The History of the Flower Show in Boston

From time to time we are asked to provide a history of the New England Spring Flower Show. Since the show has been in existence for over 100 years, there have been a number of accounts written.

The 1943 Flower Show program provides a history of the various styles under which the shows appeared until that date. It begins by saying :

The fruit, vegetable and flower exhibitions of the Massachusetts Society are woven closely into the fabric of the Society’s history. The first exhibitions were held in the first year of the Society’s existence, that is, in 1829. They have continued in different forms and under different conditions throughout 113 years which have intervened. The account ends with a vivid picture of the work entailed in presenting a mid-20th century show.

The earliest shows were confined largely to fruits. Afterward, vegetables began to have a prominent place, but by the late 1830’s, flowers came to occupy the center of the exhibition stage. The first big display was held in 1836, when two beautiful orange trees, ‘some large, growing pineapples and heavily clustered grapevines ‘were displayed. On that occasion Phlox drummondi appeared for the first time. Acacias were exhibited, too, together with what the record calls “a bewildering display of dahlias”. The premiums listed for 1838 offered 20 prizes for fruit, amounting to $100, with 18 vegetable prizes totaling $50, and $125 for flowers.

After the Society’s first building, which was erected on School Street in 1841, was sold and before the second building was erected on Tremont Street in 1861, some exhibitions were tried under tents on Boston Common, but the city compelled the building of floors over the grass, and there was much rainy weather, so this plan was abandoned. At other times exhibits were held in Faneuil Hall and in the old Music Hall. The record shows that one notable exhibit, held in the Tremont Street building in 1846, was attended by Emily Dickinson. An exhibition in Music Hall in 1857 was graced by the presence of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who talked about flowers while a band played both day and evening.

In the days when new species and varieties were being introduced rapidly, many of them appeared at the shows of this Society for the first time. In 1836, Marshall P. Wilder exhibited Oncidium flexuosum, with 97 fully expanded blossoms. Apparently, this was the first time that an orchid was publicly shown in America. In 1853, the Concord grape appeared at one of the Society’s exhibitions. Suspicious Fruit Committee members visited the home of the exhibitor, Ephraim Bull, to make sure that he had obeyed the rules of cultivation. A similar controversy was precipitated when Jackson Dawson showed specimens of Scotch heather, Calluna vulgaris, which he had gathered in Tewksbury. The Visiting Garden Committee went to the site of the discovery to make sure that the heather grew naturally, and was not planted.

When the present Horticultural Hall (the 1901 building, across from Symphony Hall on Massachusetts Avenue) was erected, the shows began to grow much more elaborate than ever before. The new quarters were admirably adapted for extensive displays and those in charge of the exhibitions came to feel increasing responsibilities.

Mr. Albert C. Burrage, who became president in 1921 and continued in that office for ten years, was show-minded to an exceptional degree. To him, to the late Dr. Ernest H. Wilson and to the late Thomas Roland must be given much of the credit for developing the show angle of the Society’s work to its present high standard. Such men as Harlan P. Kelsey, Harold S. Ross, Wilfred Wheeler, William N. Craig, Samuel J. Goddard, Walter Hunnewell, William, Ellery, ‘James Methven, George Butterworth and others who are still living, had much to do with making the exhibitions one of the Society’s major projects after the new ball was opened. .

The show first held in Horticultural Hall was such a success that the building was crowded to suffocation. The centennial exhibition in 1929 at Mechanics Building showed the possibilities of an exhibition framed on a much greater scale. It soon became the established custom to use Mechanics Building for the Spring exhibition, which has gradually developed into what is essentially a business enterprise, conducted, however, with every regard for horticultural and artistic traditions.

The planning and execution of a great Spring show involves much, labor, even after the thinking about the theme on which the show is developed has been done. Blueprints are made by a landscape architect, models are constructed and endless details are worried over, often for many months. Sometimes plans are partly developed and then completely discarded.

