Thursday, November 1, 2018

Introduction to Early American Commercial Pleasure Gardens

When Marylander Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782) wrote his only son, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737- 1832), in London to study law, he advised the young man, "Play houses, coffee houses, Renelaghs, Vuxhalls, Routs, Opera...must have allotted now & then some hours to these Genteel & necessary Amusements." Carroll & most of his compatriots understood the importance of commercial gardens such as London's Ranelagh Gardens & Vauxhall Gardens in 18th-century society, where gentlemen went to seek recreation & to transact business.

Charles Carroll of Annapolis 1702-1782 by John Wollaston

The era was the pinnacle of the ancient agrarian economy that had dominated human lives for thousands of years. The machine whirred just over the horizon of the 19C, & soon enough most people would no longer depend on the rising & setting of the sun or the havoc of an unexpected hail storm to determine the success or failure of their lives on a daily basis.

A public pleasure garden was a privately-owned ornamental ground or piece of land, open to the public as a resort or amusement area, and operated as a business. Public gardens & grounds were developed for the community & open to all. In commercial public gardens, man was attempting to control nature as well as insert his new ideas about the world--and occasionally even some of his curious machines--into a purely ornamental garden. The business pleasure garden was the ultimate garden. Here was nature so controlled by man, that the garden was purely an artform. Here art & capitalism wed. This garden produced no crops but still rendered a profit for its owner.

Early in the colonial period, entertainment was based in the home or in a close-knit community venue such as a church or a monthly courthouse gathering. As the population grew, as extra money became available, & as crowded towns of merchants burgeoned, the traditional venue for entertainment shifted from the privacy of the home to public, commercial sites designed & promoted to attract larger audiences. In port cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, & Baltimore commercial entertainments became more class & gender inclusive. The family & close friends who traditionally shared amusements transformed into audiences including both friends & strangers.

In order to be commercially successful in the colonies public gardens had to appeal to a broad spectrum of society, not just the gentry. Occasionally they served as stages for private, elite celebrations, but more often they served as platforms for social activities that blurred national, religious, & class distinctions. In the colonies, public gardens & taverns were places to practice egalitarianism, places to mingle with people from all strata of society. This was particularly true before factionalism began to divide colonials after 1765. When Maryland physician Alexander Hamilton (1712-1756) visited a Philadelphia public house in 1744, he described the other guests, "I dined ... with a very mixed company of nations and religions ... Scots, English, Dutch, Germans and Irish; there were Catholics, Church men, Presbyterians, Quakers, New Light men, Methodists, Seventh Day men, Moravians, Anabaptists and one Jew ... the prevailing topick was politics and conjectures of a French war. A knot of Quakers there talked only about the selling of flour."

Dealing with diverse groups of people was not the only learning experience at commercial outdoor taverns before the Revolution. Recreational activities in traditional British public gardens were often seen by participants & onlookers alike as emblems of life's important lessons. Before the Stamp Act, colonial commercial gardens offered garden guests the news of the day, a chance for romance, emblematic game-playing, & local gossip plus exhibitions of the curious--exotic animals, circus performers, & mystifying machines. These extraordinary colonial entertainments were petite imitations of the extravagant spectacles presented at London's public gardens.

But after 1765, American gardens began to differ significantly from their British prototypes, as local gossip turned into partisan disagreements & entertainment began to center on patriotic symbolism. The Revolution changed the American public garden. After the war & the ratification of the Constitution, political factionalism often played a role in determining which public garden a citizen frequented. During the last 2 decades of the 18th century, as the number of gardens grew rapidly, their owners often were forced to specialize in order to carve out their own unique commercial niche amid the growing competition. This specialization drew together people with similar interests. Ironically as Thomas Jefferson declared that "All men are created equal," America's public gardens became less egalitarian as political factionalism & specializaion spurred by capitalistic competition grew.

By the end of the 18C, public gardens appeared in Boston, Newport, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, & Charleston. Growing urban economies supported a work force paid for their labors. Slowly it was not just the colonial gentry with leisure time & money on their hands. Public gardens attracted the families of local gentlemen & merchants, passing visitors, & even the families of nearby farmers & tradesmen. They came for more than romance, recreation, & diversion. Here they exchanged the news of the day, discussed affairs of state, conducted business transactions, & engaged in a variety of social intercourse.

During the early Federal period, guests also came to be inspired by the symbols of their new nation. Patriotic entertainments displayed in gardens up & down the Atlantic seaboard spread a common nationalism throughout a diverse group of patrons. During the summers in many 18th century urban centers, public gardens were the fashionable place to go--to see & be seen. After the ratification of the Constitution, as the number of gardens grew rapidly in the new nation, landowners actively promoted property for sale or rent by presenting it as opportune for development into a commercial enterprise. In a Baltimore newspaper during the spring of 1793, Thomas Kelso advertised 24 acres near the town as the ideal setting for conversion to a summer retreat "for those possessed of a taste for rural pleasures." The seller noted that his land was "well calculated for a public pleasure garden and the rapid increase and growing riches of Baltimore offer at this time great encouragement for such a place of recreation."

In the 18th century, the enchanting, romantic commercial garden was a deceptively important stage for social, political, & business affairs. After the Stamp Act in the British American colonies, the garden also served as a popular platform for ideas & symbols important to preserve the emerging democracy. Many new republicans believed that "A People without Morals may acquire Liberty, but without Morals they cannot preserve it," & many gathered in gardens for inspiration. Early American commercial gardens both promoted & reflected changes in behavior across the social spectrum throughout the 18C & into the early years of the 19C.