This guide explores the horticultural career of landscape architect and gardener J. Wilkinson Elliott and his friendships with William Robinson, J. Horace McFarland, H.H. Hunnewell, Pierre Lorillard IV, and J. Walter Thompson.
The firm of J. Wilkinson Elliott was a large and prominent nursery and seed business located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Mertz Library has J. Wilkinson Elliott catalogs dating from 1901 to 1936, many of which have been digitized and added into Mertz Digital. The proprietor of the firm, J. (James) Wilkinson Elliott, was an important horticulturist whose influence and relationships within the industry and A-list of celebrity clients made him a significant figure in American gardening history.
J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858- 1939) grew up in a family of nurserymen that included his father Benjamin A. Elliott who established his nursery business in 1870 and his grandfather William R. Elliott (a former blacksmith) who founded the first Elliott nursery in Pittsburgh in 1840. J. Wilkinson Elliott established his own nursery firm in Pittsburgh in 1889. As a young man Elliott demonstrated a penchant for risk taking and an aptitude for success.
One episode from his youth stands out as evidence of his sound commercial instincts. When former President Ulysses S. Grant, after a well-publicized two year world tour, returned to America in 1879 to a tumultuous reception by the American public, he was scheduled to triumphantly pass through Pittsburgh on his way to Washington, D.C. The young Elliott knowing that “bouquet green” (Lycopodium erectum) and laurel wreathing (Kalmia latifolia) would be in tremendous demand for making wreaths to honor the great hero, took a calculated risk and borrowed a large amount of money to purchase the greens from all the wholesale sources he could locate. Then during the festivities he sold the product at an inflated price as fast as his men could open the crates on the sidewalk.
Like many young ambitious Americans, Elliott wanted to see more of the world than just a parade passing through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Encouraged by family and friends and with enough money for his first class passage to England, he set out on a journey that was to change his life.
During his journey through England (1885), Elliott established relationships and visited many gardens which would have great implications for American horticulture. Certainly the most important event of his British visit was his meeting with William Robinson (1838-1935). Their meeting developed into a profound life-long personal and professional friendship for both men. Robinson wrote The English Flower Garden (1883) which went through fifteen editions during his life and is arguably the most important gardening book in the English language. The Mertz Library holds a copy of all fifteen editions including the rare first edition, see the cataloging record here. Elliott in writing about the influence of the English Flower Garden said: “this book was a revelation to me: whatever success I have had as landscape gardener and nurseryman is due to the inspiration of this book.”
The youthful Elliott’s meeting with Robinson in 1885 was recalled by Elliott in his 1935 autobiography Adventures of a Horticulturist (a copy of which Elliott donated to the New York Botanical Garden and is in the Mertz Library here). The description of the meeting reads like a page from Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.
“From the Dodd place I went direct to London, and the first man I called on there was William Robinson, the greatest gardener and the greatest writer about gardens that ever lived…. I went to see Mr. Robinson with fear and trembling, as he was already considered one of the great men of England, but the fact that I was an American, and interested in gardens, was enough, and he gave me the most cordial reception and a complete set of his numerous books; and ever since, when he has published a new book or a new edition of an old one, he has sent me a copy. … He said: ‘I suppose you wish to see some of the fine gardens of England? I will give you letters of introduction which will make this possible.’ And he did—three times as many as I could use; and I found that a letter of introduction from him meant something, as it secured me a cordial reception whenever I presented it. This was the beginning of a friendship which has lasted until the present time. He is almost a hundred years old.”
Robinson’s book revolutionized the art of gardening, by persuading the gardening public to abandon their allegiance to large formal beds of annuals and instead adopt the use of native plants in a naturalistic landscape. Robinson took as his inspiration the English cottage garden of native plants and advocated for a natural arrangement of bulbs, roses, woodland plants and herbaceous perennials judiciously planted in settings conducive to their growth and habit.
