le plus généralement employés dans la culture des Jardins (1813) contains a wonderful visual record of the range of tools available to French gardeners at this time, showing older items alongside new introductions. Tools for pruning include shears used for trimming hedges and borders, a basic pole pruner operated by a cord, pruning knives, croissants or semi-circular pruning hooks which could be attached to poles of different lengths, and saws of various sizes.
There’s also an illustration of the sécateur – a brand new pruning tool invented by M. le marquis Bertrand de Moleville. (A royalist, Moleville lived as an exile in England during the years of the French Revolution, returning to France when it was safe for him to do so.) Developed for for use in viticulture, the text explains how the summer pruning of vines was made more efficient using the new tool, claiming that the gardener was able to achieve in just one hour with the sécateur what would have taken four using the traditional serpette, or pruning knife.
The illustration of the sécateur is given a whole page to itself in the 1813 edition, indicating its importance. In just a decade, by the time the third edition of this book was published in 1823, the extraordinary influence of the sécateur can be seen in a whole range of new or improved pruning tools, using its bypass blade technology.
The sécateur appears to have attracted the interest of a Paris based firm of engineers, Arnheiter and Petit. As well as manufacturing new tools to the specification of independent designers, the company developed tools themselves. In the 1820s they produced the ébranchoir, or ‘tres-grands secateur’ – we would call it a lopper – and produced three échenilloirs, or tree pruners, a vast improvement of an existing tool said to have come originally from Germany (see illustration XX).
Their loppers use the same design principle as the sécateur, but on a larger scale, allowing branches of greater diameter to be cut effectively. The first has handles around one and half feet in length and can cut branches the diameter of a thumb. Made entirely of steel, it must have been quite heavy to use. The second lopper cuts branches of the same diameter, and can be used on taller trees. Both arms of this ébranchoir end in sockets which were attached to wooden poles, giving the tool greater reach, but without making it too heavy. The échenilloirs, or tree pruners, benefitted from refined mechanisms and a reach of ten feet.
Two tools illustrated on the page below were specifically for cutting roses. Object 3 in the diagram is a version of the sécateur called the sécateur-cueille-rose. The other tool, which resembles a pair of ornate scissors, (objects 1 & 2) is a cueille-rose or donne-rose and was marketed for use by women. The text includes the address of a shop in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris which sold it.
Looking at my own pruning tools today, it’s surprising how little the designs have changed. My secateurs are sprung, and have plastic handles, but are broadly similar to Moleville’s original. Our tree pruner (inherited from my father and probably made in the 1970s) is essentially the same as the pulley version made by Arnheiter and Petit, apart from its modern aluminium handle and plastic cord. Our bypass loppers have telescopic handles and an anvil blade (introduced later in the 19th century) – but these tools from France developed two hundred years ago, over a remarkably short ten year period, are still vital for the 21st century gardener.
Links to both editions of Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier below – and some coloured plates from the 1813 edition of the book showing spades, cloches and wheelbarrows and watering cans – nothing to do with pruning, but because they evoke the period so well.
Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier second edition 1813
Figures pour l’almanach du bon jardinier third edition 1823