So obviously after we’ve gotten our containers for our container gardening, we’re gonna need some plants to stuff in them…empty containers are just not that exciting, right?!
So that’s where the catalog comes in…
The seed catalog, that is…
Seed catalogs offer a colorful glimpse into the past and have a colorful and important place in history, not only in gardening history.
These publications offer so much of an interesting and informative glimpse into our past, that the Smithsonian Institute has gathered a collection of about 10,000 seed catalogs—dating from 1830 to the present day—which reveal not only details about the history of gardening in the United States…but also a fascinating look at how printing, advertising and fashion trends have also changed throughout these years.
Seed Catalogs Way Back When
Seed catalogs have been around a lot longer than most of us would imagine…as far as back as the plant identification books used during the Middle Ages to identify plants to be used for medicinal purposes…books referred to during those times as “herbals.”
During the British Colonial era of the 16th century, more and more exotic plants were imported from various British colonies to fill the estates of elite British society.
These British aristocrats quickly became enterprising gardeners with quite the green thumb…and soon began publishing their own personal catalogs, known as “florilegia,”…catalogs that began to focus not only on the medicinal value of the plants, but also their ornamental value.
The oldest surviving seed plant catalog is the Florilegium, a catalog that Emmanuel Sweerts, a Dutch merchant and garden prefect for Emperor Rudolf II, brought with him to the 1612 Frankfurt Fair.
The Florilegium was an illustrated list of 560 hand-tinted images of flowering bulbs, plants, and other novelties from distant lands that, like previous botanical publications, contained not only the typical illustrations of plants and their medicinal uses, but also a list of the bulbs that he had available for sale.
In 2010, Christie’s auction house sold a copy of the book for nearly $40,000.
Examples of American Seed Catalogs
As more and more American pioneers moved out West, ordering seed through seed catalogs became a vital necessity for these pioneers to bring fruits, vegetables and flowers with them to their new homes.
Another major seed catalog that people have looked forwarded to getting each year is the catalog put out by the Burpee Company, a company that was founded in Philadelphia in 1876 by W. Atlee Burpee.
In 1915 the Burpee Company was mailing over a million catalogs per year across the country…..and the Burpee catalog was the first catalog to offer yellow seed corn.
Joseph Breck & Co. seed company was established in Boston in 1818 and published its first seed catalog in 1840..,.known as “The New England Agricultural Warehouse and Seed Store Catalogue”….an 84-page publication that included illustrations and horticultural details next to product listings.
Perhaps the first “true” seed catalog, the sort of publication that we think of whenever we think of seed catalogs, was published in the United States by 18th century horticulturist David Landreth, founder of the D. Landreth Seed Co., which was founded in 1784 in Philadelphia and still exists today as one of the oldest companies in the nation.
D. Landreth Seed Co. has made such important contributions to gardening as we know it today by introducing, through the pages of its catalog, several flowers and vegetables that no true garden of today would be without—such as the zinnia, the white potato, and various breeds of tomatoes.
The Turn of the Century
Seed catalogs had been little more than printed price lists, used mostly for wholesale and not retail sale up until the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Gardeners simply saved and traded seeds, or bought things locally as needed, and most plants were grown strictly for food or medicinal purposes….not just for the heck of it.
But, boy was this fixing to change…
Seed catalogs would soon become an elaborate affair as the dozens of seed companies in the seed company business fought hard for the business of their new mail order audience.
Only now did North Americans begin growing flowers and ornamental plants, as the Victorian-obsessed American population became inspired by traditional British gardens.
Gardening was becoming not only a way to get food on the table, but was also starting to be enjoyed for its many other benefits also.
Seed and bulb merchants also began using their catalogs to promote gardening as a respectable and desirable endeavor of the emerging middle class. Editors encouraged their readers to pursue this new hobby by telling them things like…
- “Nothing more conspicuously bespeaks the good taste of the possessor than a well cultivated flower garden,”
- “When we behold a humble tenement surrounded with ornamental plants, the possessor is a man of correct habits, and possesses domestic comforts.”
- “A neglected, weed-strewn garden…or the lack of a garden at all…is a mark of indolence and an “unhappy state.”
The turn of the century was an exciting time here in America…a time just right for such publications as mail order catalogs…thanks to the latest and greatest “apps” of that day…”apps” such as…
- Better printing presses that would for the first take make it econimically produce nice, thick catalogs filled with color illustrations
- Cross-country rail travel
- Improved agriculture, botany, and plant breeding methods
- Improved commercial and postal networks
- Introduction of cultivated home gardens
- Shifting consumer preferences and cultural trends
Newly developed mail-order services meant that the previously isolated individual was no longer limited to whatever fruit and vegetable seeds the local merchant had in stock, but could expand his horizons by buying products from all over the country and having the items shipped directly to his own home….(a novel concept in that day…long, long, long ago from our current days of Amazon Prime)
Increased competition meant that the previously boring lists of what seeds plants were available and at what price would now have to become more appealing to the newly liberated farmer…meaning that catalogs would now not only have to provide basic information, but also need to start using marketing gizmos for the first time if they were going to stay competitive…gizmos such as…
- an introduction or message of greeting from the company owner
- articles from gardening experts across the country
- detailed descriptions of how to cultivate the seeds and bulbs
- lists of awards that the nursery’s plants had won at recent horticultural fairs or exhibitions
- more and more ornate illustrations
- more detailed descriptions…such as more use of superlatives like “Superb”, “Majestic”, “Giant” or “Perfection”
- more elaborate and artistic catalog covers
- more space given to illustrations and descriptions
- novelty varieties
- quirky art. hand drawings, and romanticized illustrations
- special offers
WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII
World War I, the Great Depression and World War II impacted the gardening industry in several ways.
The fact that a dramatically fewer number plants were now being exported meant that the farmer was once more turning to local sources for their seeds.
The focus once again shifted to finding the basic staple foods—such as corn and potatoes—at the lowest cost possible…instead of exploring the novelty fruits and veggies from around the world that mail order catalogs had previously given him.
Exotic seed catalogs during this time frame were once again replaced with simple, boring lists…especially given the fact that many countries put a ration on paper during World War II.
Post World War II Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from 1945 celebrated the end of the World War II with colorful pictures and the advice that soldiers returning home from the war should now settle down and celebrate by decorating their homes with flowers bearing victory-related names. …such as the ‘Purple Heart’ viola shown on the back cover of the Jackson & Perkins catalog in 1945…or the V-For-Victory red Swiss chard plant displayed in the 1945 Burpee Seeds catalog.
After World War II, the soldiers return back home…and seed catalogs also returned to home mailboxes—in full size and color…as they still are today.
Or are they?!
Actually, sad to say, seed catalogs may quickly become dinosaurs of the past only seen in museums…
Kinda like the real pianos that every single living room in America, both “in town” and “out of town,” but don’t get me started…oh yeah, kinda like hymnals in Southern Baptist churches…definitely don’t get me started on that one…
Seed catalogs seem to become few and far between as we are turn to our closest friend and companion, the internet, to order everything under the sun…(no pun intended)…
Thanks to our new BFF…the internet, though…printed seed and nursery catalogs are an endangered species these days, as almost all of us rely on the convenience of online browsing and same-day or next-day delivery.
Fewer and fewer seed companies are publishing seed catalogs at all any more because they can’t justify the increasing costs of printing and postage…given that the typical consumer is driven more by online shopping.