The sundial, like the garden statue, has proved to be an ephemeral garden feature. Sundials (also referred to as dials or dyals) have occasional presence in the written record of the American landscape. Perhaps like other utilitarian features, such as outhouses, they were not considered worthy of extensive descriptions. Nevertheless, 18th-century observers noted their presence and treatise authors espoused their value. In 1841, garden magazine editor C. M. Hovey was pleased to note the use of sundials, which he described as old but worthy ornaments that would contribute to the “finished” appearance of a garden.
“Sundial” was the term used to describe a planar device, typically made of wood, stone, or metal, designed to determine the passage of time by showing the shadow of the sun. Composed of a dial face and a gnomon, the sundial required an exposed, sunny location. As the sun passed overhead each day, the style (the straight edge of the gnomon) cast a shadow on the calibrated system of markings located on the dial. In addition to the obvious need for sunlight, the calibrations of the dial face and style had to be coordinated with calculations regarding the earth’s axis and latitudinal position. As outdoor markers of time, sundials could be fixed either vertically, sometimes attached to the exterior of a building, or horizontally. In the latter case, they were typically placed on pedestals, such as the cedar, locust, or mulberry posts that were specified in 1764 by the Kingston Parish in Gloucester County, Virginia. The pedestals on which they were situated could also be made of stone, as depicted in a view of the grounds at Blithewood, on the Hudson River in New York [Fig. 1]. This kind of elevated mount allowed both visibility and ease of use.
In private estate gardens, the position of sundials was governed by both practical and aesthetic concerns, as garden treatise writers noted. Sundials could be placed along major walks, drives, and other points of access [Fig. 2], where they acted as visual foci and accentuated the central axis of a house or landscape design, as was the case at several late 18th- and early 19th-century sites. At Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia [Fig. 3], and at Mount Vernon [Fig. 4], for example, the sundial was aligned with the central axis of the house and was placed at the center of the circular lawn created by the drive. The 18th-century plan for Bath (Berkeley Springs), Virginia (later West Virginia), indicated a two-sided sundial located near the basin and bowling green, at letter “I” [Fig. 5]. Several 19th-century designs show the sundial placed in the center of either circular flower beds or parterres, as in the 1841 plan published in the New England Farmer.
The development of cast-iron sundials, mentioned in 1826 by J. C. Loudon, increased the availability of sundials and the variety of forms they could take. Hovey’s 1841 article also suggests that as the 19th century progressed and industrial manufacture accelerated, the production of sundials increased apace while their relative cost decreased.
With respect to form, 19th-century designer A. J. Downing insisted that if the sundial was placed within sight of the house, its design should be kept stylistically consistent with that of the house. The sundial at his own Highland Place, for example, was executed, as was the house, in the Gothic style.
Besides fulfilling a pragmatic function, sundials inspired poetic musings. Downing’s treatise discussion of the placement of sundials relied on evocative metaphors. He referred to the devices as “silent monitors of the flight of time,” and attributed a sense of “intelligence” to them. Since the garden often depended heavily upon sunshine for the growth of plants, and since its contents reflected the change of seasons, the sundial, as a symbol of time’s passage, was a logical addition to the space.
—Anne L. Helmreich
- Anonymous, September 17, 1741, describing an instrument maker in Boston, MA (Pennsylvania Gazette)
- “JOHN DABNEY, Mathematical Instrument Maker from LONDON, In King-Street, BOSTON, New-England.
- “MAKES and Mends all Sorts of Mathematical Instruments, as Theodolites, Spirit Levels, Semicircles, Circumferentors, and Protractors, Horizontal and Equinoctial Sun-Dials, Azimuth and Amplitude Compasses.”
- Anonymous, 1764, describing the Kingston Parish, Gloucester County, VA (quoted in Lounsbury, ed., 1994: 112)
- “Ordered that two dials [be] presented to the parish by the Revd John Dixon be fixed up on substantial and neat posts of cedar locust or mulberry.”
