Early American Gardens

Featured image: gardens at the Whipple House in Ipswich.

Isadore Smith (1902-1985) who published as Ann Leighton, was born in Portsmouth, N.H., graduated from Smith College in 1923, and married Archibald William Smith (1897-1962), a veteran of the First World War. Their home was the Tilton-Smith house at 168 Argilla Road in Ipswich. He was the author of two books, A captain departed, (New Haven, Yale University Press, (published 1935) and A gardener’s book of plant names; a handbook of the meaning and origins of plant names. (New York, Harper & Row, (published 1963)

Early American Gardens "For Meate or Medicine" by Ann Leighton

After Col. Smith enlisted again during WWII, Isadore wrote While We Are Absent, about how she maintained the home and gardens and raised the children without him. Col. Smith died in 1962. In 1967, as a member of the Ipswich Garden Club, she took on a project with the Ipswich Historical Society to create a traditional seventeenth century rose garden at the Whipple House. In 1977 she and Katharine C. Weeks designed the gardens at the Weeks Brick House in Greenland, NH, described as a typical housewife’s garden of the late 17th century, including the herbs and plants essential for a New England household.

Mrs. Smith combined her knowledge of early gardens with New England history in three volumes, the first of which, ”Early American Gardens: ‘For Meate or Medicine,” was published under the pseudonym of Ann Leighton by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1970, followed by a second volume, ‘‘American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century.” The final volume, ”American Gardens in the Nineteenth Century,” was published a year after her death. Her impeccable knowledge of plants and pleasing writing style has made the books classics. The introductions state, “While buildings may decay and crumble, the plants of every age are still with us and need only to be collected and replanted to speak for the time and its people.”

Quote by Isadore Smith, who wrote as Ann Leighton

In the introduction to Early American Gardens, Leighton included a quote by Captain George Fenwick, a founder of Saybrook CT, describing his wife’s “special enjoyment.”

Early American Gardens, published in 1970, the first of her three authoritative volumes of garden history, is a 464-page masterwork of garden history, reissued in paperback by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1986. Concentrating on the gardens of the early settlers of New England, the book deals with gardeners as well as the plants they depended upon for household aids, flavorings, drinks, and medicines. The well-illustrated and scholarly volume appeals to history buffs as well as avid gardeners.

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century is the second volume about garden history by Ann Leighton. She drew from letters, journals, invoices, and books of men and women who were interested in the plants of the New and Old World. As with the first volume, she included illustrations and descriptive listings of native and new plants that were cultivated during the eighteenth century.

American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century is the final of the three volumes of garden history by Ann Leighton, and includes reproductions of contemporary illustrations and descriptive listings of native and new plants that were cultivated during the nineteenth century. In this volume she connects the natural landscape with the growth of the industrial age and cultural change in nineteenth-century America.

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2 replies »

  1. What a wonderful little piece of Ipswich history. I would love to find Mrs. Smith’s books. Thanks for writing this up! The gardens at the Foster Grant House ( behind, unfortunately not visible from Summer St.) were designed by MaryAnn Tolvanen in the 1970’s and are filled with traditional native plants and contain we believe many elements particular to this area.


  2. Hi Gordon, I was enjoying your garden article about the Whipple House. The garden shed by the rose garden to the left of the house was part of my home at one time. That little building was the only remaining centuries old kitchen section, with gunstock corner beams, and attached to the Bradstreet home that we lived in. We watched the removal and transfer of it to the Whipple House around 1968. After the removal I discovered that under the foundation were many discarded artifacts and very old bottles that I still have today. Garden tools are stored in the old kitchen presently. Sandra Godzik


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