Hamilton Artist Update 23 – Hamilton City Gardens


Hamilton Artist Update 23 – City Gardens

In the 19th century, having a vegetable garden was far more common than today.  This was because of the size of the lots. While most inner city home had very narrow lots (about 20 – 25 ft), this lack of space was made up by having very long backyards (130 ft).  As a result, there was plenty of room for a vegetable garden, particularly when the homes were only one or two stories with no extensions on the back.

backyards of surviving homes filled in with extensions and parking spaces
backyards of surviving homes filled in with extensions and parking spaces

In the 19th century, the typical house had two rooms on the ground floor.  The layout of the house would be a living room or greeting room in the front and the kitchen in the back.

The kitchen would be the heart of family life, particularly in the winter when the kitchen provided most of the heat for the house.  If there was an upstairs then there would be an additional room or two for sleeping. As a result, many of these small wood frame structures (brick after the fire codes were changed in the late 1840s – 1850s), allowed for large gardens.


1860s Housing on Elgin Street, Hamilton (Ont)
1860s Housing on Elgin Street, Hamilton (Ont)

The gardens were lay out with a particular design.  Herbs and strongly scented plants were often located just outside the kitchen door.  Not only did this provide easy access to herbs, but the scent helped to mask the strong odors of inner city living (horses, livestock, and local industry).

Strongly scented flowers were also located at the rear of the garden where you would find the outhouse.  The distance from the house and the flowers would help prevent strong odors from reaching the family.  The land between the outhouse and the home would be layout out according to amount of sunlight and other family requirements.

There would space set aside for drying cloths, firewood, and a sitting area for escaping the heat of the house in the spring and summer months.

Sometimes plants like roses would be used to deter animals and other unwelcome visitors from entering the backyard.

Backyard gardens could provide a significant source of healthy food for families with limited income, a situation that most working families faced.

Where more space was available, like in the early days of Cork-town (1830s to 1840s), families could grow enough food to open small front living room markets.  This kind of small business became so popular that the Hamilton town council had to start issuing permits in the 1840s.

In addition to living room vegetable stands, the “hay” market located at Hunter and John offered access to another source of customers.  However, this essentially Irish, market went into decline with the development of the James and Market (York) in the late 1840s.  As a result, the Cork-town market declined into selling low value items like hay and fire-wood. Hay and fire-wood were things that the local citizens could collect from the sides of the mountain and from landowners who were not watching their properties very closely.

Excellent Blog on Early American Gardens
Excellent Blog on Early American Gardens

There is not much research available on the inner city vegetable gardens and role they played in shaping the 19th century landscape. One excellent source of information, however,  is the blog entitled the “Early American Gardens” at http://americangardenhistory.blogspot.ca/

While most research focuses on large estates in the Colonial United States, there is some research on worker gardens in the Great Britain.  With regards to Canada, the only good source of information is the Gardens at Dundurn Castle.

Chris Erskine



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