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The Roots of Arbor Day

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Almost a century before the first Earth Day (in 1970), Nebraskans were celebrating their popular tree planting holiday, Arbor Day. Here's the story of the early conservationist experiment that helped bring 19th-century environmentalism into public view.

Treehuggers of the World, Unite!

Arbor Day is now observed throughout the U.S. and around the world, on dates that differ from region to region, according to bureaucratic technicalities and seasonal variations. Florida and Louisiana bury their seeds as early as the third Friday of January; in South Carolina it is the first Friday of December; and in Hawaii the beginning of November. National Arbor Day claims the last Friday of April, and most temperate states conform to the Feds. But it all began in Nebraska, the Tree Planter and Cornhusker State -- and before they fell in line with the National date, Nebraskans celebrated their great tree planting holiday on the birthday of its illustrious founder: April 22nd.

Julius Sterling Morton, the Conservative Conservationist

morgan.jpgJulius Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a determined and industrious public man with a handsome mustache. Morton moved to Nebraska during its territorial days and served in the legislature, even spent a stint as governor. After Nebraska's entrance into the Union he continued pursuing public office -- efforts that generally failed but kept him in the game -- until Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of Agriculture in 1893. But that was after Morton had already made a name for himself in Nebraska as an agrarian reformer and tree planting advocate.

Julius Morton was hardly a "treehugger," according to the modern stereotype. He was a fervid conservative -- unwavering enough in this identity to establish a political journal titled, quite simply, The Conservative -- and a dedicated Democrat in an era when it was the Democratic party that ridiculed "elites," championed business interests, and resisted taxation.

As you can imagine, then, there was no Druidic spiritualism underlying Morton's enthusiasm for trees. During the late 19th century, American proto-environmentalism roughly split between the "conservationists," who promoted the sustainable development and utilization of natural resources, and "preservationists" like John Muir, who valued wilderness as a good in itself and opposed landscape blights like mines and dams whether they were "sustainable" or not. Morton's sensibility aligned with the conservationists: He was an enthusiastic proponent of railroads and rural development who also argued that stable progress must take environmental concerns into account -- and he considered deforestation one of the most significant threats to the well-being of Nebraska and the Nation.

How Trees Can Save America

Morton believed that more trees in Nebraska would offer relief from swift winds, secure topsoil, conserve moisture, discourage erosion, and generally improve the state's agriculture for current and future generations. So in early 1872, while working for a Nebraska newspaper, he proposed Arbor Day, "to urge upon the people of the state the vital importance of tree planting." That April saw the first observance of Morton's holiday in Nebraska. With a few cash rewards offered to goad the masses into picking up their shovels, about a million trees were planted in a single day, they say. The people loved the idea -- and many loved Morton for it. So in a short time, Nebraskans settled the date of their Arbor Day on Julius Morton's birthday, April 22.

Within decades the successful Arbor Day tradition had spread to other states. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, who framed tree planting as a kind of nationalistic duty: "A people without children," he wrote, "would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless."

Drafting Preteens for Tree Planting

Morton was not alone in his arboreal enthusiasms. At the time there were a number of prominent activists specifically devoted to trees -- among them the Doctor of Divinity Birdsey Grant Northrop, who was out preaching the practical and aesthetic virtues of the tree well before Arbor Day. When news of Morton's tree planting day reached the East, Northrop grasped the torch and carried Arbor Day to the next level: schoolchildren. 

It was certainly sensible to recruit young backs and enthusiastic minds for altruistic unpaid labor; Northrop also considered it right and proper to teach our youth the scientific benefits of "arboriculture," since he believed, like Morton and Roosevelt, that the fate of the nation depended on the quality of its groves. After the success of Northrop's tireless advocacy, pointing out the many educational opportunities in tree planting, elementary schoolchildren have arguably constituted the very lifeblood of Arbor Day -- as is the case with so many non-bank holidays.

Arbor Day and the Fate of Civilization

Both Morton and Dr. Northrop were activists under the influence of George Perkins Marsh -- a devastatingly talented Vermonter who had already succeeded as a linguistic scholar (familiar with 20 languages), Congressman, public conservationist, minister to Turkey, and ambassador to the new Kingdom of Italy before publishing his best known work, Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, in 1864.

Man and Nature is considered the first book to systematically examine the long-term impact of human practices on the natural environment -- and, in a tone we're all familiar with in the Global Warming Era, Marsh predicted catastrophe. Long before Jared Diamond's bestselling Collapse, Marsh concluded that the fall of the Roman Empire was the result of poor land management techniques. And he feared that America could repeat the error, unless changes were made.

