“There we were entertained with scenes romantic and delightful beyond the power of description"
Updated: Feb 26
The Amusement Parks of Early America; Pleasure Gardens in America and their roots in England
Before we begin our discussion of Pleasure Gardens, we need to clarify exactly what we are talking about. A Pleasure Garden can be defined as: 1. Any garden or pleasure-ground for relaxation, etc., distinct from a vegetable-garden, kitchen-garden, or orchard. 2. A garden run as a commercial enterprise from the Restoration (1660) until the mid-C19 in London and elsewhere. Our focus in this post is on the 2nd definition.
PRE-GEORGIAN PLEASURE GARDENS
Public pleasure gardens have existed for many centuries. In Ancient Rome, the landscaped Gardens of Sallust (Horti Sallustiani) were originally developed as private gardens. The property originally belonged to Julius Caesar as the Horti Caesaris, but after his death it was acquired by the historian Sallust, who developed it using his wealth acquired as governor of the province of Africa Nova (newly conquered Numidia). The property passed to Tiberius in 20 AD and the Roman Emperors kept it for several centuries as a public amenity. The gardens held many pavilions, a temple to Venus, and monumental sculptures. These gardens remained open to the public for centuries.
During the Middle Ages, the direction of Pleasure Gardens took a turn to become private and only for the nobles. Medieval Castles, and to an even greater extent Monasteries, carried on an ancient European tradition of garden design and intense horticultural techniques. Walled, these gardens had a park-like atmosphere, sometimes even including a structure meant to be a summer home, where the nobility could go to find relaxation away from the main manor or castle.
These Pleasure gardens had a diversity of trees, not only for the purpose of giving shade, but also to enhance the aroma of the garden with the perfume of flowers, or of ripening fruits. Winding paths edged by sweet smelling herbs, like sage and basil, mixed in with fragrant flowers ran throughout the garden. There was no shortage of things to look at. Vibrant colors were everywhere. Tendrils of vine curled around trees, and up stone walls. Trellises and latticework supported climbing flowers to form archways or covered paths.
A look through manuscripts from the medieval period, supplies plenty of lavish illuminations of lovers enjoying medieval pleasure gardens, descriptions, and poetry such as:
“Under the green leaves, on the soft turf beside a chattering brook with a clear spring near at hand, I found a rustic hut set up. Gontier and Dame Helen were dining there, on fresh cheese, milk, butter, cheesecake, cream, curds, apples, nuts, plums, pears; they had garlic and onions and crushed shallots, on crusty black bread with coarse salt to give them a thirst. They drank from the jug and the birds made music to cheer the hearts of both lover and lass, who next exchanged their loving kisses on mouth and nose, the smooth face and the bearded.”
– Philippe de Vitry, 14th century
PLEASURE GARDENS IN ENGLAND
One of the Earliest Pleasure Gardens in England, albeit private, was the Privy Garden of the Palace of Whitehall. Originally created as a private royal Pleasure Garden during the reign of Henry VIII, it was expanded and improved by succeeding Tudor and Stewart monarchs. The Privy Garden continued to serve a similar purpose during the Interregnum (1649–1660), when the English Council of State put considerable effort and money into repairing and improving the garden. They appear to have reserved it exclusively for their own use, with their own individual keys for access.
Several London pleasure gardens were in existence before the Restoration, the Mulberry Garden on the site of Buckingham Palace and the Spring Gardens at Charing Cross being well-known examples. Following the Restoration, with “disposable income” available to an increasing number of London residents due to foreign trade and industrialization, entrepreneurs say a demand for both open park space as well as entertainment and so the number of public Pleasure Gardens began to grow and to morph into “entertainment venues rather than just sylvan retreats. These included venues such as, New Tunbridge Wells (Islington Spa), Marylebone Gardens, and Ranelagh Gardens.
The best-known of the London Pleasure Gardens to today’s fans of the Georgian Era is ‘The New Spring Garden,’ which later came to be called Vauxhall Gardens. In advertisements, the name Vauxhall Gardens first appears in 1786, but many years before that date the place was often popularly known as Vauxhall Gardens.
In many ways, pleasure gardens were the amusement parks of Georgian England, allowing visitors to escape the hustle and bustle of city life while offering them a variety of entertainment, including picturesque gardens, strolling paths, musical concerts, al fresco dining, balloon rides, waterfalls, fountain displays, masquerades, balls, and even fireworks shows. These new Pleasure gardens, unlike other public gardens, charged an admission price to enter. This fee allowed them to afford the costs of concert halls, bandstands, promenade concerts, amusement rides, illuminations (fireworks), and masquerades.
