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Articles » Enthusiasm Led the Way: The Reverend William T. Hutchins and the sweet pea
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(This essay will appear in the National Sweet Pea Annual for 2008)

Sweet peas were all the rage in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries both in the United Kingdom and the United States. In Britain the unassuming plant had been largely ignored until James Carter won a certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1866 for ‘Invincible Carmine’. This was the first time a sweet pea had received such a prize and people took notice. (1)

Suddenly the situation was sparked by the energy and imagination of Henry Eckford. He was a Scot from Midlothian who moved south with an employer and then branched out for himself in Shropshire. The tiny town of Wem became almost synonymous with sweet peas. Its horticultural society still has an annual sweet pea festival in his name.

Eckford’s ‘Grandiflora’ series began a sort of floral revolution. An exceedingly modest but very fragrant flower now carried large handsome blossoms in a whole new range of colors. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded Eckford a first prize in 1882 for ‘Bronze Prince’.

Part of how the fever spread to the United States was due to tireless promotion by an obscure Massachusetts clergyman, the Reverend William T. Hutchins. In reading the literature of the period Reverend Hutchins keeps popping up all over the place. A booster and camp-follower, he travelled to meet the luminaries of the field and he frequently wrote about the flower. Hutchins intrigued me and I set out to learn whatever I could about him.

The first known book devoted to sweet peas in the United States was Hutchins’ All About Sweet Peas: an art monograph, published in 1892 by the Burpee Seed Company. (2) In 1897, he brought out Sweet Peas Up-to-Date, also published by Burpee. (3) The firm sent out 50,000 copies of the first book. It is uncertain whether he received any payment for these books.

The books were a promotion for the seed company rather than a pure scholarly exercise and were illustrated by black and white line drawings.


(Caption: ‘The Senator’, from Reverend William T. Hutchins’ All About Sweet Peas 1892. Reproduced by permission of the Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University)

L odoratus ‘The Senator’, picture of a living flower, reproduced by permission of P.E.M. Rowland of Owl’s Acre.

The sweet peas developed by Burpee are prominently mentioned. One of the news items in the Springfield, Massachusetts press of the time notes he went to England on behalf of the Burpee company in 1895, to meet Henry Eckford.

Hutchins continued to promote Burpee ” our American novelties are not only equal to Mr Eckford’s best work but have the advantage of stronger, well-acclimated seed, and of being offered in more liberal packets and for one-fourth the price of the imported sealed packets.” He waxed almost lyrical about Burpee’s introduction of the first dwarf cultivar, ‘Cupid’ in 1893. This was a sport of ‘Emily Henderson’ and originally found by C. C. Morse. At almost the same time Ernst Benary in Germany also found a dwarf sport. At first he called it ‘Tom Thumb’ but later switched to ‘ Cupid’ too.

Hutchins experimented with sweet peas himself. He produced ‘Daybreak’ and some other useful cultivars. Liberty Hyde Bailey, the dean of horticulture at Cornell, commented that Hutchins had explained how modern sweet peas had evolved, in a graphic form. A large quantity of the seed used in the trials at Cornell in 1896 came from Hutchins.

William Tucker Hutchins was born in Massachusetts in January 1849. He died at his own hand in February, 1917.

His father James was a cabinet maker who had worked in various communities. At the outbreak of the Civil War they were in Illinois. One of his brothers also became a minister. His oldest sister Adelaide married Henry Sykes, a prosperous Connecticut farmer.

William may not have known what he wanted to do with his life until quite late. In 1870 the census listed him as a “labourer” on the Sykes farm, but in 1876 he was graduated from Yale University.

All the surviving anecdotes indicate a man with a very engaging personality, full of enthusiasm. He had a beautiful garden in Indian Orchard which he opened to the public when the flowers were at their peak. As soon as he found sweet peas he was enchanted for life.

In 1950, Charles H. Curtis wrote: “Fifty years ago a parson from Indiana (sic) Orchard, Massachusetts, stood on the platform in the Lecture Hall of the Crystal Palace. He was the Rev. W.T. Hutchins, an enthusiastic grower of Sweet peas, who had a voice as sweet and pervasive as the fragrance of his subject. I can hear him now.” (4) Hutchins had been invited to attend the Sweet Pea bicentenary celebrations on July 20 and 21, 1900 at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham.

Curtis recorded more of what Hutchins had said: “the Sweet Pea has migrated, and now America not only desires to pay her debt with interest to Great Britain, but would be glad to put a liberal row of Sweet Peas into every garden on the face of the earth”. Hutchins ended by proclaiming that the flower has a “fragrance like the Universal Gospel, yes a sweet prophesy of welcome everywhere that has been abundantly fulfilled”.