Marsh advocated reforestation as one vital component in a total overhaul of civilization's relation to nature. His work is credited as a foundational text that spread environmentalist sympathies (and the love of trees) beyond the literary Romantics and Transcendentalists and into the political realm. Arbor Day did the same.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Fake It Until You Make It: 10 Artificial Ruins
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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The love of ruins, sometimes called ruinophilia, has for centuries inspired the creation of clever fakes—a host of sham facades and hollowed-out castle shells found on grand English, European, and even American estates. The popularity of constructing artificial ruins was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, but architects occasionally still incorporate them today.

Why build a structure that is already crumbling? Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the popularity of counterfeit ruins was influenced by two factors—a classical education that enforced the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and the extended tour of Europe (known as The Grand Tour) that well-to-do young men and women took after completing their education. Travelers might start in London or France and roam as far as the Middle East, but the trip almost always included Italy and a chance to admire Roman ruins. More than a few wealthy travelers returned home longing to duplicate those ruins, either to complement a romantic landscape, to demonstrate wealth, or to provide a pretense of family history for the newly rich.

Here are a few romantic ruins constructed between the 18th and 21st centuries.


Sham Castle (shown above) is aptly named—it’s only a façade. The "castle," overlooking the English city of Bath, was created in 1762 to improve the view for Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as to provide jobs for local stonemasons. From a distance it looks like a castle ruin, but it's merely a wall that has two three-story circular turrets and a two-story square tower at either end. The castle is not the only folly (as such purely decorative architecture is often called) that Allen built. He also constructed a sham bridge on Serpentine Lake in what is now Prior Park Landscape Garden—the bridge can't be crossed, but provides a nice focal point for the lake. Today, Sham Castle is part of a private golf course.


Building a structure that looks as if it's crumbling does not preclude having to perform regular maintenance. The four-story Gothic tower known as Wimpole Folly in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, England, was built 1768-72 for Philip Yorke, first Earl of Hardwicke and owner of the Wimpole Estate. Owned by Britain’s National Trust, the ruin threatened to truly crumble a few years ago, so restoration efforts were needed. The last restoration was so well done it won the 2016 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. The Wimpole Estate is now open to the public for walks and hikes.


Capel Manor at Bulls Cross, Enfield, England has been the site of several grand homes since the estate’s first recorded mention in the 13th century, so visitors might be tempted to believe that the manor house's ruins date back at least a few centuries. But that sense of history is an illusion: The faux 15th-century house was built in 2010 to add visual appeal to the manor gardens, which have been open to the public since the 1920s.


The Roman Ruin was built as a garden ornament for the 1441-room Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, one of the most important monuments in Austria. The ruin was once called The Ruins of Carthage, after the ancient North African city defeated by Roman military force. But despite the illusion of antiquity, the ruins were created almost 2000 years after Carthage fell in 146 B.C.E. The ruin’s rectangular pool, framed by an intricate semi-circle arch, was designed in 1778 by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who modeled it on the Ancient Roman temple of Vespasian and Titus, which he had seen an engraving of.


One of the earliest examples of artificial ruins in Germany was the complex of structures known as The Ruinenberg. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had a summer palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, that was said to rival Versailles. In 1748 Frederick commissioned a large fountain for the palace complete with artificial ruins. The waterworks part of his plan proved too difficult and was soon abandoned, but not before designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff constructed the ruins. The complex includes Roman pillars, a round temple, and the wall of a Roman theatre. Since 1927 the site has belonged to the Prussian Gardens and Palaces Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg.


Elegant Parc Monceau is located in the fashionable 8th arrondissement of Paris near the Champs-Elysees and Palais de l’Elysée. In 1778, the Duke of Chartres decided to build a mansion on land previously used for hunting. He loved English architecture and gardens, including the notion of nostalgic ruins, so he hired the architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to create an extravagant park complete with a Roman temple, antique statues, a Chinese bridge, a farmhouse, a Dutch windmill, a minaret, a small Egyptian pyramid, and some fake gravestones. The most notable feature of the park is a pond surrounded by Corinthian columns, now known as Colonnade de Carmontelle.