- Anonymous, December 1768, describing in the Queen Anne’s County Deed Book Queen Anne’s County, MD (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
- “one sun dial set on cedar post.”
- Hovey, C. M. (Charles Mason), November 1841, “Select Villa Residences,” describing Highland Place, estate of A. J. Downing, Newburgh, NY (Magazine of Horticulture 7: 403–9)
- “6. Sun Dial. We are gratified to witness the introduction of the sun dial into our gardens. It is an old, but suitable ornament, and now that they can be procured at such reasonable prices, and such beautiful pedestals upon which to place them, we shall advise their general introduction into lawns and extensive flower gardens. We shall give an engraving, in a future number, of some of the pedestals made in New York, at the manufactory of Mr. Goodwin, corner of Chamber and Hudson Streets, and of Mr. Little, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. A very neat dial plate is manufactured by S. Moore, of Connecticut, which may be had at the very low price of one dollar, and which answers every purpose. [These dials are offered for sale by Messrs. Hovey & Co., Boston, and G.C. Thorburn, New York.] . . .
- “The sun dial is the last object which invites our attention, as we stand again on the main entrance. The pedestal is executed in the Gothic style, and we do not know of a single object which would add so much in itself to the finished appearance of the lawn.”
- Langley, Batty, 1728, New Principles of Gardening (1728: 195–97)
- “General DIRECTIONS, &c. . . .
- “XVIII. That the Intersections of Walks be adorn’d with Statues, large open Plains, Groves, Cones of Fruit, of Ever-Greens, of Flowering Shrubs, of Forest trees, Basons, Fountains, Sun-Dials, and Obelisks.”
- “DIAL is more accurately defined, a draught, or description of certain lines on a plane, or surface of a body given, so contrived, as that the shadow of a style, or ray of the sun passed through a hole therein, shall touch certain points at certain hours. See STYLE.
- “The diversity of Sun-Dials arises from the different situation of the planes, and the different figure of the surfaces whereon they are described; whence they become denominated equinoctial, horizontal, vertical, polar, direct, erect, declining, inclining, reclining, cylindrical, &c.”
- Sheridan, Thomas, 1789, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1789: n.p.)
- “SUNDIAL, sun-di-el. s. A marked plate on which the shadow points the hour.”
- “1834. 'Sun-dials' are venerable and pleasing garden-decorations; and should be placed in conspicuous frequented parts, as in the intersection of principal walks, where the ‘note which they give of time’ may be readily recognised by the passenger. Elegant and cheap forms are now to be procured in cast-iron, which, it is to be hoped, will render their use more frequent.”
- “Sundial, n. (sun and dial), An instrument to show the time of day, by means of the shadow of a gnomon or style on a plate (Locke).”
- Walsh, Alexander, March 31, 1841, “Plan of a Garden” (New England Farmer 19: 308–9)
- “The garden and pleasure ground I would describe, is of an oblong form, 165 feet by 120 feet, with one end next the north side of the house. . .
- “D has a circle in the center 26 feet in diameter, a parterre for annual flowers; in the centre a sun-dial.” [Fig. 6]
- Downing, Andrew Jackson, 1849, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849; repr. 1991: 423, 427, 473)
- “Where there is a terrace ornamented with urns or vases, and the proprietor wishes to give a corresponding air of elegance to his grounds, vases, sundials, etc., may be placed in various appropriate situations, not only in the architectural flower-garden, but on the lawn, and through the pleasure-grounds in various different points near the house. We say near the house, because we think so highly artificial and architectural an object as a sculptured vase, is never correctly introduced unless it appear in some way connected with buildings, or objects of a like architectural character. . .
