The Spread of Beautification

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Shocked by the loss of the frontier, rapid urbanization, and immigration at close of the nineteenth century, reformers, often middle-class and upper middle-class white men and women, combined concerns about municipal congestion with fears over the despoliation of natural spaces into a broad environmental awareness in the Progressive Era. These reformers understood (or believed they understood) a relationship between the physical environment and human behavior and they sought to manage space to create a better society.

In the Progressive Era, groups such as the American Civic Association (ACA) provided crucial support to grassroots campaigns designed to improve both the rural and urban environment. Led by J. Horace McFarland, an advocate for urban beautification and conservation, the ACA provided a crucial forum to bridged gap between ideology and action for reformers concerned about the environment.  Indeed, McFarland’s work helped to define the tension between preserving and the wise use of natural space in the United States. McFarland’s life as a reformer began with an interest in nature and photography that grew from his formal training as a printer. Educated in his father’s print shop from a young age, McFarland combined photography with a practical need to provide good illustrations for seed books. Not well known today, McFarland activism in the Progressive Era garnered him the title of “Mr. City Beautiful” and recognition as an advocate of country life reform. By understanding McFarland’s ideology, we can gain a better understanding of the civic movement that promoted planning, beauty, and efficiency in the United States.

This class project is part of a broad exploration of Progressive Era planning by Dr. Julian Chambliss.  In this projects,  students in HIS 143: United States History, 1877 to Present are exploring the link between ideology and action in the early twentieth century. In pursuing environmental reform conflicting views over the government’s role was a common theme.  Regardless of the locale (city or country) reformers sought to promote improvement and strove for means to achieve that end. In doing so, they openly debated the parameters of a new regulatory regime and struggled to define the meaning of the “public welfare” in modern society.

A prolific writer, J. Horace McFarland became a columnist for the Ladies Home Journal (LHJ) in 1904.  This position allowed him to articulate his belief related to urban and rural reform for a national audience. The broad beautification agenda he crafted in “Beautiful America,” the name given to his column, began with a love of nature and easily flowed to civic betterment. As he explained in his first column in January 1904, “We need to realize that God placed man first in a garden, where was caused to grow ‘every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.’ Please notice that beauty came even before food in Eden. And while we cannot restore man to the garden, we can, if re will, make the city garden-like, and we can place before every dweller in this broad land something that is ‘pleasant to the sight,’ and thus good for the beauty-soul.

In this project, students analyzed the Beautiful America column to understand how McFarland’s view of urban beautification and conservation affected communities across the United States. Each student is examining a column for answers, questions, and proclamations. Answers refer to replies made by McFarland to questions posed by readers. Questions are queries generated by readers that McFarland incorporates into his column. Proclamations are statements made by McFarland concerning planning and beautification that reflect calls for greater public activism. By identifying these categories and mapping them, we can begin to understand the interplay between ideology and grassroots activism linked to reformers and organization in the early Twentieth century.

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