The ruins of the medieval castle at Hagley Park in Worcestershire are definitely fake, but they were built with debris from the real ruin of a neighboring abbey. The folly was commissioned by Sir George Lyttelton in 1747 and designed by Sanderson Miller, an English pioneer of Gothic revival architecture. The castle has a round tower at each corner, but by design only one is complete and decorated inside with a coat of arms. The grounds, which also feature a temple portico inspired by an ancient Greek temple, some urns, and obelisks, are now privately owned and not open to the public.


French architect Charles de Moreau (1758-1841) was a scholar of classical Roman architecture known for his ability to counterfeit impressive ruins. Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy of Hungary, hired him to work on Tata Castle and to create the ruins of a Romanesque church for the palace’s English Garden. Even though the ruin Moreau created was fake, he built it with the stones of a real ruin, the remnants of the early-12th-century Benedictine and later Dominican abbey of Vértesszőlős. A third-century ancient Roman tombstone and relief were placed nearby.


Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the mid-1800s, and their plan for creating romantic vistas included the construction of a folly known as Belvedere Castle. The Gothic-Romanesque style hybrid, overlooking Central Park’s Great Lawn, was completed in 1869. Although the folly was designed as a hollow shell and meant to be a ruin, it eventually served a practical purpose, housing a weather bureau and exhibit space. The castle also provides a beautiful backdrop for Shakespeare in the Park productions, evoking the royal homes that play prominent roles in the Bard’s works.


In a borough known for its real historic buildings, the ancient wall found in London’s Barking Town Square might look centuries old. It’s not, and ironically, the wall is part of the square’s renovation efforts. The wall was built by bricklaying students at Barking College using old bricks and crumbling stone items found at salvage yards. Known as the "Secret Garden," named after the children’s book about a walled garden, the wall was designed to screen a nearby supermarket and was unveiled in 2007.

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IA Collaborative
Lovely Vintage Manuals Show How to Design for the Human Body
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IA Collaborative

If you're designing something for people to hold and use, you probably want to make sure that it will fit a normal human. You don't want to make a cell phone that people can't hold in their hands (mostly) or a vacuum that will have you throwing out your back every time you clean the house. Ergonomics isn't just for your office desk setup; it's for every product you physically touch.

In the mid-1970s, the office of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created a series of manuals for designers working on products that involved the human body. And now, the rare Humanscale manuals from Henry Dreyfuss Associates are about to come back into print with the help of a Kickstarter campaign from a contemporary design firm. Using the work of original Henry Dreyfuss Associates designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the guides are getting another life with the help of the Chicago-based design consultancy IA Collaborative.

A Humanscale page illustrates human strength statistics.

The three Humanscale Manuals, published between 1974 and 1981 but long out-of-print, covered 18 different types of human-centric design categories, like typical body measurements, how people stand in public spaces, how hand and foot controls should work, and how to design for wheelchair users within legal requirements. In the mid-20th century, the ergonomics expertise of Dreyfuss and his partners was used in the development of landmark products like the modern telephones made by Bell Labs, the Polaroid camera, Honeywell's round thermostat, and the Hoover vacuum.

IA Collaborative is looking to reissue all three Humanscale manuals which you can currently only find in their printed form as historic documents in places like the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. IA Collaborative's Luke Westra and Nathan Ritter worked with some of the original designers to make the guides widely available again. Their goal was to reprint them at a reasonable price for designers. They're not exactly cheap, but the guides are more than just pretty decor for the office. The 60,000-data-point guides, IA Collaborative points out, "include metrics for every facet of human existence."

The manuals come in the form of booklets with wheels inside the page that you spin to reveal standards for different categories of people (strong, tall, short, able-bodied, men, women, children, etc.). There are three booklets, each with three double-sided pages, one for each category. For instance, Humanscale 1/2/3 covers body measurements, link measurements, seating guide, seat/table guide, wheelchair users, and the handicapped and elderly.

A product image of the pages from Humanscale Manual 1/2/3 stacked in a row.

"All products––from office chairs to medical devices—require designs that 'fit' the end user," according to Luke Westra, IA Collective's engineering director. "Finding the human factors data one needs to achieve these ‘fits' can be extremely challenging as it is often scattered across countless sources," he explains in a press release, "unless you've been lucky enough to get your hands on the Humanscale manuals."

Even setting aside the importance of the information they convey, the manuals are beautiful. Before infographics were all over the web, Henry Dreyfuss Associates were creating a huge compendium of visual data by hand. Whether you ever plan to design a desk chair or not, the manuals are worthy collectors' items.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from July 25 to August 24. The three booklets can be purchased individually ($79) or as a full set ($199).

All images courtesy IA Collaborative


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