Worcester Garden Club


Frances Clary Morse

Co-Founder of the Worcester Garden Club

Frances Clary Morse, founder and first president of the Worcester Garden Club, was born on January 28, 1855, in her family home at 57 Chatham Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although an inveterate traveler, the Chatham Street address remained home to her for seventy-five years, until her death on March 22, 1933.

Frances Morse’s heritage was distinguished; she included Quincy and Adams families among her forebears. Extensive genealogic material has been written on the family; some is held in the archives of Tower Hill Botanic Garden, but the larger portion is located at the New England Historic and Genealogic Society in Boston.

Parents of Miss Morse were Edwin A. Morse (1815 – 1891) and Abby M. Clary Goodhue (1812 – 1881), both of whom were widowed at the time of their marriage in 1848. Edwin Morse, a native of Andover, Vermont, came to Worcester in 1846. In time, he became one of the city’s leading citizens, serving as alderman, director of the First National Bank, president of the Mechanics Association, and trustee of the Worcester County Horticultural Society. He early became a skilled mechanic and in time a partner in Lathe and Morse, a machine tool business located at one time on Austin Street, within walking distance of his home.

The rise in wealth and prominence of Edwin Morse, one of thirteen children who left Vermont at the age of nineteen, was a Horatio Alger story that repeated itself often in the mid-nineteenth century. His energy and skill helped make Worcester one of the leading industrial cities of the northeast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Both Edwin Morse and his wife were dedicated horticulturists. Happily for them, the three quarters of an acre on which their home was build had been the site of a commercial nursery, and the rich soil in the family garden yielded prize-winning fruit and flowers for three-quarters of a century.

Unfortunately, no illustration has been found of 57 Chatham Street. However a photograph of the house next door at 53 Chatham Street reveals a glimpse of a three-story building with a steep mansard roof. Frances Morse’s book on furniture gives us two interior illustrations; one of the Morse genealogies describes the home as “a veritable museum of early American exhibits.” It continues, “The large music room is filled with fine pieces of old furniture…There are four bedrooms completely furnished in colonial pieces. The dining room, opening out of which is a small conservatory, is especially charming when the light is upon the precious china, furniture and silver together with a large collection of historical plates, all making a brilliant display of color.” The single photograph of 57 Chatham Street in the Morse file at the Worcester Historical Museum shows the house being demolished in 1934, one year after the death of Frances Morse.

Edwin Morse had had a son Edwin by his first marriage and two daughters with Abby Clary, Mary Alice and Frances, later known as Alice and Fanny. Edwin, Jr., took over his father’s business after being severely wounded at Gettysburg. His half-sisters achieved a modicum of fame in the days before publicity agents, from their writing and speaking engagements. Alice, who later married Henry Earle, wrote eighteen books on gardening, colonial life as well as one biography. Frances wrote only one book, Furniture of the Olden Time, which was monumental in its scope and authority.

The childhood of the Morse children touched on in Alice’s Old Time Gardens sounds idyllic. Gardens were a dominant feature in their young lives: their own large city garden, those of their kin folk and the many lush gardens that lined the neighboring streets. The family walked to the Congregational Church on Front Street twice on Sundays and cast critical glances at the floral displays along their route. Of interest to the Worcester Garden Club members would have been the extensive gardens of the Burnside sisters, which occupied two sides of Chatham Street. Harriet Burnside was the donor of the Burnside Memorial Fountain, the Boy with the Turtle, now on Worcester’s City Hall Common and maintained for many years by Worcester Garden Club volunteers.

One of the most delightful chapters in Alice Earle’s book on gardening is called “Childhood in a Garden.” Mrs. Earle believed that “for nothing is she more happy than to have been given a flower-loving mother and father.” She declared, “We are not born with intense enjoyment of nature, but it comes through rearing.” The garden was the center of the Morse children’s world. In winter it was the setting for snow forts, snow men, and skating at the bottom of the property, while in summer Mrs. Earle wrote, “the old fashioned garden was paradise for a child.” The Morse girls enjoyed quaint flower customs known to centuries of English-speaking children and new customs developed by the fitness of local flowers for games and plays.