Pleasure Gardens were the great melting pot of 18th and early 19th Century society. Originally designed to appeal to wealthier tastes, soon, landed gentry and tradesmen enjoyed the entertainments side by side. The admission price was kept reasonable (just 1 Shilling for Vauxhall Gardens in London throughout the 18th Century) and therefore remained affordable to most people in the upper middle class and above. Here, there existed an attraction for every taste, not least important among them being the chance to “see and be seen” by members of London high society.
The finest of these new Pleasure Gardens were laid out as formal gardens, with shrubberies and miniature waterways, and dedicated buildings for performances and for eating, they were places to see the latest in art and architecture. At Vauxhall, supper booths displayed paintings by the likes of William Hogarth and Francis Hayman. Vauxhall was also the place to go to hear the work of George Frederic Handel, a sort of composer-in-residence during the 1730s and 1740s.
Vauxhall, open from 1661 to 1859, is considered the first, finest, and most popular of the pleasure gardens because of the variety of entertainment it offered as well as the large crowd it always attracted (due in large part to its low entrance fee of only a shilling). Due to its lack of exclusivity, Vauxhall also became a prime example of some of the problems that existed for most pleasure gardens: Vauxhall’s “dark walks” (unlit paths) were popular hideouts for young lovers as well as pickpockets, rapists, prostitutes, and other criminals, making the garden a sometimes dangerous and undesirable place to visit at night.
PLEASURE GARDENS IN COLONIAL AMERICA AND THE EARLY REPUBLIC
The earliest reference I have been able to find to Pleasure Gardens in what would become the Early United States is in Dutch New York around the end of the 17th century. These early Dutch Pleasure Gardens were little more than taverns with an attached garden. One of the first Pleasure Gardens was built by the Dutchman, Wolfert Webber. Webber built his tavern in the middle of a garden near the then famous Tea-water Spring and close to what now is Chatham Square. Equipped with outdoor tables and benches, these establishments provided a place where city residents could take their leisure in the shade, enjoy the fresh breezes, enjoy their favorite beverages, cakes, and pies, and even play at bowls.
Shortly after the English took control of New York, another establishment, known as “The Cherry Garden,” located near the East River, just north of Franklin Square in Manhattan, started up under the proprietorship of one Richard Sackett. The name derived from a Cherry orchard, which was one of its chief attractions. Additionally, there was a bowling green in the garden, together with “other means of diversion,” however, the references I have found do not tell us what these other diversions were.
In the early years of the eighteenth-century Pleasure Gardens took off in a big way. A rival to Wolfert Webber established himself on the top of the near-by Catimut's Hill. Down on Crown Street (the present day Liberty Street) was Barberrie's Garden; over near the shore of the North River (as may be seen on James Lyne's map of 1729) was the Bowling Green Garden, which a little later was renamed Vauxhall and we will discuss in a moment. Around 1750, in this same vicinity, Ranelagh evolved from the homestead of Colonel Rutgers. Brannan's Garden was established out on the Greenwich Road, to the northward of Lispenard's Meadows, around 1765 and before the end of the century Byram's Garden—subsequently known as Corri's, and as the Mount Vernon Garden–adorned the hill-top above the crossing of Leonard Street and Broadway. About the year 1809, Contoit's New York Garden moved (from opposite the City Hall Park) into this same neighborhood.
Although the Bowling Green Garden took the name of Vauxhall Gardens, it did not continue so. Samuel Fraunces, proprietor of Fraunces Tavern during the American Revolution, opened the New York Vauxhall in 1767. This Vauxhall Gardens was in a more confined space on Greenwich Street near the Hudson River between what later became Warren and Chambers streets. Ratzer's map shows its square garden plot, conventionally divided in four by walks. Fraunces operated the venue until 1773, when he offered it for sale. His notice mentioned two large gardens, a house with four rooms per floor and twelve fireplaces, and a dining hall that was 56 feet (17 m) long and 26 feet (7.9 m) wide, with a kitchen below.