In spite of these strengths he wrote to his friend Nelson Adams in 1909 “I feel impatient to have the years speed on, that I may go to a more congenial world” and continued in even more despairing tones. One can only imagine how he felt during the dark days of the First World War. America did not formally enter the war until 1917 but the public was very much aware of it.

He and his wife Charlotte, (née Hills) who was a little older than he was, had two children. After they were married in 1876, they lived in Ohio with Charlotte’s parents. Their elder son William H. was born in 1878. He also went to Yale. This young man was probably too old to serve in the First World War. There is no further reference to the second child beyond the fact of its birth.

As he grew older, he left the stable world of Indian Orchard and its congregation. In 1903 he went to Northampton, MA, in some pastoral capacity. He also served a term as “cor sec” (presumably corresponding secretary) at the Springfield Ethical Union.

Doctrinal differences lay behind his moves. The Springfield press has several articles about the serious problem which arose when he announced he no longer believed in miracles or in the divinity of Jesus. The Congregational authorities sent a deputation to his house (in the charming words of the day they “waited on him”), to call upon him to retire from this ministry. His new views were not compatible with the church’s teachings. Because he was so amiable everything was done in the most conciliatory manner possible.

At one point he was known to have been a Unitarian minister. He drifted out to California and in 1910 was living in a rooming house in Santa Rosa. Hutchins went to see Luther Burbank. He was very much alone. His final home was in Francestown, New Hampshire.

One topic which is not mentioned is his financial circumstances. None of the positions he held were very lucrative but a shortage of money does not seem to have been a problem. William was able to educate his son at Yale and possibly support the latter as he tried to become an artist. He could have inherited money from his father or Burpee may have paid him an honorarium.

Hutchins introduced the work of Henry Eckford to the United States. He was the go-between for Eckford and James Breck, the Boston nurseryman. As word of Eckford’s improved varieties reached the U.S., American nurserymen wanted to stock them. Communications may not have been instantaneous in the1890s but they were certainly swift enough and efficient.

Hutchins visited California more than once, to see the growing fields and report back. He was very fond of Morse and Burpee, commenting in his reminiscences which appeared posthumously “that two such men as Lester Morse and W. Atlee Burpee should have plighted their troth to this lovely flower will always be a veritable romance in its history.” (5) In another section he referred to them both as “beautiful men”.

He traced the source of his excitement about the flower to the really fine sweet peas grown by the former mayor of Newton Highland in Massachusetts, J. F.C. Hyde, in1881. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society had been giving prizes for sweet peas a long time before others followed suit. Hutchins was invited to give a special lecture to the society in the early 1890s. He also entered 100 vases of flowers in their show.

As a conscientious clergyman he decided to use the sweet peas to raise money for the Missionary Society, starting in 1890. He sold sweet pea seeds and donated the proceeds to the mission fund.

The Reverend Hutchins’ death must have been very distressing for his family. He shot himself while visiting one of his sisters in New Haven. Hutchins decided to do thi while in an undertaking establishment. He left a note indicating he thought he was losing his mind. About 12 years before he had had a “nervous breakdown”, the old term for an acute depression. His wife had died of chronic renal failure in 1903.

We shall not see his like again. Customs and behavior have changed. His odd combination of naiveté and astuteness, the idealistic streak which let him down at some point, all tend to be wrung out of us as we grow up nowadays.

The extraordinary generosity of Keith Hammett, horticulturist and sweet pea expert in New Zealand, Roger Parsons, sweet pea expert in England, and Maggie Humberston, librarian of the Connecticut Valley Historical Museums in Springfield, MA, made it possible for the author to prepare this note. Without them it would not have happened. The archivist at Yale University, Steven Ross provided me with a mass of information about Hutchins’ career at Yale.

  • Rice, Graham 2003 The Sweet Pea Book Portland, Oregon Timber Press
  • Curtis, Charles 1950 Sweet Pea Annual
  • Hutchins,William T. 1892 All About Sweet Peas Philadelphia, Pennsylvania W. A. Burpee
  • Hutchins, William T. 1918 (posthumous) Some Reminscences (reproduced from the American Sweet Pea Bulletin) Sweet Pea Annual pp. 12-14
  • Hutchins, William T. 1897 Sweet Peas Up to Date Philadelphia, Pennsylvania W. A. Burpee
  • Sweet Pea Annuals 1903 to 1920