Thanks for gardens, 1877

November 26, 2014

My favorite gardener, William Hoyt Coleman, explores the benefits of gardening and gives thanks even for weeds.

Willie’s column is rich in details: how much rhubarb cost in 1877; how much a bookkeeper in Boston earned per year; that French Breakfast radishes weren’t available at the grocer; that even in 1877 market produce was raised to be profitable, not tasty. According to one online inflation calculator, the bookkeeper’s salary of $1200 per year would have been about $25,878 in 2013; the $100 per year that he saved was around $2156. The $1600 in consumables would have cost about $34504.

His assertion that “the feminine mind, as a rule, is averse to mathematics” is amusing. My interest in Willie stems from his participation in the letters column of Robert Merry’s Museum, where he was greatly popular. In 1855, an algebra problem was submitted to the Museum for him to solve. Submitted by a female subscriber.

That Problem” proved so difficult to solve (apparently it has more than one answer) that it actually changed the tenor of the letters column, as subscribers bonded over ridicule of each others’s efforts.  (It was, indeed, a different time.)  Willie’s solution was as disastrous as the others. The math problem created by a “feminine mind” shaped the Museums letters column into an early example of an online community.

“Thanksgiving in the Garden.” Christian Union 16 (28 Nov 1877): p. 486.

While fully agreeing with the President and the governors of the several states that it is highly proper for us all to assemble in our respective places of worship and return thanks for the mercies of the past year, we also feel moved to issue a sub-proclamation to all owners and workers of gardens to assemble therein—say, after their return from church—and tabulate the table blessings that were garden born.

Were we to preach a sermon on the subject we should take for a text the mention made by a writer in “The Cultivator,” of a Boston bookkeeper, who, on a yearly salary of $1,200 had by great economy saved up $100 yearly. Realizing the risk he ran of losing his health, situation and savings if he remained a clerk, he bought a small farm and moved on it. All the products from the same that his family consumed during a year he charged to himself at the same rate that he had formerly been obliged to pay in Boston, and to his great surprise at the end of the year he found that he had consumed $1,600 worth, besides having sold quite an amount of farm produce. With such a result he had no desire to return to his $1,200 position.

Now, my beloved brethren, do not make a premature application of my text by inferring that $1,600 results are to be expected from every ordinary garden. Of course the bookkeeper figured in the products of pigs and poultry which do not belong to the garden, though the producers are often found in it. But garden vegetables no doubt formed a large part of his city expenditure and garden vegetables as undoubtedly made a very large part of his country saving. Let us grant that the figures never mount into the hundreds and we still have goodly cause of thanksgiving for the garden.

Right here is the proper point for the production of our statistics, giving the exact number of radishes pulled, peas picked, strawberries gathered, and the long line of tomatoes, green corn, melons, cucumbers, and squashes, winding up with the cabbage, turnips, celery, etc., safely placed in the cellar. But alas, we haven’t them. We did once have a small book duly ruled and paged and provided with a string whereby it was to be hung in the woodshed and all garden products were to be entered therein as gathered, before passing to the kitchen. Three entries were made and then—the rest was silence. The feminine mind, as a rule, is averse to mathematics, and the fingers that patiently pick a peck of peas grow nervous at putting down the result in a book. The statistical reader will therefore be left at sea, and we must make our points with generalities which may not glitter, but are none the less pure gold.

That is to say—while the products cannot be reckoned by count or measure, we believe any fairminded garden owner who will sit down and think over what he has really raised and eaten during the past season will find cause for gratitude in the results of his garden work.

Has he forgotten those crispy radishes that with the help of a little glass swelled up so quickly during the latter days of April when the air grew warm and the appetite craved something green? That lettuce, too, that grew as fast as the radish, and made the beef and potatoes so much more toothsome than usual?

Then the rhubarbs came up at the same time, and you had something fresh for each meal. How many times did you cut and pull those beds, and how much would they come to at five or ten cents a bunch? These were successive crops, and they lasted till the dwarf peas grew fat in the pod, and you picked day after day, or perhaps every other day, until the bush peas began to yield, and then, why it was the Fourth of July almost before you knew it! Do you remember how much peas were a peck in your market? And you know you picked a great many pecks. By this time you had young beets and onions and potatoes and early cabbage, too, if you set out frame plants. In fact from this period down to frost time there has been an embarrassment of garden riches, more than you could eat, and I doubt not you have trundled more than one barrow load to your grocer. Tomatoes stewed every day for dinner and sliced raw for supper; green corn as often as you liked, and such a dessert of melons! A king might envy it—say rather the poor rich man of the city who must buy all his vegetables.

Then, too, the quality of this garden truck. Could you ever, anywhere, buy such delicious peas as those little gems, or such crisp radishes as the French Breakfast? They can’t be bought, for the very good reason that they are not raised outside of private gardens. Market vegetables must be big and prolific first of all, and quality comes in third. Only the amateur can have the choice things. Notice the exclamation of your city friends (who have the pick of the best markets at home) when they come to visit. “How delicious! Did you ever taste anything so fresh and nice? You can’t get such vegetables in the city.” Yes, then is the rural gardener’s hour of triumph. Many a backache those vegetables may have cost him but at this moment he feels well repaid.

But are vegetables the only crop you have gathered from your garden? There is the whole round of berries, grapes and other fruits that I have not mentioned, of which quite as much might be said, but I do not refer to them. In those ante-breakfast hours when you hoed your garden, and the dew sparkled in the red beams of the rising sun, and the birds sang and the chimney-smoke drifted out on the still air, did you not gather joy, comfort and health in your labor? Not alone did you carry away a lusty appetite for breakfast and fresh blood that swept you at flood tide through your day’s work in shop or office, but sweet pictures of nature’s own painting were hung on memory’s wall, new ideas of the life of plant, bird and insect were born, and, let us hope, there came deeper, larger, more reverent thought of the great Worker whose handiwork all these are. There were days of tough spading, too, and stout tugging under a hot sun with weeds that renewed their strength in a night, but this only developed the man in you, and taught you the lesson that we are all too slow to learn, too eager to skip: that no good thing is won without work, and that struggle always precedes triumph.

The air bites keenly to-day, the withered vines and weeds are all that is left of the summer glory, and the ground is hardened by frost; but down on your knees upon it this Thanksgiving Day, ye garden workmen, and thank God for your gardens!

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