Jill Sell is co-founder of Three Women in the Woods: Words and Images, a non-profit arts collaboration with a mission to conserve and preserve the country’s woodlands.

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Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Seed Catalogs
by Jill Sell    

The pumpkins on the seed catalog covers were drawn so huge that Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater could have made a house for his wife from one of the pumpkin shells. The pictured giant red strawberries were so voluptuous children could hardly hold them. And the pink roses were flawless, of course, and all prize winners.

The Buist Seed Co. of Philadelphia wanted customers to feel wealthy and successful if they used the company’s products. This cover is from the Buist’s Garden Guide and Almanac, published in 1896.  Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D. C.

Welcome to the wonderful world of vintage seed catalogs. Before photography became a vital part of print and online catalogs, artists drew fantastic images of eggplants and green beans, dahlias and daises to entice customers into buying seeds and bulbs. Reality was sketchy. But as every good gardener today knows (as he or she thumbs through the mound of catalogs that come in the mail and online this time of year), it didn’t really matter. Seed companies were selling the dream, not unlike modern times.

Yes, there were exaggerations in both plant appearance and performance as promised by the catalogs. But many professional and amateur art critics and gardeners consider the illustrations to be delightful and endearing. Who can resist pictures of ears of corn with perfect rows of kernels? Or hollyhocks so tall you would need a fireman’s ladder to reach the top blooms?

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) Libraries’ online seed catalog collection is one of the best places to view fabulous art of this kind, without ever having to set foot out into the cold. SI’s trade catalog collection features about 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs published from about 1830 until the present. The catalogs are held in the National Museum of American History Library in Washington, D.C., and viewing them in person is by appointment only. Items do not circulate. But fortunately, gardeners and art lovers can page happily through the catalogs online for free.

However, it isn’t just the pictures of plump peaches and twirling vines of heavenly blue morning glories that make the catalogs so impressive.

“Trade catalogs are important resources,” said Joyce Connolly, a museum specialist with SI’s Archives of American Gardens department. “The catalogs tell us what was going on decades ago in terms of scientific, cultural and artistic trends. If we didn’t have the catalogs, a lot of information would be missing. Catalogs were an important means to sell seeds, but they tell us so much more.”

The core of the collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1982 by the renowned Burpee seedmen family and included catalogs from the famous W. Atlee Burpee Co. of Philadelphia, as well as other mail-order companies. Burpee, and later his son, David, developed such classics as the ‘Big Boy’ tomato, ‘Ambrosia’ cantaloupe and ‘Iceberg’ lettuce, as well as scores of flowers with improved color, blooms and health.

The elder Burpee was a pioneer in mail-order seeds, writing most of the information in the catalogs himself. According to SI, by 1915 Burpee was the largest seed company in the world. The company sent out a million catalogs a year and received 10,000 orders a day.

“The Burpee Co. was scrupulous in tracking how effective their ads were in certain magazines, ” said Connelly, adding that SI has a collection of some of the company’s business records, including account books, seed trial results, diaries and of course catalogs. 

Marca Woodhams, a retired Smithsonian Institution Libraries staff member who still volunteers her time there, considers the “real gems” of the total SI seed catalog collection to be those catalogs created between 1830 and the 1930s. She has written that the catalogs give us a look into not only the history of botany and plant introduction in America, but social history and graphic arts in advertising.

Woodhams’ dates make sense. Before there were seed catalogs as we know them, sample books were created by companies to sell their goods. The books were carried from store to store and house to house by salesmen. The illustrations of peonies of epic proportions and whoppers of watermelons were often hand-painted watercolors, stenciled art or engravings.

In the 1830s, mass catalogs were printed using chromolithography that allowed colorization at the printer. The inexpensive method allowed seed catalogs to reach thousands more customers, but the heyday of the charming hand-painted art by amateur artists was mostly lost.

But thanks to the Smithsonian and other botanical libraries, those of us who love to see drawings of pristine, eye-tearing onions and children in straw hats and overalls all looking like cherubs in the garden, some of the art and information has been saved. Some catalogs also offered chickens, plows, trowels, sprinkling cans and “exotic” citrus fruits to grow indoors.

The William Henry Maule Co. of Philadelphia wanted buyers to know that anyone who bought their tomato seeds would be standing knee-deep in tomato plants when harvest season arrived. This is the cover from Maule’s Seed Catalogue for 1887. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D. C.

“Old seed catalogs are one of the hottest things in botanical literature right now,” said Gary Esmonde, librarian with the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Eleanor Squire Library in Cleveland, Ohio. “There are really two reasons. The first is because of the interest in the beautiful, unique art. The second is because botanists and horticulturists are studying the cultivars in the catalogs that are no longer around.”

The Midwest can claim the Burpee dynasty, of course, but there were other important seed companies from the era as well. William Henry Maule expanded his family’s lumber business in Philadelphia and published Maule’s Seed Catalogue for 1887. The cover depicts a jubilant grower standing knee deep in a field and holding a tomato the size of a bowling ball. The company’s mail-order business flourished.

SI holds two catalogs from the Henry F. Michell Co in Philadelphia: Michell’s Highest Quality Seeds (1898) and Michell’s Seeds-Plants-Bulbs-Etc. (1904). The latter’s cover shows a smiling red-cheeked young boy pushing a wheelbarrow full of sweet peas while his dog runs alongside him. Catalogs from the late 1800s by the McGregor Bros. in Springfield, Ohio, show roses that it considered “floral gems.”

J. J. Harrison and Jesse Storrs founded Painesville Nurseries in 1853 in the Ohio city of the same name. But they called their company, which sold ornamental trees, fruit, roses and shrubs, Storrs & Harrison. They were big on roses, too, but an 1898 catalog cover boasts “velvet sod lawn grass” planted in front of a mansion.

The SI holds additional seed catalogs published by Midwestern seed companies, including the George H. Mellen Co. and Samuel Wilson, Seedman.

Some of the most romanticized catalogs came from the Buist Seed Co. of Philadelphia. Wealthy looking women dressed in the latest fashionable long dresses were shown playing lawn games on estates or rowing boats filled with an abundance of vegetables the size of beach balls. Gardening in a long formal dress and petticoats just doesn’t seem to fit modern times, however. But for a vintage catalog, the scene looks perfect.


Editor's Note: To see these and other seed catalogs from the past, visit the Smithsonian Institution website.


Posted: 03/02/15   RSS | Print


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