A group of Polish women en route to a “Pingree potato patch” circa 1890.

An economic depression  between 1893 and 1897 caused poverty and unemployment, in turn causing a higher demand for community gardens in cities (Williamson). The Mayor of Detroit, a city hit hard by the depression, asked that owners of vacant lots allow the unemployed to grow vegetables for subsistence on their land.  These lots were nicknamed “Pingree’s Potato Patches” after mayor Haze S. Pingree (Lochbiler 1998).  It was hoped that the cultivation would not only increase food supply, and therefore supplement income, but also provide a feeling of self respect and independence (Williamson).  The gardens saved money because taxes did not need to be raised as much to help support the unemployed.  The city initially invested $3,000 in the urban gardening program.  In the first year, $12,000 worth of vegetables and potatoes were harvested, meaning that $9,000 dollars of relief expenditures were saved.  Over several years, a total of 2000 families participated in the urban gardening program in both Detroit and Buffalo.   These programs made unemployed people feel useful, unlike the make-work welfare programs that were looked upon as second-rate jobs(Warman).  “There were many benefits attributed to this program, including hope, self-respect, independence, self-reliance, and the therapeutic benefits of fresh air and exercise, as well as financial savings. Another benefit identified was that immigrants would socialise in these gardens and therefore learn the “American way” more rapidly and easily become part of the United States melting pot (Bassett, 1972, 1-17).”  Several other smaller scale urban gardening programs were started in Minneapolis, Denver, and Chicago. 

Click here to read about the City Beautiful Movement and upper class revitalization of urban centers in the early 20th century.

To return to the main history page click here.


Warman, Dena Sacha. 1999.Community Gardens: A Tool for Community Building. Senior Honours Essay, University of Waterloo.  http://www.cityfarmer.org/waterlooCG.html#2.

Gardenmosaics.org. History of Community Gardens in the U.S. http://www.gardenmosaics.cornell.edu/pgs/science/english/pdfs/historycg_science_page.pdf

Lochbiler, Don. 1998. “The Shoemaker Who Looked Like a King”. The Detroit News. http://info.detnews.com/redesign/history/story/historytemplate.cfm?id=175

Williamson, Erin A. A Deeper Ecology: Community Gardens in the Urban Environment. U Delaware. http://www.cityfarmer.org/erin.html

Really great paper found of the City Farmer website, it has great background and history and incite into the need for and role of community gardens in North America.

Lawson, Laura. 2005. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. University of California Press.

Tucker, David M.  Kitchen Gardening in America: A History.  Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993.


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3 Responses to “1. Potato Patches (1890-1930)”

  1. Laura Says:

    What is your last name. i am doing a report on urban gardening and need to cite my sources, so if you could tell me that would be wonderful, but if not that is ok.

  2. Kassandra Fisher Says:

    Thanks for this link! I agree that more and more urban and community gardens are needed in the U.S.! Our pace is much to fast and disconnected in an ironically “connected” (net) society. We need to look each other in the eyes, and get back to basics- I believe urban agriculture is just the ticket for our healing!
    Thanks and i look forward to further posts!

  3. Joe Says:

    Thanks for this post, I really enjoy your blog – It’s such a great resource on the history and current state of community gardens. Do you know where the image of the women en route to a potato patch is from? I’m teaching a class and would like to show it to my students, but also want to be certain about how to cite it. Thanks!

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