The making of such a show is a task which requires a year-round department. Such a department has now been in existence for several years with Arno H. Nehrling in charge. Mr. Nehrling and his assistants have the task of carrying out the, committee’s plans to the last detail. The general management of the show is wholly in his hands under the committee’s direction, constituting a task which grows increasingly arduous as the show approaches, and involves working night and day while it is being set up.

Although the Exhibition Committee’s work reaches its climax when the Spring show is held in March, it also includes a series of smaller shows throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Since the days of Mr. Burrage, Dr. Wilson and Mr. Roland, the exhibition committee has functioned under the able leadership of Harlan P. Kelsey, Harold S. Ross, Wilfrid Wheeler, Ray M. Koon and Dr. Elmer D. Merrill.

While the exhibition committee is responsible for setting up the flower shows, the judging of these shows, which is a very important matter, is vested in another group known as the Prize Committee. The responsibilities of this committee are extremely heavy. Probably no committee in the Society is subject to as much criticism; and yet the members must be prepared to meet such criticism with an answer which shows that they have a reason for everything they do. The judging of the Spring show, in itself, is a very complicated matter. The choice of judges is difficult because persons must be obtained who are competent to pass on the particular type of exhibit which they are called upon to inspect. The fixing of scales of points by which the judging must be done and the making of rules which are just and fair take careful thought. Provision must be made for awarding the Society’s own medals, the President’s Cup, the special awards of the Horticultural Society of New York and The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Beacon Hill Garden Club Cup, as well as the awards for the exhibits which call for cash prizes.

Thus ends the 1943 narrative.

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society dates the beginning of shows-as-extravaganzas to 1881. In that year, the show moved to Music Hall because the American Pomological Society wanted to use Horticultural Hall at exhibition time. It was generally agreed that the decision to vacate was a good one because in the Music Hall, there was “central platform of 800 square feet and two small platforms on each side, where there was room to group splendid large plants with a proper blending of colors”.

In 1961, Dorothy S. Manks, who served as the Society’s librarian for almost forty years, wrote in the show’s program:

On this occasion of the 90th anniversary of New England Spring Flower Shows, it is fitting to delve into the history of flower shows and particularly those staged by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society during this span of nearly a century.

WHEN AND WHERE was the first flower show held? Though we do not know the exact beginning, we do know that flower shows have been with us for a long, long time.

Actually, they have taken so many forms that it will scarcely be incorrect to guess that the basic idea may have come from Ancient Egypt. We do, however, know that cut flowers were used to decorate and perfume Egyptian homes, and that wreaths were sent, as they are today, as tokens of sympathy. Twenty species of plants have been identified. From there, roses were shipped as far as Rome, and it is interesting to speculate how plants were kept alive on such a long voyage.

In festival-loving Rome, flowers were used lavishly. Every goddess had her favorite kinds, and there were celebrations almost continually, when flowers provided brilliant displays. At private parties flowers literally carpeted the floors, and the guests were bedecked with garlands. All this was governed by social convention strictly observed, for flowers and garlands had religious connotations and were meant to be worn only indoors.

We leap the years now to the 17th century ‘in Brussels, Belgium. There, it seems, the feast of St. Dorothy, patroness of gardens and flowers, was celebrated by bringing elaborate displays of flowers to her statue in the church. In this same century, Huguenot weavers in Norwich, England, held “Florists’ Feasts”. The group called themselves “The Sons of Flora”, so perhaps they were, in a sense, the first garden club.

In Boston, Massachusetts, and in London, England, flower shows as we know them began at about the same time - the early 1830’s - and in the same informal way. As the number and variety of exhibits increased, arrangements became more elaborate and, behold, they had evolved into formal flower shows. In time, these became elaborate fund-raising spectacles.

In “The Book of the Royal Horticultural Society” there are accounts those early shows. “Up to 1831,” it says, “Fellows (members) brought the fortnightly meetings anything they thought would interest other Fellows. In 1831 several competitions were held, pineapples in February, Camellias in April, Rhododendrons in May, Azaleas and roses an June, Dahlias and grapes in September. Their success led the addition, in 1833, of three shows under canvas . . . with bands and refreshments. Admission charged to non-members brought in additional “much-needed funds”. In this casual way began the “Chelsea Shows” so well known to 20th century gardeners and travelers.

