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A Gardening Gold Mine

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The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.

Cover Image: Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston
Cover Image: Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston

When house and garden historian Sam Watters first learned about Frances B. Johnston’s color garden photos from the early 1900s, he e-mailed us right away. An appointment was soon arranged to show him these fascinating but uncataloged “magic lantern slides.” We all felt like we were walking into a large gold mine without a map.

Johnston, a talented photographer and an advocate for beautifying America, had selected 1,100 of her landscape photographs for reproduction as hand-colored lantern slides (small glass transparencies, typically 3.25 x 4 inches). Projecting these remarkable images while she spoke extemporaneously made her lectures at garden clubs and other venues popular from 1915 on.

["Jones Wood" townhouses, East 65th and 66th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, New York, N.Y. North terrace fountain]
North Terrace Fountain in “Jones Wood” Townhouse Commons, New York, N.Y. Lantern slide by Frances B. Johnston, 1921.
The catch? Most of the slides lacked identifying information. Until now. Watters spent five years digging for information in libraries and archives throughout the country, poring through illustrated garden magazines of the day, and reading all of Johnston’s extensive personal papers. By piecing together the scattered clues, he charted a course that revealed the gold.

The result? A “sumptuous and scholarly” new book provides an invaluable guide to the collection. Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, published by Acanthus Press in collaboration with the Library of Congress, features 250 full color images. In-depth essays describe the importance of Johnston’s work with gardens and also explain the techniques she used to compose lantern slides that resemble miniature paintings. The detailed source notes about individual gardens and explanatory footnotes can help anyone pursue similar research with other collections.

Watters will discuss and sign his book for a Books & Beyond event on Friday, April 13, at noon, in the Library’s West Dining Room. The program is free and open to the public.

Thank you, Sam, for breathing life back into these rare garden images. Your expert knowledge and dedication have ensured open public access for this gardening gold mine!


The whole collection is now available online, too, for everyone to enjoy through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Watters not only wrote a book, he provided detailed captions for all the original images, giving them a garden name, location, date, and site history.

Learn More:

[Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston standing beside her large view camera preparing to take a photograph at the Biltmore Estate; her assistant Huntley Ruff is in the foreground and a motorbike is in the background]
Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston with Her View Camera at the Biltmore Estate, 1938.
  • Gardens for a Beautiful America by Sam Watters, with preface by C. Ford Peatross (New York: Acanthus Press, published in collaboration with the Library of Congress, 2012)
  • Acquaint yourself with Frances Benjamin Johnston’s amazing life in the Biographical Overview and Chronology
  • Explore the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South collection–the source for most images in the lantern slide lecture Johnston called “Tales Old Houses Tell”
  • Get a sense of the varied scope of the Johnston Collection–with more than 2,500 photos digitized from throughout her career
  • Discover the technology behind Lantern Slides in an illustrated booklet on how to make them, written by John Tennant in 1899 for The Photo-miniature: A Monthly Magazine of Photographic Information. Vol. 1, no. 9, December 1899. (Call number: TR505 .L357 1899 P&P Case X)

Comments (2)

  1. Meaning of “the photograph ,”
    “I represent the truth”
    When I photograph “a photograph” to a woman,
    How does she think of me?
    I understand this.

    A photograph may not represent this “truth”.
    The photograph copies “my feelings”.
    The impure heart is reflected on a photograph.
    This photograph gets the feelings “that I will take beautifully”.
    Such a “photograph ,”
    You may look again and again.

  2. The photographs and lantern slides are amazing! I found this site by accident-was reading about Waverly Mansion in West Point, MS and saw the 1930’s photograph taken by Johnson which piqued my interest in the set of photographs on American Southern architecture. I am looking on Google to see which houses still stand so I can map out some day trips to visit these sites. Thank you for providing these slide to the public-

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