As inconceivable as it sounds, the seed catalog may soon go the way of the dodo bird. Between the increasing costs of printing and postage and the unyielding consumer drive towards online shopping, a once critical staple of North American gardeners may soon disappear from mailboxes all together.
That would be a shame, because there is an important and storied legacy associated with seed catalogs.
For the dedicated gardener, the arrival of the garden catalog signals the start of something exciting. In fact, the exercise of poring over pages and deciding which vegetable and flower seeds to order is actually an old tradition – one that has put food on tables and delighted people for hundreds of years.
The oldest surviving plant catalog is thought to be the Florilegium, an illustrated list (with no prices) produced by Emmanuel Sweerts, a Dutch merchant and garden prefect for Emperor Rudolf II. The Florilegium listed the bulbs, plants and other novelties from distant lands that Sweerts had available at the 1612 Frankfurt Fair. In 2010, Christie’s auction house sold a copy of the book for nearly $40,000.
Until the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the few catalogs in circulation in Europe and North America were little more than printed price lists, used mostly for wholesalers. At that time, most home growers simply saved and traded seeds, or bought things locally as needed.
Settlers in North America brought seeds and plants with them from their native countries and from plantations in the West Indies. Some traded with Native Americans for corn, beans, squash, melons and fruit trees. Most plants were grown strictly for food or medicinal purposes.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that North Americans began to grow flowers and ornamental plants, largely inspired by the tradition of British gardens. Seed and bulb merchants were responsible for this shift, as they used catalogs to promote gardening as a respectable and desirable endeavor of the emerging middle class:
“…Nothing more conspicuously bespeaks the good taste of the possessor than a well cultivated flower garden,” wrote James Thorburn in the preface to his 1847 catalog.
“It may very generally be remarked, that when we behold a humble tenement surrounded with ornamental plants, the possessor is a man of correct habits, and possesses domestic comforts.”
He goes on to note that a neglected, weed-strewn garden, or the lack of a garden at all, is a mark of indolence and an “unhappy state”.
One of the first known nursery catalogs in Upper Canada goes by the lengthy title of: Catalogue of Fruit and Ornamental Trees, Flowering Shrubs, Garden Seeds and Greenhouse Plants, Bulbous Roots & Flower Seeds. Published in 1827 by William Custead of the Toronto Nursery, the catalog offers flowers, fruits, vegetables, sweet and medicinal herbs. Custead’s main focus, however, is on apples, which he considered “the most congenial fruit to this climate, and the most useful in new countries.” Custead’s catalog was not mailed to households, but rather made available through a handful of agents who could receive orders.
By the end of the 19th century, printing and postal technologies had advanced to such an extent that North American seed catalogs were becoming an elaborate affair. There were dozens of companies in the business, and catalogs were thick with color illustrations, articles, detailed descriptions of how the seed grows, and an introduction or message of greeting from the company owner. Among the targeted audiences were amateurs, market gardeners and professional florists.
As competition increased, catalog companies tried to set themselves apart from their competitors by promoting novelty items and special offers and by naming vegetable and flower varieties with superlatives like “Superb”, “Majestic”, “Giant” or “Perfection”. Catalog covers also became more elaborate and artistic, and companies started devoting more space to illustrations and descriptions of how to cultivate the seeds and bulbs.
An enterprising female entrepreneur entered the field in the late 1800s and used her gender to her competitive advantage. “It is true because I am a woman, I do not need so much money to spend as some men and firms do, and can sell you the same seeds much cheaper,” Mary E. Martin noted in her 1896 catalog. “I give my business my personal attention because I love it and make my daily bread by it.”
The seed and bulb business had the potential to make a person wealthy in the 19th century. John Lewis Childs, born in Maine in 1856, was evidence of that. At age 17, he moved to East Hinsdale, New York to take a job with a florist named C. L. Allen. After one year as an apprentice, Childs struck out on his own, leasing land on which to grow and advertising his products in printed leaflets. His first catalog was eight pages long and he circulated 600 copies of it.
It didn’t take long for Childs’ mail-order seed business to take off. Soon he owned hundreds of acres of gardens, shipped to thousands of customers around the world, and ran a printing plant on which to print the catalogs and a magazine he christened the Mayflower. He bought the land around the East Hinsdale post office and renamed it Floral Park, serving as the town’s first President, and later as State Senator. By 1909, he owned over 1,000 acres including farms in California and Long Island. When he died in 1921, on a return train voyage from his farm in Pasadena, his obituary in the New York Times noted that he had one of the country’s largest collections of bird and bird eggs.
In the same way that cheaper and more efficient postal technology paved the way for seed catalogs to boom at the turn of the 20th century, the dawn of the internet age 100 years later once again revolutionized the industry. Printed seed and nursery catalogs are somewhat of an endangered species these days, as modern gardeners turn to the convenience of online ordering and as the costs of printing and mailing become ever more prohibitive.
Concerted efforts are underway to preserve the legacy of printed catalogs, as they contain valuable historical information about the introduction of certain plants, the way they were used in gardens, and the feelings of our ancestors towards the pursuit of gardening. That sentiment is summed up well in the words of Ms. Martin, in her 1916 catalog:
Gardening, an occupation that so many think of so little moment, is to me divine… We plant a seed and reap a wondrous plant. No occupation is so healthful, so elevating, so satisfying.