- “Sundials. . . are among the oldest decorations for the garden and grounds, and there are scarcely any which we think more suitable. They are not merely decorative, but have also an useful character, and may therefore be occasionally placed in distant parts of the grounds, should a favorite walk terminate there. When we meet daily in our walks for a number of years, with one of these silent monitors of the flight of time, we become in a degree attached to it, and really look upon it as gifted with a species of intelligence, beaming out when the sunbeams smile upon its dial-plate. . . [Fig. 7]
- “[In the architectural flower-garden] The flowers are generally planted in beds in the form of circles, octagons, squares, etc., the centre of the garden being occupied by an elegant vase, a sundial, or that still finer ornament, a fountain, or jet d’eau. . .”
- “Unity of expression is the maxim and guide in this department of the art, as in every other. Decorations can never be introduced with good effect, when they are at variance with the character of surrounding objects. A beautiful and highly architectural villa may, with the greatest propriety, receive the decorative accompaniments of elegant vases, sundials, or statues, should the proprietor choose to display his wealth and taste in this manner; but these decorations would be totally misapplied in the case of a plain square edifice, evincing no architectural style in itself.”
Claude Joseph Sauthier, John Hawk’s plan of the Governor’s House and grounds in New Bern, NC, 1783. The feature “dyel” is marked at the center of the parterres.
Charles Varlé, Project for the Improvement of the Square and the Town of Bath [detail], 1809. The plan indicates two sundials in two oval spaces at “I.”
Anonymous, “Sundial,” in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening 4th ed. (1849), 427, fig. 75.
Mutual Assurance Society, Richmond, Declaration for Assurance Book, vol. 35, policy no. 18, Insurance policy drawings for Mount Vernon, June 5, 1805. The sundial is located above the lawn in the image.
Anthony St. John Baker, Mount Airy, Virginia; northeast front, 1827, in Mémoires d’un voyageur qui se repose (1850), part IV, 520A.
Anthony St. John Baker, “Front View of Mount Airy, Virginia,” 1827, in Mémoires d’un voyageur qui se repose (1850), part IV, 520A.
Thomas Kelah Wharton, View of David Hosack Estate, Hyde Park, New York, with a Sundial (from Hosack Album), c. 1832.
- Mark P. Leone and Paul A. Shackel argue that clocks and scientific instruments, including sundials, were used in 17th- and 18th-century Annapolis to measure the natural world and regularize time and work. These devices helped to establish “the discipline associated with work for a profit.” As wealth-owning classes expanded in the first and third quarters of the 18th century, so did the use of clocks, watches, and scientific and musical instruments. See Mark P. Leone and Paul A. Shackel, “Forks, Clocks and Power,” in Mirror and Metaphor: Material and Social Construction of Reality, eds. Daniel W. Ingersoll and Gordon Bronitsky (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), 45–61, view on Zotero.
- Carl R. Lounsbury, ed., An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), view on Zotero.
- Charles Mason Hovey, “Select Villa Residences, with Descriptive Notices of Each; Accompanied with Remarks and Observations on the Principles and Practice of Landscape Gardening: Intended with a View to Illustrate the Art of Laying Out, Arranging, and Forming Gardens and Ornamental Grounds,” Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs 7, no. 11 (November 1841): 401–11, view on Zotero.
- Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening, or The Laying out and Planting Parterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks, &c. (London: A. Bettesworth and J. Batley, etc., 1728), view on Zotero.
- Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. . . , 5th ed., 2 vols. (London: D. Midwinter et al., 1741–43), view on Zotero.
- Thomas A. Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, Carefully Revised and Corrected by John Andrews. . . , 5th ed. (Philadelphia: William Young, 1789), view on Zotero.
- J. C. (John Claudius) Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening; Comprising the Theory and Practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture, and Landscape-Gardening, 4th ed. (London: Longman et al., 1826), view on Zotero.
- Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (New York: S. Converse, 1828), view on Zotero.
- Alexander Walsh, “Remarks on Ornamental Gardening, With a Plan of a Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Garden,” New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register 19 (March 31, 1841): 308–9, view on Zotero.
- A. J. [Andrew Jackson] Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, 4th ed. (1849; repr., Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1991), view on Zotero.