Neither of the Morse women were college graduates. Both attended Worcester Classical and English High School on Walnut Street, where sessions, were held six days a week. Alice had two years at Gannett’s School for Young Ladies in Boston, but there is no evidence that Frances went beyond high school. Lack of higher degrees was not an impediment in the case of the Morse sisters. Their books reveal wide knowledge of English and American history, poetry, and literature. Indeed their research, pre-Google, was prodigious, to say the least. Both were incredibly intelligent, diligent, and witty authors.

In addition, the Morse sisters were trained musicians. Frances Morse’s front-page obituary in the Worcester Evening Gazette stated that she was “very well known as one of the best pianists in the city.” She and Alice Earle founded the Seidl Society, a group that held concerts with a minimum entrance fee for the benefit of the music-loving public.

Yet another talent shared by the sisters and carried on in the family was their ability to portray with accuracy and artistry the wide variety of perennials found in their gardens. A portfolio of the young Morse women’s water-colors, probably painted in their teens, or earlier, were drawn with such precision that professional horticulturists were able to identify each specimen in the collection. Frances Morse’s niece, Alice Earle Hyde, was responsible for the Hyde Chart of Wild Flowers, which first appeared in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and later reprinted by the Garden Club of America (1960).

In 1902, Macmillan Company published Frances Morse’s Furniture of the Olden Time. This book published when the author was forty-seven years old, represents a lifetime of collecting, travel, and research. Dedicated to her sister Alice, the book is divided into thirteen chapters, each of which examines a particular category of furniture made in America from its settlement to Victorian times (the latter period was ill-favored by Miss Morse). The closest the author comes to the Victorian period, which, after all, was the fashion during her lifetime, was an examination of Belter furniture. That, one presumes, was because she admired the elaborate carving, and the craftsmanship that characterized the style.

Furniture of the Olden Time is richly illustrated, having more than 420 photographs, fifty-one of which are pieces owned by the author. Another dozen or so belonged to family members and to the collections of the Worcester Art Museum and the American Antiquarian Society.

Miss Morse’s book was reviewed nationally in such diverse publications as House Beautiful, the Washington Times, and a notation on musical instruments found its way as far west as the Great Forks Daily Herald, in Utah. At the time of publication, there were few volumes dedicated to American furniture and fewer still extolling the collection of pieces made in the U.S. The great study collections such as that at Winterthur and the Mabel Brady Garvan collection at Yale were not available to the public at the time of Frances Morse’s book, so we can only be grateful that she had entrée into private holdings like that of Harry Harkness Flagler to examine the finest examples of the periods of interest to her. It is important to note that Frances Morse was able to view first-hand each piece that is illustrated in her book. Thus we have analysis of style, history, wood, cabinet maker (when known), and location at the time of publication.

Miss Morse’s enthusiasm for her subject is almost palpable when she reaches her ninth chapter, devoted to musical instruments. Her love of the piano and her interest in its forerunners is clearly evident. She begins with a description of spinets and virginals and concludes with an account of two Worcester harps, one played in the Unitarian Church and the other in the drawing room of Mrs. Reed Lawton. She takes the opportunity when writing on pianos to deprecate the massive, heavy-legged Victorian pianos that dominated American music rooms. Music was Frances Morse’s love; she relished fine instruments both for their beauty and their tone.

It was in this chapter on musical instruments that Miss Morse recounts one of the many charming anecdotes that liven her book. “In 1722,” she writes, “the forte piano is become so popular that few polite families in the United States are without it. So popular did the piano become that sober-minded people were alarmed. ‘God grant,’ exclaimed on horrified individual ‘that Boston women may never, like those in France, acquire the malady of perfection of this art! It is never attained but at the expense of the domestic virtues.’”

