#Myrtle Mondays: Gardening for Victorian Girls

Myrtle fans know that a spectacular Victorian garden forms the backdrop for Premeditated Myrtle Here in Kansas City, it’s a glorious April day, perfect for thinking, writing, and posting about gardens! And, I suppose, actual gardening, if you like that sort of thing…

Arthur Langley Vernon, Elegant Ladies Tending to the Garden, 1873

Wealthy English people had enjoyed ornamental gardens for centuries, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution ushered in more income and leisure time for the middle classes that ordinary folks could afford to devote valuable crop-growing land to purely decorative plants. Gardening in the 19th century meant big business, career opportunities, and a popular middle-class pastime—particularly for Young Ladies of Quality.

An 1830s guide to apiculture for women notes the Victorian values exemplified by bees: “laborious, industrious, patient, ingenious, skilful — incessantly engaged in the nurture of the young; in collecting honey and pollen; in elaborating wax …”

Girls and women had of course been engaged in agriculture since the dawn of time, but gardening appealed especially to 19th century middle-class aspirations and virtues—the idea of owning and managing your own patch of land, importing exotic plants from colonial lands overseas, embracing healthful fresh air and industrious effort.

This French fashion plate shows practical gardening togs for a girl Myrtle’s age (La Mode Illustree, 1887) You may be seeing this image again…

Gardening was often included in school curricula for girls, teaching the skills and values of nurturing plants.

These kindergartners are getting an early botany lesson in a Washington, DC, school around 1899.

It also gave young women a socially-acceptable outlet for scientific curiosity.

American botanist Elizabeth Knight Britton (1858-1934) became one of the world’s foremost experts on moss.


English botanical artist Marianne North travelled the globe to document the world’s plants in exquisite scientific detail. This painting could easily be a certain fantastical lily of Myrtle’s acquaintance. Learn more about North’s extraordinary career here. 

As the 19th century drew to a close, career opportunities in the garden began to open up for women, too.

Studley Horticulture College, founded in 1898, trained women for careers as professional gardeners, which had previously been considered too physically strenuous for delicate female constitutions. Studley was one of several women’s horticultural colleges that sprouted up during the 1890s and early 1900s.


Eleanor Morland, Gertude Cope, and Alice Hutchings, Kew gardeners, pictured in 1898, at England’s famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Female gardeners wore brown bloomers, woollen stockings, waistcoats and caps, similar uniforms to their male colleagues.

Horticultural Colleges were aimed at middle-class young women, as the cost of tuition, equipment, boarding, and clothing would have been prohibitive to girls of lesser means. In contrast to more academic colleges, they trained women for physically demanding careers involving strenuous manual labor.

All these black and white photos do not do justice to the vivacity and exuberance of the real Victorian gardens—so I have some seed catalogues and other images to make up for that.

This American seed catalogue and magazine appeals directly to the Lady of Quality who will be whiling away her morning flipping through her garden plans (sort of an 1880s Pinterest?). Note her teagown—the outfit she’d be wearing for a leisurely morning at home.


This Canadian catalogue cover celebrates Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee (sixty years on the throne) in 1897


(Lawrence is just a hop, skip, and a jump west of me!)

Of course, you’ll need things to take care of all those beautiful plants, too.

19th century innovations in garden tool technology led to exuberant advertisements, like this helpful locust wielding the latest modern lawnmower (a labor saving device even for insects!)

And I have no idea what’s going on here, but these anthropomorphic vegetables were wildly popular among seed companies for a time!

And what would a Myrtle Mondays post be without a Victorian cyclist?

Happy gardening!

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