Cultivating the Trained Hand and Mind: The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women
Updated: Apr 4
Founded in 1911, the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (PSHW) was one of the first schools of its kind in the nation. Its founder, Jane Bowne Haines, was inspired by the horticultural training programs for women in England and Germany, and sought to establish an institution that would enable women to take their place in the male-dominated field of practical horticulture. She purchased 71 acres of farmland north of Philadelphia, recruited an all-women board of trustees, and hired her first instructors. On February 11, 1911, the school’s first five students made history as they began their instruction.
To give this event some historical context: the school was founded during America’s Progressive Era, a period stretching roughly from 1890 to 1920 that was characterized by widespread social activism and political reform. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was gaining steam, though women wouldn’t secure the vote until nearly a decade after those first few students arrived at PSHW. Rapid industrialization was transforming American cities, but work opportunities for women beyond secretarial roles and factory jobs were scarce.
It’s impossible to know what prompted the school’s first students to enroll in the brand new institution, but I imagine they were deeply impacted by the social and political climate of the time. Perhaps they were also inspired by women like Beatrix Farrand, who was gaining prominence as an American landscape architect, and who would later be commissioned to design the pavilions of a formal garden on the PSHW campus.
Haines was adamant that the students at PSHW learn not only in the classroom but also in the field, using both their brains and bodies to develop confidence in a wide range of horticultural pursuits. Each school day began at 7:30am and ended at 5:30pm. During that time, the students would split their time between classroom learning and hands-on work in horticulture, botany, orchard care, and livestock management. They learned to keep bees and tend a flock of chickens. Early students also helped to lay the groundwork and plant the first gardens on campus.
The school also offered opportunities for students to build leadership and entrepreneurial skills. The women of PSHW sold the honey, apple cider, and eggs they produced at local markets, and published a magazine, The Farmers Digest, which gained international readership. They competed in livestock shows and took trips to conferences and garden tours in Philadelphia, salt marshes on the New Jersey coast, and the woods of the Poconos.
During World War I, many students volunteered to grow and can extra produce to feed soldiers and citizens. The school expanded its agricultural training program in response to new interest in growing food following the war. Just a few decades later, in World War II, PSHW students and graduates contributed to the war effort by joining the Women’s Land Army, using their horticultural skills to help address the country’s shortage of agricultural labor. Others managed victory gardens to supplement household food rations, and healing gardens for soldiers returning home.
It was also on the grounds of PSHW that the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association was founded in 1914. The professional society, still in existence today, had within its mission the goal to inspire women to enter the fields of agriculture and horticulture, something clearly aligned with the heart of PSHW.
The school operated independently for over forty-five years. In 1958, PSHW merged with Temple University and became known as Ambler Junior College (and later, Temple University Ambler Campus). The school accepted its first male students and the curriculum shifted away from agriculture and livestock to focus more acutely on horticulture and landscape design. Today, Temple Ambler still offers degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture through the Tyler School of Art and Architecture. The campus was officially designated an arboretum in 2000.
We are fortunate that the history of PSHW was well documented through photographs that have since been archived in an online digital collection. Images of young women scaling apple trees with pruning tools, weeding the greenhouse, herding dairy cows, and driving tractors (all while wearing long skirts or, later, modified riding pants called jodhpurs) will stick with me for a long time. In one particularly amusing photo, taken in 1911, students look on with shock and excitement as an instructor demonstrates the use of dynamite to break up the clay subsoil ahead of orchard planting.
The women of PSHW, including students, instructors, and administration, made a lasting impact on the world of horticulture. The school provided a model for other institutions around the country, and many of its graduates went on to build successful careers in what was once a field dominated by men. In the next few months on this blog, we’ll be highlighting some of the stories and accomplishments of these remarkable women. In the meantime, you can learn more about the history of PSHW at the Temple Ambler Arboretum page.
About the author:
Margaret Pickoff is a Commercial Horticulture Educator with Penn State Extension with an interest in the green industry, native plants, and cut flowers. She holds a Masters degree in Plant, Soil, and Environmental Sciences from the University of Maine. She lives and gardens in West Philadelphia.