Even before his meeting with Robinson, Elliott was already a proponent of the new naturalistic gardening philosophy. In 1884, influenced by the Robinson book of the previous year, Elliott’s father Benjamin Elliott had authored a book entitled “A few flowers worthy of general culture—an effort to win for hardy plants a recognition of their great wealth of beauty”. Elliott’s enthusiastic allegiance to the gardening philosophy detailed in his father’s book helped to ensure a warm reception from Robinson at his Gravetye Manor estate.
By 1902, influenced by his father and by his British mentor Robinson, together with his own extensive experience as a plantsman, James Wilkinson Elliott’s mature horticultural perspective would be captured in the following lines: “The naturalizing of hardy material does not mean that we should attempt to imitate the thickets, woods or meadows on our lawns. It does mean the taking advantage of a brook side for, groups and colonies of irises, narcissi, hardy ferns, the splendid Lilium superbum, and scores of beautiful things that will thrive in the grass if it is not to be cut with the lawn-mower. It means the planting of an irregular group of foxgloves on the edge of a wood, or the covering of a rough bank with a mass of kalmias or native azaleas, or native rhododendrons, or with all of these shrubs together.”
Robinson and Elliott’s gardening philosophy, using native plants in a naturalistic landscape, nicely parallels the ideals of contemporary horticultural education projects like the recently completed Native Plants Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.
An investigation of Elliott’s contributions to American horticulture would not be complete without a reference to another historic figure in the American nursery and gardening industry, J. Horace McFarland. McFarland was a life-long friend and business colleague of J. Wilkinson Elliott. McFarland’s enormous contributions to American gardening and the American nursery and seed catalog publishing industry are described extensively here. Both of Elliott’s published books, A plea for hardy plants and Adventures of a horticulturist were printed by McFarland.
McFarland, a master photographer, took the photographs that illustrate both books. McFarland also wrote the preface to Elliott’s autobiography “Adventures of a horticulturist” wherein he described Elliott as showing "a spirit of inquiry, this love for everything that grows, led him also to dream landscapes, always upon the imperishable model of Nature. Hating formality, loving beauty in every form, with an inherited plant-perception, he built gardens that were real…” McFarland’s photographs also illustrate the pages of the Elliott Nursery Company catalogs.
Elliott’s client list was extensive but two customers stand out as connoisseurs of American horticulture and landscape architecture: H.H. Hunnewell and Pierre Lorillard IV. The 1904 Elliott Nursery Company catalog contains a photograph of the H. H. Hunnewell estate in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The photograph is of a magnificent stand of rhododendrons on the Hunnewell grounds.
Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810-1902) was a banker, railroad financier, philanthropist, amateur botanist, and one of the most prominent horticulturists in America in the nineteenth century. Practicing horticulture for nearly six decades on his estate in Wellesley, Massachusetts, he was perhaps the first person to cultivate and popularize rhododendrons in the United States. Both the town of Wellesley (founded 1881) and Wellesley College (chartered 1870) are named for Hunnewell’s estate “Wellesley”, which he named for the family of his wife, Isabella Pratt Welles. The estate included a prominent 1852 house and attached conservatory, Walter Hunnewell Arboretum, pinetum, a complex of specialty greenhouses, and one of the first topiary gardens – the “Italian Garden” in America, all of which are still standing. H. H. Hunnewell made a major donation in 1873 that helped Asa Gray revise and complete his Flora of North America. The Mertz Library copy of Gray’s Flora has been digitized and is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library here.
Hunnewell also funded the conifer collection at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Massachusetts, and donated the Arboretum's administration building (now Hunnewell Building) in 1892. Hunnewell was a friend and neighbor of Henry Fowle Durant (1822-1881), who founded Wellesley College on Lake Waban directly across from Hunnewell's estate. Hunnewell made a donation to the College for Eliot Dormitory in 1887, and endowed the College's Chair of Botany in 1901. The town of Wellesley's greatest benefactor, Hunnewell built and donated the Town Hall and Free Library building (completed 1885).