In 1798, its current owner, Joseph Delacroix moved his operations to Broome Street between Broadway and the Bowery. In 1805, it moved, this time to Lafayette Street, stretching from 4th to 8th streets in what were then the northern reaches of the city, the area that later became Astor Place, 4th Street, Broadway, and the Bowery. The venture was a daring one, for the garden was more than a mile out of town on the Bowery Road. However, it became a fashionable resort almost immediately and, when a little later the theatre was built, and the garden—already provided with summer-houses for the accommodation of “company" was adorned with busts and statues, all the town flocked to it.
Professional travel writer John Lambert visited in November 1807 and wrote,
“New York has its Vauxhall and Ranelagh; but they are poor imitations of those near London. They are, however, pleasant places of recreation for the inhabitants. The Vauxhall garden is situated in the Bowery Road about two miles (3 km) from the City Hall. It is a neat plantation, with gravel walks adorned with shrubs, trees, busts, and statues. In the centre is a large equestrian statue of General Washington. Light musical pieces, interludes, etc. are performed in a small theatre situate in one corner of the gardens: the audience sit in what are called the pit and boxes, in the open air. The orchestra is built among the trees, and a large apparatus is constructed for the display of fireworks. The theatrical corps of New York is chiefly engaged at Vauxhall during summer.”
New York was not the only city on the American continent to host Pleasure Gardens. Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston also enjoyed them. However, the finest examples of Pleasure Gardens in America were in Philadelphia and specifically at Gray’s Gardens, at the Lower Ferry over the Schuylkill River (west bank).
Gray’s Garden was laid out close on the heels of the peace that ended the American Revolution. The Grays, who held the ferry (afterwards a floating toll bridge) concession, had an inn there where all travelers to and from the South had to pass their door. Samuel Vaughan, to whom Philadelphia owes much for his prompt suggestions about civic improvements, pointed out an opportunity which the proprietors were quick to grasp. A naturally beautiful site, with fine trees of native growth, they further embellished with exotic plantings and laid out a garden to whose Charms (enhanced by the refreshments on offer) and the public readily responded. It immediately became one of the city's "sights" and not only an objective for parties of pleasure from town but also a favorite place to welcome the coming of, and ease the sorrow of the departing guest. Delegations of representative Philadelphians escorted distinguished visitors as far as Gray's Gardens and there tendered them a “stirrup-cup" and Godspeed as they left for the South. In like manner, citizen committees would meet important personages arriving and accompany them from there to the city. Gray's Gardens, in fact, came to hold an almost official or diplomatic status. The President and Mrs. Washington repeatedly received these civilities at what may be called the old gateway to Philadelphia
On July 14, 1787, the observant Dr. Manasseh Cutler, in company with several Other gentlemen and piloted by Mr. Vaughan, made an early morning visit to Bartram’s Botanical Garden. Leaving there, they breakfasted a little after nine at Gray's Gardens and then went on a tour of inspection. Says Dr. Cutler in his journal:
“There we were entertained With scenes romantic and delightful beyond the power of description, (wherein he launches into a minute description of everything— the inn,) a large pile of buildings, mostly old, but with some new additions, [the) serpentine gravel walks, . . the Greenhouse [or Orangery, which is a very large Stone building, three stories in the front and two in the rear, (whose) windows are enormous, I believe some of them to be twenty feet in length, and proportionably Wide. [Of the private dining-roams Or boxes behind the Orangery he says,] All these apartments are handsomely furnished. On top of the house is a spacious walk, where we had delightful view of the city of Philadelphia. [Of the exotic plants, he notes] most of the trees and fruits that grow in the hottest climates; Oranges, lemons, etc., in every stage from blossoms to ripe fruit; pine-apples in bloom and those that were fully ripe. [The Gardens, he observes,] seemed to be in a number of detached areas, all different in size and form. The alleys were none of them straight, nor were there any two alike. At every end, side, and corner, there were summer-houses, arbors covered with vines or flowers, or shady bowers encircled with trees and flowering shrubs. each of which was formed in a different taste. In the borders were arranged every kind of flower. [He tells of three] high arched bridges . . . built in the Chinese style; the rails on the sides work of various figures and beautifully painted; [of the hermitage; of the groves and the paths running mysteriously in divergent directions; of the various surprises, among them) one of the finest cascades in America (which] falls about seventy feet perpendicular. [Down near the river bank there were] Grottoes wrought out of the sides of ledges of rocks, a curious labyrinth with numerous windings [and, atop a large rock] a spacious summer-house. The roof was in Chinese form. It was surrounded with rails of open work, and a beautiful winding staircase led up to it [seemingly a pagoda. He continues,] During the whole of this romantic rural scene, I fancied myself on enchanted ground, and could hardly help looking out for flying dragons, magic castles. little Fairies, Knight-errants, distressed Ladies, and all the apparatus of eastern fable. I found my mind really fatigued with so long a scene of pleasure. (After exhausting his rhapsody, he explains that Mr. Vaughan, after suggesting the Gardens to Gray, had] promised him to plan the works and furnish him with a gardener from England. This gardener is now with him, and he constantly employs ten laborers under the gardener’s direction. The company from Philadelphia, we are told, far exceeded the Innkeeper’s expectations, and he finds himself in a fair way to make a fortune”.