Here in Boston, the first exhibition as held, in June 1829 (only a few months after the founding of the Society). It was reported as a “respectable exhibition of fruits and flowers.” Orange trees, a rubber plant, roses and dahlias seem to have made up the modest list of exhibits. Social occasions were prominent in the early records of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and annual dinners were held.

At the first dinner in 1829, “The dining hall was very tastefully ornamented with festoons of flowers suspended from the chandeliers; and the tables were loaded with orange trees in fruit and flower … a large variety of Mexican Georginas (dahlias) of uncommon size and beauty … roses and other choice flowers … interspersed with large bouquets … and numerous baskets of grapes, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples, and melons. … No other exhibition was held than that of the fruits and flowers in the dining hall, but this was opened to visitors from twelve to two o’clock, when it was so crowded that the Committee of Arrangements regretted that a larger hall had not been engaged for the occasion.”

Lavish Decorations


Flower arranging by the ladies was, even then, essential for the report adds that “The decorations were arranged by Mrs. Z. Cook, jun., and the Misses Downer, Haven, Tuttle, and Cook of Dorchester assisted by Mr. Haggerston of Charlestown and Messrs. Senior and Adamson of Roxbury.” In keeping with the lavish decorations, the proceedings were elaborate, for the dinner was preceded by along address, which outlined the development of horticulture since Eden, and was followed by truly amazing sequence of toasts.

Styles in exhibits grew more elaborate, for in 1845 the Society moved to its own building, and staged a show dominated by “a floral temple in Grecian style,” a Chinese pagoda, Gothic monument, a “harp, a plough, an eagle, and a Newfoundland dog carrying a basket of hollyhocks, all worked out in flowers. Although “set pieces” no longer appear at flower shows, and seem a bit comic to us in the 20th century, their descendants are still with us as floats in such pageants as the New Year’s Day Rose Parade at Pasadena, California.

At the shows of 1845, we would have been more at home with the extensive collections of fruits. They included many new varieties of, strawberries, raspberries, cherries and pears. This was the period of keen interest in new fruits suitable for the New England climate. Serious amateurs gave fruit breeding careful attention and made important contributions.

Big Tent Show

The year 1852 introduced another innovation, a big show in a tent in the Public Garden (itself only recently established). The same tent was used again the next year, this time on the Common near West Street. “The whole space was floored over, making it much more comfortable. The roof was decorated with various colored flags and banners, and a platform in the center was surrounded with plants occupied by a band of music. The tent was brilliantly lighted with gas during the evening, when it presented a most beautiful appearance.”

During the Civil War, “the terrible four years’ war,” the exhibitions were barely kept alive, but small shows did continue. That same pride in an unbroken tradition showed itself again in the two World Wars of the following century. In the ‘60’s, the Flower Committee “having been greatly troubled by the ignorance as to what constitutes a perfect flower”, compiled a pamphlet describing the properties of plants and flowers which was published by the Society as the standard for judging. Show managers and judges are still perplexed at times about the fine points of standards for judging.

In 1873, a famous Rhododendron Show was staged on Boston Common under the dual sponsorship of the Society and one of its most loyal sup¬porters, Mr. H. H. Hunnewell. This was another “first” in American horticulture and flower show technique. “The plants, instead of being placed on stands in pots or tubs, were sunk or planted in beds of turf, as if growing naturally in the ground.” This show, too, was staged in a tent, a huge structure three hundred feet long. The whole effect was, for the first time, suggestive of a flower show of 1961, with mass plantings for effect, groups and fine specimens and broad borders.

The hundredth anniversary of the Society, in 1929, was marked by an¬other milestone. This was the first of the big Spring Shows in Mechanics Building. The first innovation was the presentation of actual house fronts as settings for the principal plantings, a technique then new, but now familiar even to small shows. The “street” thus formed might have been taken from any suburban community, and created a new intimacy between visitors and displays. The second novelty was the creation of an extensive landscape to scale, for the purpose of demonstrating the need for land conservation—an entry by the State Department of Conservation that for many years dramatized phases of a critical problem.

