John Newman May, Sr., Founding Father of the Rose Industry

by Lynn Forsell


Born in Middlesex, England on November 9,1840, John N. May, Sr. could not have envisioned in his early life the influence he would ultimately have in his chosen horticultural industry, nor the fact that he would fulfill his destiny in Summit, New Jersey. The child of an English gardener, he became interested in the art of raising and grafting roses at an early age. His reputation was such that the owner of a large Madison, New Jersey estate hired him from England in 1874 as head gardener. By 1880, Mr. May had entered horticulture on his own, purchasing an eleven acre property on Pine Grove Avenue in Summit, where he established the largest nursery in the city, invented the rose green- house and propagated many new varieties of roses. He became one of the foremost growers of ornamental flowers in the United States and founded a number of industry trade groups still in existence today.

Flowers in the Gilded Age

During the late 19th century, cities like Summit that were convenient to Manhattan attracted development of opulent, expansive country estates. The very increase in wealth arising from industrialization had also driven demand for city housing to the point where Manhattan's land became too valuable to support individual homes and grounds. Some people of means, concerned about the healthfulness of Manhattan living conditions, moved their families out to the suburbs, where they remained most of the year unless summering at other fashionable locations. Following the English model of country sporting life, homeowners developed formal gardens as well as practical crops on their grounds, all of which required full-time gardeners. Many Summit residents also had plenty of space for stables and specialized uses. By 1900, Augustus Libby had established a nine-hole golf course at 40 Beekman Terrace, and Adolphe DeBary had his own bowling alley at Springfield and Hobart Avenues.

One of the hallmarks of wealth was the ability to decorate with fresh flowers to a lavish degree. At a time when the average worker made $40 per week, only the elite could afford to pay $75 for 100 lilies or $30 for 100 roses. In 1880, a news article from the London Tele- graph reprinted in The New York Times advised fashionable women to use roses in profusion, adorning hats, hair, gowns and every room of the home, and rose-themed parties featured thousands of blossoms. Elaborate floral trade shows encouraged the socially prominent to pur- chase the newest varieties of flowers. The interplay between society botanists like John May and the social elite is derrionstrated by the names of new flowers introduced at the 1895 Florist's Show at Madison Square Garden: "Mrs. John Jacob Astor", "Mrs. W. C. Whitney" and Mr. May's own "Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan". The shows greatly influ- enced trends in floral decoration, creating high demand for prizewinning varieties. Locally, trendsetter Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, whose estate now forms part of Florham Park, favored orchids, chrysanthe- mums and carnations. Masses of rare orchids adorned her dining table regardless of the occasion.

J. N.-May, Rose Grower and Industry Champion

"There are a number of roses which do not attain perfection when grown in open air, and others that do not thrive at all except under glass. For these it is necessary to provide a rose-house, which, besides enabling us to grow satisfactorily the delicate kinds, will supply us with flowers during the winter months of any more robust sorts we choose to grow. " - J. N. May, 1882

John May's expertise in rose gardening and his establishment of a large-scale nursery within a short distance of many surrounding estates and Manhattan residences placed him in position to gain great prominence in his field. Although he became a U.S. citizen in 1888, his English origin and training only enhanced the desirability of his products given the preference of many American consumers for European goods. At the same time, he had unmatched skills in developing new varieties of roses. New York Times articles from the 1890's into the early 1900's repeatedly name John May as an award-winner or a judge in major New York flower shows. His white tea rose, "Bride", developed in the 1880's, became a classic preferred variety for many years. The Summit Herald of May 2,1900 reported, "The Olympia, a new pink original by J. N. May, has met with great success this year, and commands a higher price in the city than any of its variety." He expanded his business to such an extent that, by the 1890's, he sold 20,000 plants and nearly 500,000 flowers annually. His facilities included 50,000 square feet of greenhouses staffed with fifteen to twenty-five people. 