Besides the items listed by Dr. Cutler, Gray had included sculpture, arches, and other structural novelties to the equipment of his Gardens. For “features” he had concerts, illuminations, dramatic performances, fireworks, and occasional pageants. In short, almost everything offered by London’s famous Vauxhall Gardens.
The Fourth of July, throughout the Federal Era, gave the proprietors of Pleasure Gardens a chance for a spectacular gala of concerts, fireworks, and pageants. At Gray's Gardens, for the Fourth of July celebration in 1790, besides concerts and fireworks, the floating bridge was beflagged with the colors of the several States and decked with flowers and shrubbery; the ship "Union" (an exhibit from the Federal procession of 1789), flying the flags of all nations, lay off the Gardens;
A 'Federal Temple,' [in the Gardens,] had for one of its ornaments a Vault Of twelve stones, representing the Federal Union—the keystone now completed by the accession Of Rhode Island. From a grove in the garden came thirteen young ladies dressed as shepherdesses, and thirteen young men attired as shepherds. They proceeded to the Federal Temple, where they sang an Ode to Liberty, which was diversified with solos, choruses, and responses.
At night there was a grand illumination of everything, including a portrait of the President and all the "statues of heathen deities”. The refreshments, solid and liquid alike, were always in high repute; Gray's was especially famous for tea and coffee of supreme excellence, accompanied by abundant "relishes." Of these, William Priest says:
I took a memorandum Of What was on the table; viz. coffee, cheese, sweet cakes, hung beef, sugar, pickled salmon. butter, crackers, ham, cream, and bread. The ladies all declared, it was a most charming relish
While this was certainly lavish for a "relish," it was quite in accord with the large meals people habitually ate then.
Baltimore also had its Pleasure Gardens but not so elaborate as those in Philadelphia. As early as May 31, 1792 issue of the Baltimore Daily Repository advertised an:
Afternoon’s Amusement. The New Company of Tight Rope Dancers, Tumblers, &c, just arrived from Philadelphia. will exhibit in Chatsworth Gardens, To-Morrow Evening, at five o'clock precisely. . . Tickets, one quarter of a dollar each.
As no other attractions were mentioned, it is likely there was no illumination, and a short engagement for the performers. Regardless of the length of the engagement, Chatsworth Gardens are on record.
On June 30, the Repository gave notice “To the Curious” that:
a beautiful African LION is on view at the sign of the Black Horse opposite the Centre Market. . . His legs and tail are as thick as those of a common-sized ox. [Caught when a whelp,) he is as tame as any domestic animal whatever. The "Curious" are warned that this twenty-five-cent show is having a short stand; the owner of the '"beautiful LION" intends touring the United States With him.
And on July 25 the Repository carried a two-inch advertisement for events at a different Pleasure Garden as follows:
Jalland’s Garden. The subscriber informs the Public and his Friends, that, on account or the liberal encouragement given him, his Garden will be ILLUMINATED, during the season, every evening in the week, if fair, Sundays excepted. On Tuesday and Friday evenings the illumination will be accompanied with music.
Judging from other advertisements in the Repository, Mr. Jalland seems to have been a liquor dealer, so it is likely that patrons could "wet their whistles" as well as see the illuminations accompanied by Music.
Further south, Charleston, SC, as the chief city of the South, also had its Pleasure Garden named for Vauxhall Gardens in London. The June 4, 1804 issue of the Charleston Courier announced that:
The public are respectfully informed that Vauxhall Gardens will open for the Summer Season THIS EVENING [with a] GRAND CONCERT of Vocal and Instrumental Music [at 8 o'clock. At] three quarters past 8 . . . the song Mounseer NongTongPaw, [performed] by Mr. Hodgkinson, [with other songs and singers at 15-minute.intervals till 9-45, after which the evening's entertainment was) to conclude with a Grand SYMPHONIE and MARCH. Admittance Half a Dollar.