Every aspect of cabinet-making was the interest of the author; the study of the use of wood must have been of all-consuming interest. But it was not only material used to make furniture but every other feature of a piece was evaluated with a connoisseur’s eye for detail. Who knew that there are more than a dozen leg-endings on period furniture? Frances Morse gives the reader this information as well as other arcane details about the back of brass handles that help experts determine date, cabinet maker, and country of origin of the works she describes.

At the time of publication of Furniture of Olden Time, Frances Morse had to rely on primary sources for her research. She was essentially a pioneer in the field. It will interest Worcester readers to know that the early edition of Chippendale’s The Gentleman’s and Cabinet-maker’s Directory is held in the collection of the Worcester Public Library. In her day, the library was on Elm Street, a short walk from her home. In days of yore, the Directory circulated. No more.

Frances Morse’s book includes a helpful glossary of terms used in cabinet work and a complete listing and location of the furniture illustrated in her volume. I seriously doubt that such information would be available today.

Furniture of Olden Time was reprinted five times after its first appearance in 1902. In 1911, the author revised her book with new illustrations and an added chapter. The book was reissued in 1936 and reprinted in 1937. Most recently, in September of 2010, a paperback edition was promoted by rare-book publisher Kessinger. Alas for the posthumous pride of the author. The quality of the printing and the design of the covers have been in steady decline from the first elegant Chippendale design on the 1902 limited edition to the dreary, uninspired paperback cover in 2010. The original book sold for three dollars; the paperback is now available for ten times that sum.

The twenty-first century reader must stand in awe of Miss Morse and her splendid book. In her writing and those of her sister we have glimpses of the tribulations of a collector in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She recounts tales of climbing atop a bureau to reach a piece in an attic; another time she spotted a Hepplewhite table under oil cloth, serving the needs of a kitchen. Much of her travel would have been pre-automobile, so her frequent and fruitful jaunts through the countryside would have been made by horse and cart. In the cities, there would have been electric trolleys and trains. Almost all of her travels for her book were along the eastern seaboard from New England towns to Virginia and North Carolina. Think of the scheduling and correspondence involved – indomitable lady.

It was after the completion of her book on furniture that Miss Morse and her widowed sister began their international travel. They made three round-the-world trips, one of which was a year and a half in duration. It was at the beginning of their last trip together on the liner “RMS Republic” that the sisters came close to death when the vessel was rammed midship off Nantucket, in January 1909. Alice Morse was twice submerged in the icy Atlantic water and had to be rescued by a sailor’s grappling hook. Alice never recovered her health, dying two years later, at age 59, in February 1911.

The impetus for the founding of the Worcester Garden Club came after a meeting of the Worcester County Horticultural society when Miss Morse and Gertrude Clarke Whittall (another powerhouse) concluded that there was a need for an organization that addressed the gardening concerns of Worcester women. Perhaps, too, they had read of the successes of the Garden Club of America that had been founded in Philadelphia in 1913. In any event, the two formidable ladies plunged into action and within a month had assembled twelve like-minded women for a meeting at 57 Chatham Street. Membership was not for the faint of heart; attendance was taken and recorded at every meeting, and hostesses were not permitted to cancel a meeting because of inclement weather, a challenge because many of the meetings were in the county towns. Frances Morse served the first two-year term as president, before turning the gavel over to her co-founder Mrs. Whittall.

Frances Morse died on March 22, 1933, leaving a legacy of service to her community as well as a reputation as one of the nation’s leading authorities on America furniture. In addition to generous bequests to her nieces, nephews, and servants, she left substantial monetary gifts to the Worcester Historical Society and the Animal Rescue League. She also made contributions of furniture, pewter, and Staffordshire plates to the Worcester Historical Society. A collection of Staffordshire, at one time considered the largest in the county had been given by her step-brother Edwin Morse and his wife Emma de Forest Morse to the American Antiquarian Society. It was left to Frances Morse to arrange the collection around the walls of the office of the Curator of Graphic Arts. That collection has since been moved to the Society Council Room, which also houses furniture illustrated in Frances Morse’s book.