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Nineteenth century America saw the formation of a vast social reform movement with women’s volunteer organizations at the center. Female reform workers laid the foundation for a variety of organizations aimed at providing women with social and cultural resources. Though many of these organizations were formed as extensions of local churches and charities, they became gradually more involved in matters of state and eventually played a significant role in transforming the status of women.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, organizations such as Sorosis, formed in New England in 1868, became focused on the cultivation of female culture. Women’s clubs served many purposes for their members: locally, women used them for cultural activities, such as reading and studying. Class status and professional affiliations sometimes separated the membership of these clubs rather sharply. Nevertheless, they provided an outlet for women to form close friendships and to cultivate their rapidly changing identities and roles in the evolving society.
An example of the more socially focused club is the Garden Street Garden Club, based in Cambridge, MA. The Garden Street Garden Club held its first meeting on 24 March 1879, at the home of Mrs. Marcou, 42 Garden Street. Members present at the first meeting included Mrs.Asa Gray, Mrs. Parsons, Miss Needham, Miss Parker, Mrs. Thorndike, Miss Howe, Mrs. Everett, Mrs. Storen, Mrs. Pickering and Miss Homer. Mrs. Marcou was elected president of the club, while Mrs. Pickering was elected secretary. Meetings were held on Monday afternoons at 4, and subscription entitling membership was a dollar. The purpose of the Garden Club was primarily to exchange tips, facts and personal stories about gardening. Members took group outings to local greenhouses and gardens and cultivated plants and flowers for display in various exhibitions.
One note of interest about the Garden Club is the membership of Mrs. Gray, wife of the famous botanist Dr. Asa Gray. Dr. Gray has been described as the person who developed systematic botany at Harvard and even in the United States. Gray also built a major herbarium, which became the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, and authored several influential botanical textbooks. The records of the Garden Club mention Dr. Gray frequently, often describing plants and specimens that he offers to the ladies of the club through his wife. One entry (pg. 59, Vol. 1) describes a list of samples exhibited by Mrs. Gray, with a notation at the bottom, “Dr. Gray expressed a wish that the ladies would perpetuate some of these in their gardens.” Dr. Gray also seems to have interacted with the club when meetings were held at his home, offering facts and tips on gardening, as well as books and journals, such as the Gardener’s Monthly. In the 9th annual report of the Garden Club, (Vol. 4, tipped in before pg. 77), the secretary of the club expresses the women’s deep loss felt by the passing of Dr. Gray. A newspaper clipping describing Dr. Gray is also glued onto the page.
The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, at Harvard University holds the records of the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club, 1889-1991 which may or may not bear some relation to the Garden Street Garden Club.
“Women’s Organizations.” Encyclopedia of American Social History. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. http://0-galenet.galegroup.com.library.simmons.edu:80/servlet/HistRC/
The Garden Street Garden Club recorded its minutes between 1879 and 1895 in five bound volumes, which are in fair condition. All suffer from red rot, crumbling bindings, and in a few cases, separated bindings. Along with the members present at each meeting, gardening related tips and facts are recorded, along with notation about which member offered such tips. Stories concerning gardening from publications such as “Gardener’s Monthly” and “The Independent” are often copied into the volumes, and blurbs from newspapers are sometimes glued or tipped in.
Though there is indication that a secretary was elected and took down the minutes for each meeting, the handwriting in the volumes changes often, indicating members may have taken turns with recording duties. Meeting minutes are generally consistent, concerning matters pertaining to the club and gardening. One example of the kind of information contained in these accounts goes, “Miss Parsons reported her sweet peas, which were planted last fall, to be two inches high” (Series I, Vol. II).
Also contained in these volumes are several examples of annual reports, given each year around March 24, which was the date of the club’s founding. The reports are usually handwritten on paper separate from the volume and tipped in. They give more details on the club’s members, and what each have contributed to the club that particular year, which new members they have acquired, and what they have learned overall about the hobby of gardening.
Toward the end of the first volume, beginning on page 106, there is a list of foreign currency and exchange rates in English, German, and French. This most likely exists because members often volunteered to procure foreign seeds, and used this list as reference. Also included here is a list of foreign addresses of places to acquire seeds and bulbs, and an account of which members ordered from these companies. Finally, the end of volume one contains a record of members’ dues paid and club expenditures.
The other four volumes in the collection do not include addresses or financial records of any kind. The volumes cover a 26-year span, from 1879 to 1895. While an account of the first meeting is recorded in volume one, there is no indication of what happened to the club after 1895, or where these records are kept. However, two of the loose items removed from Volume 4 are the 17th and 18th Annual Reports. The 17th report is dated 1896, which can lead us to assume that the 18th is from 1897, two years after the last date in Volume V.
The following loose items were removed from the volumes, their original location noted, and placed in folders following the respective volumes: In volume 4, the first unnumbered page, recording the volume number and date range (July 26, 1886-May 11, 1891) was removed; the 17th annual Report (1896) and the 18th Annual Report (dated March 22, presumably 1897) were removed from page 49 of volume 4. Also, the 9th annual report, tipped in before page 77, had two loose signatures, which were removed. In Volume 5 of the collection, the 16th annual report (presumably 1895) was removed from the first page of the volume. From page 11, the 12th (presumably 1891) and 13th (1892) annual reports were removed.
- Gardening–Massachusetts–Cambridge–Societies, etc.
- Women—Massachusetts—Cambridge–Societies and clubs.
- Women–Societies and clubs.
- Women gardeners–Massachusetts
Garden Street Garden Club Records 1879-1897
Box|Folder|Series I. Records (1879-1897)\
1|1|Vol. I, 24 March 1879-22 November 1880
1|2|Vol. II, 6 December 1880-11 June 1883
1|3|Vol. III, 18 June 1883-19 July 1886
1|4|Vol. IV, 26 July 1886-11 May 1891
1|5|Items removed from Vol. IV
1|6|Vol. V, 8 May 1891-15 April 1895
1|7|Items removed from Vol. V.