This admission charge of $.50 was very reasonable considering that local public dinners were advertised at a $7.00 cover. The advertisements make no mention of food, drinks, illuminations, or other " features." The show could hardly have been overly exciting, and so one must assume that the attraction of this was the social desire to “see and be seen”. The songs were different on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings when the Vauxhall Gardens were open, weather permitting, but the singers were the same, evidently drawn from the stock company of actors at the Charleston Theatre during the "season." It may have been that the Garden was an expedient to help the company with their finances while the Theatre was closed. Supporting this idea is that there were occasional benefit nights for the different performers. Matthew Sully, whose name appears in the company at both the Garden and the Theatre, was the father of the artist Thomas Sully.
Sometimes, instead of winding up the evening with a "symphonic" or "grand march," the players would present a farce, such as The Horse and the Widow, and on July 12 they finished off with an opera, called The Waterman. By July 19 An amphitheater had been raised opposite the stage for the accommodation of the ladies, and on July 28 it was announced that the middle walk of the Garden will be illuminated by new invented Lamps, just arrived from Europe.
It is obvious that the management were doing their best to emulate the parent Vauxhall in London. On June 6, the next year, they advertised:
AN ELEGANT DISPLAY OF FIRE-WORKS [at 7.30, with the caution,) N.B. As some persons may object to the exhibition on account of the moon's injuring the brilliancy of the Fire-Works, Mr. R, informs them, that the Theatre of the Garden is perfectly shaded by the trees.
After that date, all advertisements cease; one is curious to know whether the enterprise had strained Mr. R.'s finances to the breaking point or whether Vauxhall went up in a blaze of glory along with the "Fire-Works."
Although large cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Charleston could most easily supply the attendance required to support these endeavors, they were not the only ones to feature pleasure gardens. In Virginia, The Recorder, a Richmond newspaper advertised in their May 19, 26, June 2, and July 5, 1802 editions:
VAUXHALL GARDEN. The Ladies and Gentlemen of Richmond, Manchester, and their Vicinities, are respectfully informed that the Garden, attaining to the City Tavern, formerly occupied by Mr. Raphael, has been elegantly fitted out at a great expense, to render it a pleasing and agreeable PLEASURE GARDEN, Which will be splendidly ILLUMINATED With COLORED LIGHTS, every MONDAY, THURSDAY, and SATURDAY; In case of bad weather, the entertainment will always be on the next succeeding fair evening, when visitors will be entertained with a Band of Music, And will find all sorts of Refreshments On moderate terms. The price of admittance on these days only, will be Half a Dollar. Tickets to be had at the Door, and the ticket will entitle the bearer to the same value in any refreshments whatever, left at the bearer’s choice. The Garden will be opened every Day, but admittance charged only on the illumination days; and at all times refreshments of every kind will be kept ready.
(Editor's note: The Richmond Cty Tavern, according to Richmond historian Samuel Mordecai, was built by a Mr. Gabriel Galt of Williamsburg and was known as Galt's Tavern. In 1779, after a decision to move the capital had been made, there was an advertisement in a Williamsburg paper for bids for the erection of the new capitol building in Richmond, and plans for the building were to be “lodged*’ in the hands of one, Gabriel Galt, in Richmond. Later the first city election in Richmond was held and Gabriel Galt was one of the supervisors. Still later, in 1785, a site for the erection of the first Masons’ Hall
was purchased from Gabriel Galt. I assume this to be the same individual.
Meanwhile Norfolk, Virginia also seems to have been supporting Pleasure Gardens. H. W. Burton, in his book, The History of Norfolk, reports that:
“In 1809, the following places of amusement were conducted here, to wit: One Theatre, Botanical Gardens, Museum Naturæ, the Wigwam Gardens, Vauxhall’s Gardens and Baths, Rosainville’s Bower and Lindsay’s Retreat”.
In his 1853 book, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity, William S. Forrest repeats the list and goes on to say,
“These were all pretty well attended and sustained. The gardens were frequented on Sundays, and on the evenings of the other days of the week; and they are crowded on public occasions.”
I hope you found this article on the history of Pleasure Gardens in Colonial America and the Early Republic interesting, informative, and thought provoking. While the Pleasure Gardens of England have received a great deal of attention in literature and research throughout the years, those here in North America have received much less love. If you found this to be interesting, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you post comments to let me know your thoughts on our articles, as well as allowing us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. I also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.
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