Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Linda Borish

Second Advisor

Dr. Peter Schmitt

Third Advisor

Dr. Michael Nassaney

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Thomas Schlereth


This dissertation investigates the extent and type of ornamental plant use in nineteenth-century Midwestern domestic landscapes, considers reasons for expanded horticultural interest between 1850 and 1880, and explores the significance of ornamental plants as part of Midwestern material culture.

Content analysis of over seven hundred lithographic images of homes and homegrounds from three southeastern Michigan counties, combined with demographic information, confirmed widespread ornamental plant use among an economically and culturally diverse group of Midwesterners by the 1870s. A number of cultural trends encouraged this expanded horticultural interest Exploration of readily available midnineteenth- century newspapers, magazines, and advice manuals revealed that many commentators promoted home as source of moral stability in a rapidly modernizing society, and repeatedly urged their readers to enhance the home's positive influences by planting trees and cultivating flowers. In addition, examination of horticultural and agricultural advice literature underscored the increasing availability of practical horticultural information that encouraged everyone to take up ornamental plant culture. The burgeoning nursery and seed trade offered even further inducements for planting trees and flowers. Investigation of horticultural advertisements, catalogues, and press commentary indicated that these enterprising businessmen provided a vast array of plants, and used innovative promotional techniques to advance ornamental plant enthusiasm. Finally, investigation of agricultural fair reports and many other regional sources emphasized the importance of local horticultural models in providing both concrete examples and additional horticultural encouragement.

Efforts at promoting trees and flowers physically transformed many Midwestern domestic landscapes. but at the same time. imbued plants with less tangible cultural meanings. For some proponents. ornamental plants came to signify middleclass respectability. good taste. and progressive attitudes. Analysis of diaries from three southwestern Michigan rural families suggested that trees and flowers took on additional personal meanings when integrated into the realities of daily life. The dissertation concludes that in the hands of their promoters and the Midwestern families who tended them. shade trees and flower gardens became densely layered cultural symbols. and a tool for shaping domestic landscapes in response to the varied problems and possibilities of a rapidly modernizing American society.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access