Bostonians entering a streetcar in the mid-1800s.

The Peaceful Gardener: Rose Standish Nichols & the Peace Movement Part I

By Corinne Zaczek Bermon

Just outside of Rome in the 1920s, fifty year old Rose Standish Nichols walked through the gardens of Villa Torlonia perhaps thinking about her two favorite topics: landscape architecture and world peace.

Once belonging to Cardinal Albani, the gardens were rented by future dictator Benito Mussolini, who had not launched his campaign to make Italy a world empire yet.

Nichols strolled through the gardens as she researched her third book, Italian Pleasure Gardens.1)Rose Standish Nichols. 1931. Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 191.   Although she did not document if she had a conversation with “Il Duce,” Nichols had a history of visiting dignitaries and enchanting them with conversations about their gardens before moving on to politics. An extraordinary woman, Nichols used her place in society, her profession, and her countless connections, to work for the women’s peace movement that began before World War I. Her story and her role in the international pacifist movement remains mostly untold.     

Rose Standish Nichols was born on January 11, 1872, into an Boston Brahmin family. She lived at 55 Mount Vernon Street in the

Portrait of Rose Standish Nichols by Taylor Greer, 1912. Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Rose Standish Nichols by Taylor Greer, 1912. Wikimedia Commons.

prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood Boston, for most of her life. The eldest of three daughters born to Arthur Howard Nichols, a prominent holistic doctor, and Elizabeth Homer Nichols, a social activist who worked with the Boston Children’s Aid Association and the Boston Female Asylum, Rose enjoyed an extensive education. She showed a lifelong appreciation for beauty and peace, influenced by her uncle, noted American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and her activist parents who taught her the importance of peace and social reform.  Her father taught her how to question and challenge what she thought was amiss in the world.2) George Taloumis, “Rose Standish Nichols, Sixty Years Ago She Organized the Beacon Hill Reading Club (1896)” Boston Sunday Globe, September 16, 1956. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.

Rose Nichols spent most of her summers traveling, and in Europe she met many new people she counted as friends. Among her acquaintances she included royalty, such as Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, the Marquess da Frontieira Maria Mascarenhas Barreto, of Portugal and numerous queens, countesses, lords, cardinals and archbishops.3)Margery P. Trumball, “Selections from the Published Writings of Rose Standish Nichols.” (PhD diss., Dartmouth College, 1989). 

Surrounding herself with prominent people gave Nichols a global social circle consistent with her upper class status, and through staying within this network of family friends, she could travel safely to Europe for gardening, social visits, and peace work. This was a time period in which a woman who traveled alone would have her respectability questioned and Nichols rarely traveled alone.4)Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Despite being raised in an era when Victorian notions governed women’s place in society, Nichols attended a pilot program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in landscape architecture in the late

Picture taken of the MIT landscape architecture cohort in 1900.
Students in the MIT landscape architecture cohort. Unfortunately, Rose is not pictured here.

1890s and was given the status of a “special student.”  Women students were attracted to the MIT program because it provided excellent opportunities, which they were denied elsewhere.  This pilot program coincided with the 19th century idea that gardening was a hobby suitable for women in their socially constricted environments. Still, women in Nichols’ cohort were not given the status of full-time students because MIT had not fully developed their landscape architecture program and would not do so for a few more years.5)Eran Ben-Joseph et al. “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture” http://web.mit.edu/ebj/www/LAatMIT/LandArch@MITlow.pdf.

Rose Nichols had two important influences that led her to work in social reform: her family and her landscape design tutors.  The Nichols family was active in social reform and political movements, such as women’s suffrage, relief efforts and anti-imperialism. Rose Nichols’ landscape design tutors also shaped her thinking that the local would impact the global.  From them, she learned a specific method of using landscape design as an introduction to talking to world dignitaries, which also included viewing design itself as a method of peace.  However, Nichols was unable to accept egalitarian ideals embraced by many of her fellow reformers.  Being raised in the mid-Victorian Era meant that Nichols believed social classes should live in separate parts of town and differed significantly in their attitudes toward politics and religion. Consequently, the upper class was most likely to associate with others who shared their social status, opinions and values. As part of the elite class, Nichols had her own code of conduct and value system, which one belonging to this particular social class had to conform to.

While in general women had few options outside of marriage and childrearing, Rose Nichols chose to do neither.  She, instead, supported herself as a garden designer, traveling across the United States and Europe as she learned and perfected her craft.  She believed in the universalizing power of gardening and was introduced to gardening by her maternal grandfather, Thomas Johnston Homer, who allowed her to cultivate a small corner of his

Bostonians entering a streetcar in the mid-1800s.
Bostonians entering the streetcar.

garden in Roxbury Highlands, a streetcar suburb of the city of Boston at that time. Nichols was not yet ten years old but according to her youngest sister Margaret’s memoirs, Rose Nichols industriously planned and worked in her small plot with their grandfather.6)Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs (Boston: Private Publication by Shurcliff Family, 1965).  Her education further prepared her for entry into the rather exclusively male field of landscape architecture.  Nichols attended private schools in Boston, among them the progressive Mrs. Shaw’s School, which did not differentiate its courses on the basis of gender.  Girls learned woodworking alongside needlepoint and were encouraged to read widely, especially in history and the classics, and to acquire a working knowledge of several languages.  Nichols entered adulthood with the ability to speak Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian, which helped her move into international circles as an organizer for Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and to undertake research for her gardening books.7)Taloumis, 22.

In the next post of this series on Rose Standish Nichols, we will explore her groundbreaking profession as a noted landscape architect.

To learn more about Rose Nichols, please visit the Nichols House Museum for a tour.

Corinne Zaczek Bermon is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Archives. She earned a B.A. in American Studies in 2009 and a M.A. in American Studies in 2015 from University of Massachusetts Boston. This series of articles on Rose Standish Nichols represents her award winning research in American Studies. Currently, her work explores the social history of the Otis Everett family living in the South End of Boston in the 1850s. She is designing a digital exhibit that explores Victorian life for the merchant class conducting business in Boston and abroad through the Everett letters.

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References   [ + ]

1. Rose Standish Nichols. 1931. Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 191.
2. George Taloumis, “Rose Standish Nichols, Sixty Years Ago She Organized the Beacon Hill Reading Club (1896)” Boston Sunday Globe, September 16, 1956. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.
3. Margery P. Trumball, “Selections from the Published Writings of Rose Standish Nichols.” (PhD diss., Dartmouth College, 1989).
4. Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
5. Eran Ben-Joseph et al. “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture” http://web.mit.edu/ebj/www/LAatMIT/LandArch@MITlow.pdf.
6. Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs (Boston: Private Publication by Shurcliff Family, 1965).
7. Taloumis, 22.

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