And here’s a picture starter for 10? What on earth is this contraption for? If you’re a regular reader of this blog then think back a few weeks…and there is another clue below.
The object, whatever it is, was invented in the 1820s by Robert Gauen, a gardener and nurseryman from Hampshire and is recorded in John Claudius Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine. Read on to be …. impressed? bemused? surprised? amused? or at least find out more about this and other ingenious products of Mr Gauen’s extremely fertile imagination because this is not the only piece of horticultural gadgetry that he devised.
Robert Gauen, despite his unusual surname, has proved an elusive character to track down but luckily some family historians have managed to uncover a few facts about his probable background. He was born around 1788 and in 1809 was married in a village near Winchester in Hampshire. Sadly his wife and their children all died very quickly. His address on one of the burial certificates was given as ‘Paulton’.
This is almost certainly Paulton Park, a large estate near Romsey owned by Hans Sloane’s grandson’s family – the Sloane-Stanleys. It had been landscaped by Capability Brown and it is likely that Robert’s father was a gardener there, and that Robert himself may have worked there too.
Like so many estates Paulton suffered the after effects of World War One, and by the 1930s had been sold off and become a luxury hotel. Unfortunately after this closed the estate was left derelict and the mansion burned down in a fire in 1963. It is now a country park and bird garden, and also houses Peppa Pig World, which was recently voted the UK’s best attraction by netmums.com. I’m sure both Brown and Gauen would be delighted!
For more on Paulton and its history see the research carried out by Hampshire County Gardens Trust:
Anyway back to Robert Gauen – he remarried in 1823 and by then was living in Eling just outside Southampton. The 1841 census records his age as 50, although according to parish records he was 61 when he died in 1849.
Gauen came to public attention in July 1827 when he wrote to John Claudius Loudon, editor of the newly founded The Gardener’s Magazine about “The Art of ornamenting, showing, preserving, and packing Cucumbers, Grapes, Plums, and other Fruits whose principal Beauty consists in their delicate Bloom.” He describes himself as a gardener from Millbrook near Southampton.
Loudon was either very impressed or short of copy because he turned Robert’s letter into a lengthy article in the magazine telling readers that it was to be published as a pamphlet in due course and would be sold complete with “the box of Mr Gauen’s invention, in which the mystery of improving the bloom of fruits is performed.” In his preliminary comments Loudon notes that “among florists and growers of prize fruits, manual decoration is in many cases of equal importance with successful growth; the petals of the carnation require to be dressed on a card; the cucumber to be straightened, and the plum powdered with artificial bloom.” the reader discovers that Mr Gauen had 10 years experience of fruit growing and had earned nearly £100 in prizes for showing fruit at shows. This enabled him “to speak on this subject with a degree of confidence which can belong to but few individuals.”
I started to try and summarise Gauen’s letter, but after several attempts I decided it’s much better to read some of it the original despite all its complexity.
He starts by going into considerable detail about how best to grow cucumbers that are straight and with a good bloom, suggesting that at first they should be offered a little help by way of protection. A piece of glass 4 inches wide and 8-12 inches long should be placed under the fruit while another should be supported on pegs over it and these should both be tilted slightly to carry off any drip or condensed dew. Think about doing that for more than one or two fruit and you get into labour-intensive obsession. But that’s only the start of the work.
Gauen then offers detailed advice on how to water the plants, thin the leaves to maximise the sunshine reaching the fruit, and warns to make sure the fruit is straight before you cut it, although if necessary the straightening can be done afterwards, albeit the process is slightly more complicated. That of course is mild understatement. Once the fruit has been cut some gardeners suggest burying them “in a case in earth”, while “others keep them in a damp cellar, and some few immerse them in dry sand”, but Robert’s method was as follows…
Of course “in the performance of this operation, the bloom will have been injured,” but guess what …with another little bit of labour-intensive ingenuity Mr Gauen will help you restore it. To do so you need “a box with slides (fig.18.a), a common powder-puff (B), and a few ounces of finely calcined and perfectly dry magnesia.” And before you ask “the box may be of any size, according to the quantity of fruit which it is proposed to subject to the blooming process at any one time.” However, the one that he and his publisher would be selling with his treatise would be “about 20 inches long, 18 inches deep, and 13 inches wide.”
Now… I hope you are concentrating properly because you will need to follow his explanation of how the box actually works.
So next time you have some cucumbers that need to be re-bloomed following the removal of their bloom by your incompetent straightening of them after you had negligently forgotten to straighten them before they were cut then…
Then the cucumbers can be packed for sending to the market…but of course the bloom could easily be damaged during transit so… guess what…. you need another little bit of Mr Gauen’s gadgetry to carry them without danger.
Now you’ll remember I’m sure one of the downsides of Gauen’s method of ‘elongation’ of cucumbers was that they would have “small prickles placed at greater distances than is desirable in a handsome fruit”. [If he was worried about that what on earth would the poor man have made of the bags of misshapen veg now beginning to re-appear back on supermarkets shelves?] To ensure complete perfection and have a collection of cucumbers of equally spaced and beautiful prickles then you just need to follow his instructions…
I am, regretfully, omitting his precise instructions on how to glue the cucumber prickles on to the less well-endowed cucumbers so that it looks as if they are natural, since I assume that you will already know how to mix gum arabic, and indian ink and apply it with a needle and a camel hair brush. Nor am I going to tell you how to replicate the decaying cucumber flower which “it is deemed necessary” to have at the end of the fruit. But if your memory fails you then you can follow the link below to the full article…
Similar but of course subtly different techniques can be used on plums, peaches, and grapes and if you need to know how whalebone splints can be used to help get your grapes to market with their pristine [well…OK artificial] bloom intact, then again read the full piece.
All I can say is just be thankful you’re not a Victorian gardener trying to impress your employer or pack fruit for market!
But this is merely one of Robert Gauen’s bizarre inventions… more in another post shortly!