Origin of New Jersey's 'Garden State' nickname debunked

New Jersey’s “Garden State” nickname sprouted, it seems, from a bed of deception.

Former state Attorney General Abraham Browning, so the legend goes, coined the moniker during a speech at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.

This Browning-creation story first surfaced in 1926, when historian Alfred Heston included it in a two-volume storybook published by the Atlantic County Historical Society.

Books, newspapers, and magazines reprinted the narrative, treating it as fact. Even today, on the official New Jersey website, Heston’s story is described. And in bills Gov. Christie signed into law Monday, formally designating “Garden State” as the official nickname, the legend was included, printed in black and white.

But a review of an archived transcript of that speech busts the myth.

Browning never said it.

Revisionist history

Browning, a Camden native and state attorney general from 1845 to 1850, was the featured speaker at the fair’s New Jersey Day on Aug. 24, 1876.

According to James D. McCabe’s Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, an encyclopedic book on the event, Browning’s speech was well-presented.

“Mr. Browning … delivered an eloquent and instructive address, in which he reviewed the history and progress of the State of New Jersey, and explained its agricultural, industrial, and commercial resources,” McCabe wrote.”He was listened to with marked attention, and was frequently applauded.”

But there was no mention of any nickname-coining, even in accounts of the speech from the time.

Neither the Inquirer nor the New York Times quoted the term “Garden State” or attributed it to Browning.

A clip from the Philadelphia Times, however, did include the phrase “garden state” in describing the speaker’s tour of a leafy exhibit hall.

“The Jerseymen vowed there were not prettier flowers even in their own garden State than they saw and inhaled the fragrance of in Horticultural Hall,” the description read.

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From the Philadelphia Times of Aug. 25, 1876.

The term, however, was not in quotes and was not attributed to a specific speaker.

The garden states

Paul Schopp, a South Jersey historian, said the first record of “Garden State” appeared in newspaper accounts more than 70 years before the World’s Fair.

“As early as 1805, I find South Carolina referring to itself as the ‘Garden State,’ ” Schopp said. “But the state that really seemed to claim it was Illinois, from at least 1845 forward. By 1858, the name had morphed into ‘Garden State of the West.’ ”

By 1861, advertisements for Hammonton, N.J., included the phrase “Garden State of the East,” Schopp said.

And when Vineland began advertising itself to prospective farmers in 1862, it marketed the area as part of the “Garden State of New Jersey,” he said.

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From the Camden Democrat, March 8, 1862.

Heston’s willful ignorance is not uncommon, Schopp said. Stretching the truth into legend is a common occurrence.

“It seems to be tradition in American folklore,” he said.