Monday, January 13, 2014

A window into the past

A friend gave me this for Christmas, a little book published in 1955, which includes a whole year's worth of a cartoon strip from the 1950s from The Sunday Express. The strip illustrates gardening operations for the week using this character - Adam, who must have been based on a real person I suspect.

 Adam, with the same set lugubrious expression on his face, unsmiling, sets about showing Express readers what to do. A lot is pretty advanced stuff, unthinkably so for a popular information sources on gardening today. On one page there is some material on grafting, going over crown, cleft, saddle and tongue. There is even a reference to grafting cacti!

Some of it leaves me with the feeling that there is nothing new under the sun. There are references to using herbs to keep insects away from other plants (saves having to douse them in DDT), to growing dandelions as a spring salad, and for using marigold flowers in salads.

Express newspapers sold to the middle class and aspirational working class, i.e. people who could not afford a gardeners - unlike a lot of the folk who took The Times and The Daily Telegraph. Or the Observer, where the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West would boom on, her readers perhaps arranging a few pots, for their weekly help to actually plant. This is serious skills-based, craft gardening. It makes me think about just how many skills we have actually lost - an enormous amount of knowledge which once would have been much more widespread. So there are things we can learn from here. I liked the tip about digging up parsley roots in autumn and growing them on in pots in the greenhouse as a winter herb. There is far more knowledge here than you'd get from the bunch of dilettante lightweight presenters who currently grace our TV screens, or write columns for newspapers. There is no dumbing down; no fear of things being difficult.

There is some additional material at the back, which does include some design stuff, such as this b/w rendition of the colour wheel.
And some borders which show what aspirational gardeners might be making. By 1955 wartime rationing would have ended 3 years ago, so the food situation would have been getting better, and a lot of people would have been giving up their vegetable plots and wanting to make ornamental gardens again. The model is very much Arts and Crafts.

This looks so basic by today's standards. Plant availability was pretty low - something I shall be touching on in a future post.

The 1950s was the high point of the chemical warfare approach to gardening. Notice the reference to 'the safe insecticide' - organochlorines like DDT were safe, compared to a lot of the mercury and arsenic based compounds that had been used before! In one strip Adam recommends using mercuric chloride as a wormkiller - apparently people didn't like worm casts ruining their velvety lawns! Another horror was a technique to encourage fruit trees to grow, by ring barking them on one side and painting with lead paint!

In some ways at least we have gotten wiser.

6 comments:

Roger Brook said...

As a septuagenerian I remember Adam very well! My particular memory is how the artist depicted everything Adam did to the soil as separate layers of soil additives with beautiful diagrams!
I very much agree with your point that the gardening press did not then insult their audience with the dumbed down and trendy stuff, frequently wrong, in the media these days.
I remember a wonderful wizened old radio broadcaster called Fred Streeter who was the real embodiment of Adam
Sybol was very good and I was never aware of any problems with it. Many perfectly good and safe chemicals were thrown out over the years by new regulations just because the manufacturer calculated that the huge cost of getting approval was not worth the investment.
When I was a student at Wye College in 1962 they were still spraying the orchards with lead arsenate ugh.

Phil said...

Absolutely right about dumbing down, and loss of skills.While the visual elements of publishing and broadcasting have become glossier, the information content has plummeted. The same goes for natural history publishing and broadcasting.

Helen Gazeley said...

I was talking to one of the library assistants at Wisley last year. She told me many people prefer the older books as they feel they have more information in them.

Jane Scorer said...

Ah the 1950's , when Heucheras were 'Coral Bells' and just came in green, not the assault to the senses, as they are now !

I love the simplicity of the planting plans for the herbaceous perennials, and it might be tempting to recreate a slice of it !

Adam wouldn't cut the mustard in current tv gardening shows, not unless he lost 30 years, acquired a tan and a set of shiny white teeth !!

Alain said...

There is no doubt that old gardening books contain a great deal more useful information than new ones, and that information is also presented in a more rational way. One of my best purchases ever was the 14 volumes of the New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening (1964) by Thomas H. Everett, in its days a well-known reference work here in North America. I paid $1 a volume. I have seen it often for sales at charity book sales, but try convincing fellow gardeners that it is a most useful work. They look at the black and white photos and give it a miss. Everett was a staff member of the New York Botanical Garden for 55 years and one of the world’s leading horticultural authorities.
Of course you have to forget about the pest controls and the varieties recommended, but many of the techniques suggested in these old works are a lot more ecofriendly. They give all sort of tips to used what it readily at hand. They encourage recycling, without really realizing it, just as a matter of common sense. Recommendations in modern books first require that you go buy a lot of stuff.

Brigitte Rieser said...

enjoyed the post very much, perhaps I'll come across a copy of that book sometimes in the future.
Nevertheless, not having a worthwhile gardening show on TV here in Austria* I envy you even the lightweight ones you have currently in the UK.

*there's only one, having even less weight than yours.