The Hunnewell Arboretum served as a testing ground for the sustainability of botanical species, particularly rhododendrons and coniferous plants, in the New England ecology. Thousands of specimens were imported, planted, cultivated and evaluated by the horticultural staff, providing an unprecedented contribution to American horticulture. Many prominent botanists and dendrologists visited the Hunnewell Arboretum to see and study the many native and exotic plants and trees. Among them was Hunnewell’s cousin Charles Sprague Sargent , the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, who wrote the landmark multivolume folio ’Silva of North America’ a set of which is in the Mertz Library here. Following the horticultural vision of J. Wilkinson Elliott and William Robinson, the Hunnewell’s Arboretum embraced native plants in a naturalistic setting and rejected massed borders of decorative annuals.
The Hunnewells were not the only members of the American nobility to admire the horticultural talents of J. Wilkinson Elliott. Many other wealthy patrons contracted for his landscaping services including Pierre Lorillard IV. The Lorillard family of course holds a special place in the history of American botany. The grounds of the Lorillard family estate were purchased by New York City in 1881 for the purpose of establishing a botanical garden which became the New York Botanical Garden.
Another Lorillard property was the famous Tuxedo Park Club developed by Pierre Lorillard IV. Tuxedo Park, located in the Ramapo Mountains, New York was developed by Lorillard as a private hunting and fishing reserve. Lorillard surrounded the property with a high game fence. He initially built small cottages, renting them or selling them to friends and family. The project grew to be so popular that he organized the Tuxedo Club and the Tuxedo Park Association, with clubhouses designed by Bruce Price and John Russell Pope.
The members of the Tuxedo Park Association included Emily Post, (daughter of Bruce Price) whose Blue Book of Etiquette was based on her observations of social behavior inside America’s most privileged gated community. Other members included JP Morgan, Dorothy Draper, William Waldorf Astor, Herbert C. Pell, Millicent Rogers and Augustus Juilliard.
Elliott was selected in 1888 by Pierre Lorillard IV to do the landscape architecture for Lorillard’s own Tuxedo Park grounds at Keewaydin Estate.
Elliott described his first meeting with Lorillard as follows:
“Pierre Lorillard, Jr. was my client and customer, and when I first went to see him he met me at the station with a coach and four magnificent horses, which, of course, greatly impressed me. I found him a large, vigorous, hearty man, and very genial. Then, and many times since, he put me up at the Club, where the cooking was notably good. …Tuxedo is almost, though not altogether, as beautiful as the Italian lake country, and I most greatly enjoyed my privilege of visiting there.”
Elliott's friendly relations with the celebrities of his times, demonstrate Elliott’s amazing ability to market his knowledge and services at the personal level. However, he was if anything even more successful at marketing his nursery company through the new mass print media. His success was the result of his extraordinary ability to manage the new tools of late nineteeth and early twentieth century commerce. He embraced innovations in communications, printing and transportation to his business advantage. Elliott adeptly used the new science of demographics and direct mail marketing to grow his business by mailing his nursery and seed catalogs to thousands of customers. Elliott used only the most prestigious magazines such as The National Geographic and Country Life for his advertising. He coordinated a targeted print advertising campaign with a profound knowledge of plants, blending both into a very successful regional and national business model. Elliott wrote: “A business built up by advertising must be maintained by advertising.” Indeed, the American seed and nursery catalog business is one of the most important and enduring instances of successful advertising in the history of American commerce.
Paralleling Elliott’s sophisticated understanding of marketing was his life-long friendship with the most important individual in the history of American advertising J. Walter Thompson [1847-1928]. Elliott hired Thompson, who was a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, to do the advertising for his nursery business. The two made a trip to Europe together which resulted in a great friendship that lasted until Thompson’s death in 1928. Elliott wrote about Thompson that: “He was the best friend I ever had.” One story that Thompson told Elliott was retold by Elliott in his autobiography. The anecdote underscores the importance of advertising when running a nursery and seed business. Years before Elliott started his own nursery business, in fact while he was still a boy, the leading retail seed business in America was that of James Vick of Rochester, NY. Vick spent about $100,000 a year, an enormous sum of money in those times, in advertising, all with the J Walter Thompson agency. When Vick died (1882)the management of the business was taken over by his son James Vick, Jr. Vick promptly told Thompson that he had all the business he could expect to get and decided to quit advertising and add $100,000 a year to his profit. Thompson cautioned Vick by saying “Vick you are crazy; it will only be a question of time until you are bankrupt.” Elliott claimed that soon thereafter the Vick family's diminshed finances forced Vick’s daughter to become a governess for one of his Pittsburgh clients.
