University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Advice for Gardeners, "Vick's Monthly Magazine" (The First Series, 1878-1891)

Volume XXXIX • 1986Advice for Gardeners: Vick's Monthly Magazine: (The First Series, 1878-1891)--KARL SANFORD KABELAC  "Kind reader," wrote James Vick in the premier issue of his Vick's Monthly Magazine, 

the first number is before you. We have tried to make it both interesting and profitable, and shall endeavor to make the succeeding numbers far more so. As our publication is now a Magazine in all respects, we give it a name in accordance with its character. For beauty we do not design to have it excelled by any journal in the world, and while it will have a character of its own, and be the index of what we think and feel and know, we may perhaps be allowed to express the hope, that, as a teacher of the people and a guide to the millions, it may prove without a rival.

 Thus in January 1878 Vick expanded his quarterly catalogue, the Floral Guide, into a monthly magazine that would survive for over three decades.By 1878 James Vick, the Rochester seedman, was no newcomer either to the seed business or to agricultural publishing. Born in England in 1818, he had first come to New York City where he had learned the printing trade, and then to Rochester in 1837. His early years in Rochester were spent as a printer.An interest in flowers led him to contribute articles to Rochester's Genesee Farmer and in 1850 he became an editor of this periodical. Several years later, after the death of its editor, Vick purchased the Horticulturist and published it in Rochester from 1853 to 1855. His next venture in agricultural publishing was as editor of Moore's Rural New-Yorker, another prominent periodical then published in Rochester.Meanwhile, Vick's strong personal interest in gardening led him to the commercial seed business which became the focus of his life. His Floral Guide, or catalogue, was first issued semi-annually, and then quarterly after 1873. He fulfilled his wish to "give us facilities for saying all we wished" when he expanded it into his Monthly Magazine in January 1878.For almost fourteen years, the magazine continued with the same format. Each issue had at least 32 pages -- occasionally 40 -- with a colorful chromolithographic frontispiece. There would be several feature articles on gardening topics, written in a popular style and well illustrated with engravings or often -- after the late 1880s -- photographs. Special sections followed the feature articles. In "Correspondence," readers would share gardening experiences or respond to articles or questions in previous issues. "Foreign Notes" would have information and quotes from foreign periodicals. "Pleasant Gossip" contained editor's notes and comments on gardening problems, or readers' letters with editorial responses. For some years a column called "Our Young People" carried articles for children and letters from them. "Our Bureau," later called "Editor's Miscellany," appeared on the last page or two and contained timely news, book reviews and magazine reviews, and obituaries of prominent horticulturists.A typical issue published in January 1882 gives the flavor of Vick's Monthly Magazine. A chromolithographic frontispiece of balsams (a delicate flowering plant of the genus impatiens), is the work of Brett Lithographic Company of New York. The first article discusses the history and growing of balsams. The next concerns the importance of small parks and squares in cities and larger villages, and includes several representative engravings. "Correspondence" includes an article by May McKenzie about the planting of madeira and cinnamon vines to make a shield for the southern side of her house; it kept the house cooler and made a shaded area for her plants and for the children to play. "S. E." writes from Georgia about some of the natural beauty in his part of the state. A poem, "The Gardener's Daughter," by Sidney Emmett and contributions on the varieties of roses and Rose of Sharon, along with other topics, rounds out the section.In "Foreign Notes," "Traveller" writes of English horticultural shows and how their displays differ from American shows. "In every country the flower gardens are different, so much so that I think I can tell an English, French, German, or American garden as easily as I can tell men and women of these nationalities." The section continues with a discussion of edelweiss and concludes with several short paragraphs on English garden notes.In "Pleasant Gossip," "A Subscriber" of Trinidad, Colorado asks several questions such as whether orchids can be grown in a window garden, and the editor answers them. (The answer is "no" about the orchids.) A California gardener inquires about a non-blooming peony, and "S. J.," having lost most of his stored potatoes during the previous cold Winter, inquires about burying potatoes. The response to the latter question includes illustrations of a "potato hill" and a "potato cellar." Other topics in the section include the Chinese yam, fall-blooming shrubs, germinating seeds, onions and shallots, and wild flowers of the Dakotas.In "Our Young People," Grandfather Gray shares his thoughts on the best types of soil for various trees and plants. One young reader writes of his summer garden: "a man who takes care of a greenhouse on the next street said we had some of the prettiest flowers in the place, but [that] we had twice too many plants, but I think we didn't have half enough garden." He has sent Mr. Vick a bouquet of grasses, which is shown in an engraving.Some years the magazine invited essays on particular subjects and published the winners, one per month, through the year. Winners were given seeds and plants selected from their Vick's catalogue. Prize essays for 1885 included such topics as: "How can the Rose be best managed as a house plant?". . . "What varieties of peas are most profitable for the market gardener?" . . . "Is the mushroom, any where in this country, raised extensively for market, or can it be so raised?". . . and "What salad plants are most desirable?"More than 150 colorful frontispieces appeared during this fourteen year period. Most were of flowers, such as gloxinias, larkspur, German iris, lilium excelsum, and narcissum, but once in a while the subject was a fruit such as the Prentiss grape or a vegetable such as the summer radish. The majority carried no artist's name; an exception was Rochester botanical artist John Walton, who contributed and signed several frontispieces. These beautiful chromolithographs often bore the notation "painted for Vick's Monthly" or a similar designation, and usually contained the name of the lithographer. Over the years, the lithographers included Rochester's Lithographic and Chromo Company and Rahn & Karle, as well as firms in New York City and Boston. To encourage subscribers to keep their issues whole instead of removing these color plates for framing, Vick's would send a subscriber -- for five cents apiece -- any color plate that had been published in the magazine.Vick's gave various premiums for solicitors of a group or "club" of subscriptions. In 1886, a group of four subscriptions at $1.25 each earned a "Portfolio of Rare and Beautiful Flowers" containing six chromolithographs done by Mr. Walton. This handsome portfolio could also be purchased separately at $2.00.A few years earlier a large "Floral Chromo," such as "Bouquet of Lilies"(19 by 24 inches) went to anyone who sent in five subscriptions. The same gift was available on cloth and stretcher for twelve subscriptions, or handsomely framed in walnut and gilt for 20 subscriptions. By the late 1880s, other premiums were available; 30 subscriptions got one a new Singer sewing machine, 20 a Bausch and Lomb microscope, five a gold pen, and two a pocket magnifier.Vick's would bind a year's issues of the magazine for 50 cents "in nice cloth covers" -- green with black cover-lettering and gold spine-lettering.Subscribers also could order the covers for 25 cents and arrange for the binding on their own. Most sets that survive have been bound, with the separately paged advertising removed. Judging from an unbound set of the issues for 1888, a typical issue had a light green paper cover and up to twelve pages of advertising.Few of the advertisements were horticultural in nature. Typical ones in 1888 were for Sozodont dentifrice, Cashmere Bouquet perfume, Baker's chocolate, Sapolio soap, Webster's dictionary, Ayer's sarsaparilla, Pear's soap, Gurney's hot water heaters, and Standard haying tools. Illustrations -- often humorous ones -- appeared in many of the ads. Some issues also contained advertisements for Vick's seed and bulbs.Throughout the 1880s, Vick's circulation appears to have been about 25,000 copies per issue. Both the circulation size and the wide range of advertisers who bought space in the magazine suggest the popularity of gardening magazines in American homes in this period.Frank Luther Mott in his A History of American Magazines (Harvard, 1930-68) notes that there were a number of gardening magazines by the 1880s. In addition to Vick's, one could enjoy Gardener's MonthlyLadies' Floral Cabinet, and Buffalo's Popular Gardening, along with American Garden, which absorbed the other three titles between 1887 and 1891. Among others were Park's Floral Magazine, begun in 1871; like Vick's, it was associated with a seed house. The Mayflower, begun in 1885, resembled Vick's in a different way; it carried a chromolithographic illustration in each issue.At 63, James Vick had died of pneumonia in Rochester on May 16, 1882, four years after beginning the magazine. The obituary in the June issue noted his cheerfulness and sociability and added:

...if we may judge by the letters of his correspondents, those who knew him only by his publications felt the magic of his poetic temperament and goodness of heart, and came to regard him as a friend and faithful counselor rather than as a tradesman.

Vick was survived by his widow, three daughters, and four sons. His sons carried on the seed business, eventually changing the name to James Vick's Sons in 1891.The October 1891 issue announced that beginning with the next issue Vick's Magazine would be enlarged to three columns a page and its price reduced to fifty cents a year. Henceforth it would be published by the Vick Publishing Company, with the seed business to be conducted by James Vick's Sons. The new magazine would not be as "pretentious" as CenturyHarper's or Scribner's, "but in proportion to the price will contain fully as much matter." Two hundred thousand copies of the first issue were printed. The new magazine contained more literature on general topics than before, and gone were the beautiful color frontispieces.Eight years later the magazine again changed its size and promised an "elegant colored plate" each month as well as articles by prominent botanists such as Professor Bailey of Cornell and Professor Dodge of Rochester. This new size lasted less than a year; financial difficulties caused suspension of publication from August through December 1900. When the magazine reappeared with the new century in January 1901 it was in a larger-sized format and promised to be a magazine for the entire family. By October 1908, the magazine had moved to Chicago and was positively looking forward to "a new era in its career." By now it was a very broadly oriented magazine printed on poor quality paper; within a year it published its last issue.  BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTEA set of Vick's Monthly Magazine was invaluable for this article. A run of volume 1 (1878) through volume 14, number 10 (October 1891), and some later scattered issues, are available in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. A nearly complete run for the magazine's whole history, 1878-1909, is available at the Mann Library, Cornell University.Runs of volume 1 through volume 14 are easier to locate than those for later years, because Vick's would bind them annually for subscribers or supply the covers for subscribers to have them bound. Thus the first 14 volumes tended to survive better than those produced after the binding offer was no longer available. Unfortunately, the paper covers and the separately paged advertising were removed for binding, so it is difficult to locate early issues with this interesting material intact. The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is fortunate to have the year 1888 in unbound form also.In addition to the magazine itself, the biographical sketch of Vick in the Dictionary of American Biography(volume 19, pages 264-5) was useful, as was the article by Bernard E. Harkness and Mabel G. Olney, "John Walton (1834-1914): Artist" which appeared in Huntia, volume 2 (1965), pages 171-9. Walton was a Rochester artist who drew and painted illustrations for the magazine as well as some of its promotional pieces. Examples of his work are shown on the cover of this issue and on pages 27, 31, and 32. Arrow  Return to Top