Cherry Blossoms: 100 Years in Washington

Cherry blossoms’ champion, Eliza Scidmore, led a life of ad­ven­ture

She wore a gown of green under a black silk robe embroidered with gold and silver Japanese characters. And when the young woman walked into the Dupont Circle mansion that night, she turned every head.

It was the winter of 1894, and the occasion was a fancy dress ball hosted by a senator’s daughter for the best of Washington society. So many of the capital’s elite were expected that the event was covered by the press.

(Photo by Wisconsin Historical Society/PHOTO BY WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY) - UNDATED PHOTO: Three-quarter length portrait in front of a painted backdrop of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, holding a book. She has a horse-shaped pin at her collar. This image is issued by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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The center of attention was the bold guest who arrived in the garb of a traditional Japanese dancer: Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. She was 37, an author, journalist, traveler and collector of the lore and artifacts of far-off lands.

Celebrated for her adventures in Alaska and the Far East — daring for a single woman of her day — she would soon gain renown in Washington for something few people at the ball knew much about.

Scidmore (pronounced SID-more) would become in many ways the mother of the cherry blossoms.

She is the woman whose love of their beauty sparked the first lobbying campaign to plant Japanese cherry trees at the Tidal Basin — and this month marks the centennial of her efforts realized.

Enchanted by the culture of Japan, by 1894 she had been pestering federal officials for almost a decade to plant some of the gorgeous trees she had seen in Tokyo around Washington’s reclaimed Potomac River mud flats, she would say later.

It is “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show,” she wrote.

Princes and beggars were entranced. In Japan, people scrawled poems on paper and hung them in the tree branches.

But in Washington, bureaucrats of three administrations had been unmoved by her pleas and photographs.

“It was as one crying in the wilderness that I begged,” she wrote.

And the newspaper report of the ball that evening on New Hampshire Avenue made no mention of her crusade.

Today, it is the reason she is famous.

In 1909, 15 years after the ball, Scidmore’s “time-worn plea,” as she put it, reached the ear of the new first lady, Helen “Nellie” Taft, who was bent on beautifying Washington.

“I have taken the matter up,” Taft replied two days later, according to Scidmore, “and am promised the trees.”

After some starts and stops, and the support and generosity of several Japanese and American officials, the trees arrived in late March 1912.

On March 27 — more than 25 years after she said she had begun her quest in 1885 — Scidmore attended the ceremonial first planting and etched her name in blossom history.

But a century of cherry tree hoopla, and the most common photo of Scidmore looking like a pleasant schoolmarm, have obscured details of a remarkable and somewhat mysterious life.

She never married, and despite decades as a top-notch journalist, commentator and world traveler, she revealed almost nothing about her personal life in her writings. Always the narrator, she was never the subject.

“There are many gaps in her life,” said Diana Pabst Parsell, a Scidmore scholar, and “very little biographical information.

“She was a very, very private person,” added Parsell, of Falls Church. “In her books, for example, she never identifies people she’s traveling with. So you don’t get any insight into her personal life.”

Parsell said the accomplished Scidmore might have been treading cautiously amid strict Victorian conventions about women.

But “a woman of that era and that age to have accomplished what she did had to have been an exceptional person,” she said.

There are glimpses of Scidmore’s personal life in her 1891 travel book, “Jinrikisha Days in Japan” — scenes of her transporting a camera and tripod around the country, ascending stormy Mount Fuji and learning the intricacies of an ancient Japanese tea ceremony.

But they are fleeting.

A reporter who covered the Dupont Circle ball wrote a miniature portrait, saying Scidmore had a “superb physique” and “blue-gray eyes . . . full of varying expression and humor.”

“She is a brilliant conversationalist,” the writer recounted, “with a keen, trenchant humor . . . and she is possessed of an unexhaustible fund of anecdote and reminiscence of interesting people.”

But little more seems available in the public record.

However, rarely seen photographs of her are intriguing. In one, she is depicted with her mother, Eliza C. Scidmore. In another, she is shown with her mother and brother, George.

A third photo, which experts think was taken in 1895, shows a woman in a low-cut white dress with billowing, elbow-length sleeves and a dreamy look on her face.

The photo, among the Smithsonian Institution’s Scidmore holdings, contrasts other known portraits, in which she wears the buttoned-to-the-neck clothing of the late Victorians.

Parsell does not think the Smithsonian photo, although it appears to be among her belongings, shows Scidmore.

But if it’s not her, who is it?

Scidmore was reared in the District during the Civil War in a boarding house run by her mother, Parsell said. She was a journalist by age 19, covering the 1876 centennial celebration in Philadelphia for a Washington newspaper.

She began her travels shortly thereafter — first heading west, where she was photographed in the Dakota Territory by the same man who had taken Gen. George Custer’s picture before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

She moved on to the wilds of Alaska, where an island in Glacier Bay was named for her and where she fell off a horse and broke her collarbone.

She journeyed via steamer, train and rickshaw throughout the Far East, where she would study and chronicle the people and cultures of Java, India and China.

She prowled Asian cities and curio shops for clothing and artifacts she would later loan to museums. She is said to have found the lost throne of a Chinese empress dowager, which years later was auctioned off to a wealthy collector.

Among other things, she covered the great 1896 tsunami in Japan for National Geographic. She also took scores of photographs of Japan for the magazine, some of which might have been the first by a woman to appear in it.

The photos were black and white, hand-tinted in color, and depict traditional Japanese life — women in kimonos having tea, students in a rural classroom, an exuberant girl playing a three-string banjo called a shamisen. (Many of those pictures are on view at the National Geographic Society.)