Finally, the garden clubs, which did the plantings for the little dooryards, were here making their debut into the realm of serious gardening and of leadership in their communities. In the words of a wise critic of the show of 1929, this was a new era, when “more people will garden, and will garden more wisely, because these better shows have shown them better things. But much more than that, it means a civic tendency which is wholly a proper justification for making such exhibitions even greater and better.”

The big flower shows are colorful spectacles and social occasions. They are other things, too, perhaps even more important. For one thing, they offer education in its most alluring form. The garden plantings are the work of skilled designers and are dis¬played as practical solutions for every¬day problems. Demonstrations of techniques are prepared with careful thought. The many visitors who go about a show taking notes are people for whom a good flower show is really designed.

From the beginning, new plants have been shown to the gardening public at the flower shows. Records are full of such phrases as “new to this country,” “never before seen in Boston,” “a new hybrid.” From time to time, schedules offer prizes for the best seedling, improved hardiness, disease resistance, sturdiness of stem or long blooming period. Keen competition among growers or breeders has sparked a century and more of improvement in apples, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables and flowers. Shows devoted to a single plant bring together the specialists.

In the 1920’s, garden clubs sudden1y became popular community activities and before long they began to include flower shows among their projects. Now this by no means implies elaborate displays. A flower show, garden club style, can be as simple as a row of specimen blooms to illustrate the subject of a meeting or a display of winter branches to show the beauty of bark and bud.

1934 award-winning entry from the Ipswich and Cohasset garden clubs

Thus ends the 1961 history.

Contemporary Commentary

In the aftermath of World War II, a spirit of optimism swept through the land, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society joined in that sentiment when it named its 1947 show “Gardens for Better Living”. During the post-War years, there was also an upsurge in travel plans among New Englanders, and the flower shows reflected an interest in faraway countries and in far flung parts of the U. S. In 1955, “Gardens the World Over” were exhibited in the Mechanics Building and in 1961, “Gardens of the Americas” came to Wonderland Park. An enlarged world seemed to require bigger venues, and throughout the sixties and seventies the shows continued to fill enormous spaces, such as Suffolk Downs, the Commonwealth Armory, and Commonwealth Pier.

Massachusetts has often seen itself as a leader in historical events, even anticipating the American Revolution by one year, so in keeping with that tradition, M. H. S. chose the occasion of its 1975 flower show to look back and celebrate some notable nineteenth century gardens, including the Hunnewell garden in Wellesley. A short history M. H. S., inserted in the show program for that year, notes that after many adjustments to its mission over the decades, the Society ultimately dedicated itself to ornamental plants and flowers and to the organization of people’s surroundings (landscape design). When the Bicentennial year came around in 1976, and the rest of the country celebrated the 200th anniversary of independence, the show looked forward to “Gardens of the Future” and saw that they would be mostly indoors.

The New England Spring Flower Show arrived at the Bayside Exposition Center in 1983 and stayed there for 26 years. The exhibitors strove each year to draw their visitors out of their ordinary lives and transport them into new experiences. For example, 1986 they presented “gardens of pure fantasy, to evoke the child-like quality in all of us.” The show, called “Enchanted Places”, experimented with “plantings and designs that are fanciful, whimsical, even exotic”.

Deep in the next decade, the themes of discovery and surprise are carried out in the 1997 show called “Secrets of the Garden”, where it was hoped that visitors would be captured by excitement.

The long successful run of New England Flower Shows ended in 2008 with a theme that called exhibitors and visitors to look soberly at their responsibility to care for their environment. “Rhapsody in Green” was artistically presented, and all participants anticipated the show of the future. When the usual time came around, though, the reality was not what was expected, and the name had changed. “Blooms!” was displayed in a collection of hotels and retail spaces, but it was enthusiastically received.

In 2010, MassHort again came back to a large space when “Blooms!” became part of the Boston Flower & Garden Show at the Seaport World Trade Center. The 2012 version will be a surprise to look forward to, and its unfolding will be a joy.