The floral industry around New York was intensely competitive. In Summit alone, twelve greenhouse operations vied to meet the unending demand for fresh flowers. Given the leadtime of years necessary to develop new varieties, botanists maintained complete secrecy until unveiling their creations. Mr. May not only developed numerous varieties of flowers, he openly shared his expertise with others in the industry. He had the vision to realize that a trade association could only benefit all local growers. He founded four major associations: the Rose Society of America, the Chrysanthemum Society, the New York Florists' Club and the National Society of American Florists. Moreover, he was a benevolent employer who went out of his way to offer greenhouse employees recreational facilities as well as opportunities for training to improve their skills.

20th Century: Changes and New Challenges

With his flower business well established, Mr. May turned his attention to other entrepreneurial pursuits, co- founding Summit's first bank, The Summit Bank, later The Summit Trust Company, and Mountain Electric Company in 1891. In all these endeavors, he had the support of his family, including wife Sarah, sons Harry and John Jr. and daughter Anne. Because of his multifaceted business interests, when demand for quantities of fresh flowers began to decline as the formal nineteenth century lifestyles phased out, he was able to put his energy and attention into his other companies. When he retired in 1913, his sons carried on the ventures that he had begun. Yet the flower business continued to benefit him in that the underlying land on Pine Grove Avenue began greatly appreciating in value as demand for housing in Summit rose.

In 1880, Mr. May had built a substantial family home at 49 Pine Grove Avenue in front of the greenhouses. In 1904, he built a second home at 51 Pine Grove Avenue for his son Harry. Interestingly, that home still has exterior ornamental ironwork salvaged from The Beechwood Hotel on DeForest Avenue, which was torn down in 1953 for the Kemper Insurance building, now Bouras Properties building. In 1964, Mr. May's younger son, John May, Jr., replaced the original 49 Pine Grove home with a modern, colonial-style structure built on the original stone foundation. By 2002, when 49 Pine Grove was put up for sale by May family descendants, despite the high quality of the house, the economics of the large lot attracted builders who ultimately subdivided the lot into two rectangles, demolished the house and built two large homes in its place. Today, homes on the blocks west of Pine Grove Avenue from Blackburn Place to and including Blackburn Road occupy the May family's land on which world-class flowers once flourished.

The May Family's Legacy

John N. May, Sr. passed away in 1928, and was remembered as an integral part of the growth of his community from its early days. An example of the esteem in which he was held comes from a certificate presented to him in the by the New Jersey Florists' Association, which described him as"... a leading light in the horticultural world, as well as a willing friend and aid in time of need."

Descendants of Mr. May continued in the businesses that he created and even founded new organizations of their own. Harry O. May assumed con- trol of the flower business, running it profitably for many years until encoun tering difficulties during the Depression era. John N. Maymid-1920's, Jr. became a se- nior executive with the family's bank. John May, Jr. left an exceptional record of business achievement and community service. In addition to his responsibilities as officer and director of the bank, he held long-term, senior positions at The Red Cross, the YMCA, Overlook Hospital, the YWCA, Kiwanis Club and the Summit Historical Society, among others. The Summit Herald stated, "For years in his role as community leader, being involved in just about any and all civic endeavors, Mr. May made hundreds of friends who respected him for his forthrightness, wisdom, but most of all, for his commit- ment to making Summit an ever-better place in which to live, work and play." Continuing the family's tradition of service, his daughter, Elizabeth May, founded a nursery school at 51 Pine Grove, a venue that nurtured preschoolers from 1947 to 1975.

The legacy of the organizations founded by John N. May, Sr. lives on in many forms. Between the companies he founded, his innovations in his chosen industries and his firm but positive approach to colleagues, competitors and employees, he was a driving force in Summit's early growth. The Summit community is a better place for all residents because of Mr. May's example of civic involvement as carried on by his descendants to the present day.

The Summit Historical Society would like to thank Betty May Sanfilippo for her assistance with this article, including family photographs and stories.