In Furor Hortensis

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Everyone agreed in principle that the local clubs must retain a large measure of independence; each would continue to design its own programs, set its own dues, choose its members by whatever criteria seemed fitting (men were not officially excluded; but they were not actively courted, either, and few have become GCA members). The role of the national organization was, as stated in the credo, “To stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs, to share the advantages of association through conference and correspondence in this country and abroad; to aid in the protection of native plants and birds; and to encourage civic planting.” The members agreed to keep in touch by means of a newsletter—it would eventually grow into the substantial bimonthly Bulletin —providing progress reports on each club as well as essays and poems on gardening by members, and technical horticultural articles by professionals. Then, after enrolling five more clubs, sharing a convivial banquet, and toasting one and all with fish house punch, the delegates adjourned to carry the good news home.

For all the brave promises and surge in membership over the next several years, the Garden Club of America failed to cast a shadow beyond its own member clubs. There was a large measure of naivete in the ladies’ noble intentions. The masses were not waiting eagerly, after all, to learn of “The Structural Use of Green in Gardens and Grounds,” which was voted the central theme of the first year’s program of enlightenment. Nor did the urban poor or even the middle classes rush to read “Landscape Gardening in Relation to the Placing of the Flower Garden,” which the noted landscape architect W. W. Renwick wrote for the Bulletin . As one critic, herself a member in those early years, recalled a quarter century later, “Garden clubs were still just another pleasant form of social intercourse between chosen, congenial friends.”

World War I interrupted the club members’ reveries. Everyone was called on to do her part and, to drive home that point, however bluntly, the Bulletin reprinted a sarcastic editorial from a May, 1917, issue of the usually restrained New York Times : “This country is rich in women who have much time to themselves and have to kill it, some in … listening to papers on every subject under heaven at women’s clubs.… Give the vote to women? Food for men, women, and children is a little more pressing.… If the inferior and fading sex may dare to make a request of the invincible, won’t the women’s clubs of every name and kind raise ‘garden sass’ multitudinously this year?”

Awkwardly but with good humor the members of the Garden Club of America took off their white gloves and joined the home front in an impressive show of upperclass enthusiasm. Despite protestations from Mrs. Martin that “the world needs beauty now more than ever,” some women cheerfully uprooted their prized perennials to make room for peas and beans. Some who scarcely recognized a carrot or a potato unless it was served in butter sauce on a silver salver planted rows of them. Some studied up on canning and preserving and then went out into their communities to instruct other women in their new-found skills, producing in the effort such “dreary wartime recipes and… culinary atrocities,” said the club historian, as to make husbands weep. And a few members, including the indefatigable Mrs. Martin, signed on as organizers of the Women’s Land Army, a volunteer force of shop clerks and factory girls who were supposed to replace farm hands gone to war. Most significantly for the future, the GCA established its first liaisons with government during the war, its members earning seats on some civilian advisory boards.

When the war ended, members of the GCA, like everyone else, found the world and their own sense of themselves radically changed. The Garden Club of America had grown to some forty-five clubs with many more clamoring to affiliate. Suddenly, everyone seemed to care about gardening—a nationwide furor hortensis had struck, noted Ernestine Abercrombie Goodman, the club’s chronicler. In a gesture both generous and preserving of their own closed ranks, GCA members helped organize other local garden clubs of wider, more democratic membership (”for the grocers’ wives,” as one observer put it rather tartly). In time, these broaderbased clubs federated within their separate states and still later joined together nationally under the umbrella of the Federated Garden Clubs of America, an organization similar in its goals if not in its style to the GCA.

But for the postwar GCA, far more pressing than the issue of orderly growth was the problem of redefining its purpose. Wartime had given members a taste of community involvement that made their prewar goal of exemplifying good taste and good gardening now seem timorous. A positive, even aggressive, approach was proposed by a study committee called to chart the GCA’s future. Enfranchised for the first time, the ladies would actively support conservation, using their votes to change old laws and make new, better ones. They would fight the good fight at home, too, by educating their husbands (“the people who devastate our environment,” said one member, mincing no words about the destructive practices of business and industry). One imagines that dinnertime conversation in some upper-class households became unusually acerbic during this time of redefinition.