The cover of a new book on the Philadelphia Flower Show.

The cover of a new book on the Philadelphia Flower Show.

by Barbara Sherf

Chestnut Hillers are featured prominently throughout the 128 pages of a just released book, “The Philadelphia Flower Show,” that looks back over the storied history of the famous Philadelphia exhibition.

On a preview tour, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Steve Maurer noted that the show dated back to 1829 when it was held at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street, a building that eventually burned down.

“I think it cost something like 35 cents to get in,” he noted, as longtime exhibitors like Robertson’s Flowers and Burke Brothers, both of Wyndmoor, scurried to put the final touches on their displays for this year’s “ARTiculture” theme.

The entrance garden of ARTiculture is inspired by the paintings and sculptures of Alexander “Sandy” Calder, a member of the noted family of artists whose works are found throughout Philadelphia. A vertical dance troupe periodically performs above the entrance within the multi-dimensional display.

Following last year’s show, representatives of Arcadia Publishing approached PHS officials to put together a book on the history of the show as part of the firm’s “Images of America” series. The task fell on the shoulders of Janet Evans, senior library manager, who has been with the organization since 1986.

“We pulled together press clippings and earlier ephemera before the official programs were published from the 1960s through the 90s,” she said. “We also consulted our annual reports which helped me piece together the puzzle.”

The book features 200 images, bringing back memories of when the show was at the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia, and even before that when it was held in a series of three Horticultural Halls built by PHS.

“There are black-and-white images of longtime exhibitors like Robertson’s and the Wissahickon Garden Club, who continue to be active in the show,” Evans said.

Evans said she learned a lot about the late Ernesta Ballard of Chestnut Hill, who rescued the Flower Show in the 1960s when attendance hit a low of 66,000.

“In fact, one of the things I learned in researching the book was that was it was really Ernesta Ballard who put together and entered a horticultural collection in ‘56 that stunned everybody,” Evans said. “We had artistic and garden classes, but not a horticultural class, and she got it going with a modest 70 entries to what we now see upwards of 2,000 entries on each of the three entry days.”

Evans also researched the contribution of Sarah Groome, a longtime artistic class exhibitor who held sessions for new exhibitors in her Chestnut Hill home.

“She wrote a book titled ‘Today’s Flower Arranging Without Tears’ that we still have on our shelves – it’s a wonderful book,” Evans added. “Chestnut Hillers like former Flower Show Chair Mary Hyndman and George Clark are in there.

“And now there is PHS president Drew Becher who lives in Chestnut Hill. I think your readers would relate to many of the images, Chestnut Hillers continue to support the show in so many ways.”

“The Philadelphia Flower Show” (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99) can be purchased at the PHS library, 100 N. 10th St.; at PHS’s Meadowbrook Farm in Abington; online at; and at the PHS shop at the show, to be held through March 9 at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets. It will have an initial printing of 1,500. Information:

Barbara Sherf is a personal historian and gardener. She can be reached at or 215.990.9317.

  • Alexa

    When was the Masonic Hall burned down