She also wrote for the old Century Magazine and many other publications. Parsell found 300 articles she wrote for newspapers such as The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

In addition, Scidmore wrote eight books, Parsell said, and by 1914 Mrs. Taft called her “the most notable foreign figure in the Orient.”

While her writing is colorful, detailed and, at times, superb, Scidmore was an opinionated woman of her class and times.

She once referred to the “unlovely and unwashed peoples” of China, and to a Japan that looked like a stage set, whose “houses seem toys, (and) their inhabitants dolls.”

But it was her love affair with Japan — “the fine flower of the Orient” — that would endear her to Washington and help plant on the shores of the Potomac River what would become a hallmark of the city and her most lasting legacy.

A city in transition

March 27, 1912, was a pleasant spring Wednesday in Washington, with the temperature reaching into the 60s.

On the Potomac, the four-masted schooner Maria O. Teel was arriving from Maine with the first cargo of ice for the warm season.

Wildflowers were blooming in Rock Creek Park, and the first lady was conducting a small group of dignitaries, including the newly arrived Japanese ambassador and his wife, to the Tidal Basin for a tree planting.

Washington in the spring of 1912 was a city in transition.

Ships still tied up at the 10th and 11th Street wharfs with cargoes of cordwood, coal and oysters, while steam tugs hauled barges of bulk oil from Baltimore.

The streets still teemed with horse-drawn carriage, but there were also automobiles — Packards, Hudsons and the “self-starting” Lion 40.

Men wore derbies, women the latest “Gaby hat,” an elaborate headpiece named for the popular European entertainer Gaby Deslys.

It was a prosperous and peaceful time. Newspapers carried ads for the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City. The White Star Line boasted of its elegant new steamship bound for New York in three weeks — the Titanic.

The capital was trying to keep up. As the VIPs gathered for the planting, they were hoping to beautify an empty space that had been created with mud dredged from the river.

One of the few things in the area was the so-called Speedway, an almost decade-old road built for fast horse carriages. There was talk of erecting a grand memorial to Abraham Lincoln nearby, but that was a few years away. A monument to Thomas Jefferson was decades off.

So Taft jumped at the idea to decorate the area with flowering Japanese cherry trees.

Others, such as David G. Fairchild, a federal agriculture official, and his wife, Marian, who raised cherry trees at their Maryland home, were also lobbying the White House to plant them at the Tidal Basin and elsewhere in Washington.

Scidmore recounted that the day after she received Taft’s response in 1909, she told two Japanese acquaintances who were in Washington on business: Jokichi Takamine, the New York chemist, and Kokichi Mizuno, Japan’s consul general in New York.

The two men immediately suggested a donation of 2,000 trees from Japan, specifically from its capital, Tokyo, as a gesture of friendship.

They asked Scidmore to find out whether that would be acceptable to the first lady.

“Very naturally,” Scidmore wrote, “Mrs. Taft did accept.”

The first 2,000 trees arrived in January 1910 but had to be burned because they were infested with pests. A second, healthy shipment arrived March 26, 1912.

Scidmore, then 55, was the only private citizen recorded among those at the planting ceremony the next day.

The delegation was headed by the first lady, who was not fully recovered from a stroke she had suffered in 1909.

Japan was represented by its ambassador, Sutemi Chinda, and his wife, Iwa.

An accomplished and tragic couple, they had lost one son to an accidental explosion on a Japanese warship and would lose another to suicide at the embassy on K Street four years later.

Also present was U.S. Army Col. Spencer Cosby, the polished presidential aide who was in charge of public buildings and grounds in the District.

After the planting, the first lady gave the ambassador’s wife a bouquet of roses.

There was scant publicity — two paragraphs in one city newspaper, five in another.

But Cosby saw the future.

“In a few years,” he wrote Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, “this will undoubtedly be one of the famous sights of Washington, and a constant reminder to our citizens of the kindly feeling of your city and country.”

The Japan she loved

It was a gloomy, rainy day, with ravens cawing in the dripping pine trees, when Scidmore first saw Tokyo’s ancient monastic grounds and tombs at Shiba.

“Led by a lean, one-toothed priest, you follow, stocking footed . . . to behold gold and bronze, lacquer and inlaying, carving and color, golden images sitting in golden shadows, enshrined among golden lotus flowers,” she wrote in “Jinrikisha Days in Japan.”

This was the Japan she loved — the mythical, fairy-tale land that was only a few decades removed from its “opening” to the West. She found families living in thatched-roof houses, horses wearing shoes of straw and people dining on chrysanthemum petal salad and cherry blossom tea.

She also found, and lamented, a Japan that was modernizing rapidly.

Years before her first visit, former president Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, had toured Nagasaki, planted two trees and left an inscription praying for prosperity and a long life for the country.

Scidmore had a link to the country via her brother, who was a longtime lawyer and diplomat there. Their mother lived the last years of her life with her son in Japan.

And although Scidmore fretted about the influence on Japan of tennis, billiards and cards; clothing from Paris; “hideous” carpet from Brussels; and “punctilious” etiquette from Berlin, she was cheered by traditions that lived on.

Among them was the annual spring homage to the cherry blossoms.

“The Japanese have given us their favorite,” she wrote after the gift of Washington’s trees was finalized. “Their own mountain flower, the soul of Japan, the symbol of all they adore and aspire to.” She did not say how she felt about her role in arranging that gift.

But when she died of heart failure at 72 in Switzerland in 1928, historians say, the Japanese government requested her ashes. They were interred in Yokohama, where they remain today.

 
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