A flower show can encompass anything from a local amateur competition in the village hall, to a huge event attracting a national audience. These remarkable photographs from the Library of Congress record an annual exhibition of chrysanthemums hosted by the US Department of Agriculture and held in Washington in the early part of the 20th century, generally in November.
Commercial photographers from the Harris & Ewing studio attended the event over a period of years producing a varied record, including visitors from the top tier of American political society, members of the public, a gardener at the glasshouse, and details of the plants themselves.
Negotiating the narrow pathways of the glasshouse with its banks of fragile flowers, whilst persuading VIP guests to be photographed, cannot have been easy. While some appear happy to pose, others are less enthusiastic. But the candid expressions of the guests capture the event’s atmosphere perfectly, allowing the viewer privileged access to the show.
What of the chrysanthemums on display? A close inspection of the glasshouse signage reveals the banks of smaller flowered plants closest to the walls are ‘pompons and single varieties for outside planting’ while the spectacular blooms in the central aisle are ‘Japanese and Chinese varieties for greenhouse cultivation’. Each of these plants, grown individually in terracotta pots, is carefully staked to support the flower and labelled. All the plants are staged in rows on a structure increasing in height like steps, showing all the flowers to their best advantage.
Originally from China, chrysanthemums have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries, both for decorative purposes and for their medicinal properties. The plants were introduced to Europe in the late 18th century, and by the mid 19th century, when The National Chrysanthemum Society was established in London in 1846, their popularity was well established.
In the United States greenhouse varieties imported from Japan started to become fashionable by the 1860s alongside the garden types. By the time the Agriculture Department’s events were in their heyday, the latest varieties from American breeders were the stars of the show – often named after celebrities of the day, from Grace Coolidge to military figures like General Pershing and Admiral Beatty. Another is named for the Garden Club of America.
Chrysanthemums bloom late in the season and their colours, from shades of yellow and bronze, to rusty reds and purples mirror the tones of autumn leaves. Others come in shades of pink and even pure white. Their forms are wide ranging, including single, semi-double, pompons, incurving where the florets or petals form a ball shape, or reflex where the florets curve downwards and overlap.
The early part of the 20th century was a golden period for chrysanthemum shows on both sides of the Atlantic, when gardeners working at large houses and estates were still employed in sufficient numbers to grow the large bloomed varieties that required glasshouse cultivation. Aside from gardener Martin Graner photographed in 1913, the multitude of gardeners who raised the magnificent plants for the Department of Agriculture’s show, and displayed them so beautifully are undocumented, but the quality of their work lives on in this extraordinary record.
NCS USA Chrysanthemum classifications from the National Chrysanthemum Society, USA
NCS UK National Chrysanthemum Society, UK