J. Walter Thompson
However, Thompson’s story may have been more a case of resentment about losing the Vick account than an unbiased evaluation of the Vick's business prospects. The James Vick and Sons nursery business continued operations until the 1930’s when it was sold to Burpee.
Nevertheless, Elliott remained a zealous advocate for the value of advertising, once to prove this point he quoted no less a titan of industry than William Arnett Proctor, the Ivory Soap man, whose company in 1935 spent more on advertising than any other company in America. Proctor told Elliott that his firm's extensive advertising had resulted in increasing revenue by one-half of one percent each year, when Elliott challenged Proctor that it seemed very little considering their extensive advertising, Proctor responded: "But we are not advertising to get customers, but to keep those we have."
Elliott’s advertising techniques , including the printing and mailing of many thousands of catalogs each year, managed to retain and add to his client base year after year resulting in a profitable and expertly run nursery business. Elliott was not only a plant enthusiast but a practical businessman with a self effacing sense of wit. He poked fun at his own nursery and seed catalog industry on the first page of his autobiography: “Man is prone to exaggeration, and horticultural catalogues have acquired considerable reputation as works of fiction, and as author of many catalogues, I may be tainted.”
J. Wilkinson Elliott’s career touched many of the great issues and personalities of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American gardening and the digitized nursery catalogs now in Mertz Digital provide a link to his remarkable career.
William Robinson was a great friend of J. Wilkinson Elliott. Gravetye Manor was the home of William Robinson, who wrote the English Flower Garden (1883). The English Flower Garden went through fifteen editions between 1883 to 1933, and nowhere are the gardening principles articulated by Robinson more visible than at Gravetye Manor, which is now a luxury country hotel and spa.
J Walter Thompson was the best friend of J Wilkinson Elliott and handled all the advertising for Elliott's nursery business.
Source--Duke University website: "The J. Walter Thompson Company (JWT), founded in 1864, is one of the oldest and largest enduring advertising agencies in the United States.The J. Walter Thompson Company Biographical Information collection includes articles, clippings, press releases, internal memoranda and other printed materials that pertain to the lives and careers of over 3,000 managers, executives and staff members of JWT. Extensive files exist for some notable JWT executives, including Don Johnston, Helen and Stanley Resor, Norman Strouse, James Walter Thompson, and James Webb Young."
Source--Wellesley College website: "The arboretum takes its name from Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810-1902), a prominent member of the philanthropic Hunnewell family. An avid horticulturist, H. H. Hunnewell popularized and cultivated cold-hardy rhododenrons and donated many to the college. His estate on Lake Waban, dating from 1852, is home to world-famous gardens of his creation, including a pinetum of rare conifers."
Thomas J. Mickey artfully traces, in his recently published book (2013), the history of American gardening taste particularly as it has been influenced by the nursery and seed catalog industry. The book is filled with beautiful illustrations from vintage nursery and seed catalogs and recounts the influence of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and the English garden on America's gardening practices. Mickey describes in some detail how Benjamin Elliott and J. Wilkinson Elliott promoted the English gardening ideal of informal arrangements of "hardy plants" or perennial plantings as the perfect landscape for the new suburban American home.
The images below, from the Branson DeCou Archive of the University of California at Santa Cruz, are two color glass lantern slides of J Wilkinson Elliott's retirement residence at Point Loma, San Diego, California. Elliott purchased the Point Loma property in 1921 and lived there until his death in 1939. The photographs were taken by American photographer, Branson DeCou, [1892-1941] who traveled across the world capturing images and lecturing about his adventures between 1920-1941.