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Wylie House

Transition from Agriculture to Leisure Gardening in Bloomington, Indiana circa 1860s

Agriculture. When hearing that word most people think of a farmer sitting on a tractor in a big field, or something along those lines. This is a reasonable image, but when thinking back to 19th century agriculture the scene was pretty different. Agriculture is defined as “the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products” according to Merriam-Webster. It has been extremely important to the development and subsistence of the United States of America, and still is today. In contrast, the definition of floriculture, or leisure gardening, as written in Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening by John Claudius Louden in 1835 is, “… comprehending whatever relates to the culture and arrangement of plants, whether ligneous or herbaceous, grown chiefly on account of their flowers, or as objects of taste or curiosity.”. What this definition means in more simple terms is floriculture includes plants that are grown for their beauty, their usefulness, or just the way in which the flowers are planted in a way to landscape or beautify a location.

Professor Theophilus Wylie, cousin to Indiana University’s first president Andrew Wylie, and his family were involved in both agriculture and floriculture. They grew a fair amount of crops including corn, grapes, a vegetable garden (beans, turnips, cabbage, asparagus, etc.), various fruit trees (peach, apple, pear), strawberries, and pumpkins to name some mentioned in their family letters. There is no current definite information about what livestock the Wylie’s owned themselves, but it was common for people to have hogs, cattle, and chickens. Additionally, in a letter it is written that Redick Wylie, a member of the Andrew Wylie family, did own cattle and hogs in the Bloomington area in 1860.

Many Americans farmed in some way or another, whether to sustain themselves or to supplement their food supplies. The wealthier were usually able to farm more effectively because they could own more land and buy increasingly advanced and newly invented inventions that allowed farming to be more efficient. New inventions of the 19th century included mechanical reapers (1834) by Cyrus McCormick, as well as a new type of plow with a steel blade by John Deere. These inventions allowed farmers to move more quickly and use less human labor since these tools only required a horse or two and one person. Another technological advance that affected agriculture was the use of trains (first used in Bloomington in 1853); the increased use of trains allowed goods to be transported further and faster than ever before, so less people were required to farm. Since less people were required to farm, especially those who had money that could be spent on unessential goods, they needed another way to spend their time and money.

Interest in flowers and planned gardening on properties actually began as early as the late 1700s on the east coast of the country among wealthier classes. This was mainly due to the influence of England and royal gardens from European countries. Americans really began learning floriculture from horticultural magazines that were imported from England and reprinted and distributed throughout America by printers. The first horticultural magazine, The Seed Drill, was written by Jethro Tull in 1701 (Garofalo 2002). These magazines were quickly absorbed into the American scene in some form or another in all social classes (Leighton 1987). For example, the less wealthy would try to recreate the gardens of royalty using native plants from their area. This was the beginning of floriculture in the United States. Another way floriculture began was that cemeteries were considered public parks up until around the 1850s and flowers were used to beautify these spaces, which is still true even though they are no longer considered public parks.

The plants used in people’s gardens were not usually limited to the native plants in the area. Plants were brought back from trips to other places in the U.S. to even places outside of the country. An example of this, is in an 1812 publication Thomas Nutall wrote about a trip to the Arkansas Territory and how he brought back around 300 plants (Leighton 1987). Trading seeds with others is another way people got nonnative (and native) seeds. The Wylie Family did both things as mentioned in their family letters. It is noted that they traded seeds with many people and that Louisa Wylie would presumably bring back seeds from where she was travelling at the time. There are letters written to Louisa, such as a letter from October 1, 1874 from an Emma mentioning that she would be sending seeds to her and Louisa could have sent her some in return. Additionally, the field of botany was also advancing around this time, so it was possible to get plants that had be genetically modified to be prettier in gardens around the country (Leighton 1987). It is unknown whether or not the Wylie’s had these types of flowers though.

The transition to floriculture, or leisure gardening, was a shift that was seen all over the United States. Wealthier families, such as the Wylie’s, were able to gain access to more resources and variety than others but it was a transition felt by much of the social classes. A person’s circumstances, such as their location, budget, and personal preference, affected how they participated in the sensation of floriculture. Even those who were worse off were able to participate in some way if they had the inclination to whether that be by only have a few ornamental flowers or by mixing their agricultural crops with a complimenting plant. Agriculture was a way of life for many people in the past and still is today, but leisure gardening is a popular pastime for people of all social and economic classes.

Blog post written by: Maclaren Guthrie, Bicentennial intern


Garofalo, Michael P. “The History of Gardening”, The Spirit of Gardening, 1 Mar. 2002,

Herald, Elaine, and Jo Burgess. “Affectionately Yours, Volume I.” IUScholarWorks, Indiana University, 2011,

Herald, Elaine, and Jo Burgess. “Affectionately Yours, Volume II.” IUScholarWorks, Indiana University, 2011,

Leighton, Ann. American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century. University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

The Theophilus Adam Wylie Family Correspondence, Wylie House Museum, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington.

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