This month we profile Margaret Lancaster, THC’s first woman president (a timely election-year topic) and a significant figure in the evolution of garden clubs and federations.
The first woman to serve as president of the Club was Margaret Caldwell Lancaster, a garden planner and landscaper who was a vigorous and effective part of the Garden Club movement which appeared early in the 20th Century.1 Miss Lancaster moved to Takoma Park in 1921, living on Harlan Street NW in the District until her death in 1970. Originally from New York and New Jersey, she had majored in Fine Arts at Syracuse University, and studied landscape design at Cornell and at the Ambler School.2 Interviewed much later by a Takoma Park journalist,3 she spoke about the Club and the local garden club scene of that time. “When I first joined [THC], it was composed mostly of men, many of whom were professionals in gardening, connected with the Department of Agriculture. Women were more or less endured as members…it was predominantly a man’s organization. Of course, even though the men considered themselves the gardeners, I believe it was the women who did most of the actual work.
“You can imagine what a unique honor it was to become the first woman president in an organization like that…It was a thrill, too. Of course, I had to work my way up to the job…before becoming president I had served as chairman of almost every committee, assisted with practically every flower show we held, and reached the presidency step by step from landscape gardener [an elected club office], to treasurer, to secretary, to vice-president and then to the top job.”4 She was elected President for the year 1926.
“The Club was one of the best-known garden clubs in the country because so many of our members who worked for the government in the fields of horticulture and agriculture… would be transferred to other locations and would start clubs in their new communities.” Miss Lancaster began to work with garden clubs in Westchester County, N.Y. where she used to speak to gardening groups. After coming to Washington, she spent a great deal of time organizing new clubs in Maryland, Virginia, and the District: “the Chevy Chase- D.C. Garden Club, the Neighborhood Garden Club of Arlington… others in northern Virginia, and many women’s club garden groups.“
“While all the local interest [in gardening groups] was springing up in the early ’30s, I called a meeting of clubs in the area and organized them into the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs (NCAFGC), the fourth of its kind in the country….I also helped organize the Pennsylvania and Connecticut groups into state federations,” she said. “There were just a few. Now the number of federations is well over 40.” The next move was to band these into a national organization, a project that took about two years but culminated in “a wonderful three-day session here in Washington, and we organized the National Council of State Garden Club Federations, now a powerful influence among gardeners in this country.”
Other roles were Accredited Flower Show Judge (she organized a school for judges in the District Federation), National Council Landscape Appraiser, writer, speaker, and holder of several offices in the Council. She is credited with helping move the Council to undertake the Fern Valley Planting at the National Arboretum. She was also active in many plant societies.
Of the gardening scene of the time, she said “I believe the rising interest in gardening stems from the pride people are taking in the development of their home grounds. It is also good relaxation and whether they admit it or not, most people like to work with their hands [in a type of work different from what most do in their regular jobs]…and there is a feeling of competition present as everyone tries to raise more and better flowers.” As a consultant, she specialized in ‘average size gardens for the average family’: “Although infinitely harder to plan than a large one, it presents a greater challenge in design, minimum of maintenance, with a maximum of beauty and all-year-‘round enjoyment.“5
In 1984, fourteen years after her death, the Executive Board of the NCAFGC approved a fund to commemorate her work in promoting the NCAFGC and other federations of gardening groups, saying that her influence led the National Council to become part of “one of the great movements of the twentieth century in America.”6 —Diane Svenonius
1 The Philadelphia Garden Club was founded in 1904; in 1913 12 eastern clubs formed the Garden Club of America.
2 Founded and underwritten by women in 1910 as the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, to provide women with “the practical education they needed to pursue careers in horticulture and landscape architecture,” it eventually merged with Temple University.
3 “The Town… and the People,” by Allen Scott, undated copy archived at Historic Takoma, Inc.
4 THC End-of-year meeting minutes, 1921 – 25, archived at Historic Takoma Inc.