We've all gotten them, whether or not we grow plants from seeds: mail order catalogs with pictures of bigger, tastier, vegetables with higher yields and prettier, brighter flowers, if only we use seeds from THIS company. How and when did this all start? Let's go back in time together.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 26, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Statesman, inventor, author, and publisher, Benjamin Franklin also had the first mail order catalog in 1744, which sold scientific books from Philadelphia, complete with a money-back guarantee, says Wikipedia. But not long afterward, in January of 1784, Englishman David Landreth established the first mail order seed catalog, and his company still exists today (unlike Benjamin Franklin's). The D. Landreth Seed Co. introduced the zinnia in 1798, the first white potato in 1811, and the tomato in 1820. David and his son went on to help found the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1828.
Judging from the dates of most of the Smithsonian's collection, the 19th century saw an explosion of seed catalogs. It was an exciting time of westward expansion by new Americans. Think of Lewis & Clark's travels to the Pacific ocean, Horace Greely's admonition to "go West, young man," and of Conestoga wagons, of the Transcontinental Railroad (completed in 1869) and of the Oregon Trail. All those people on the move needed seeds in their new homes, didn't they? Starting with the D. Landreth Co. in Philadelphia, mail order seeds were there for them.
You know how excited you feel when those first seed catalogs start to arrive in January, or even earlier. And you probably have internet, telephone, television, and a grocery store and friends nearby. Imagine if your only other reading material was the family Bible! How precious would a book-sized catalog of horticultural information and black-and-white engravings have been? Bostonian Joseph Breck established Joseph Breck & Co. in 1818. His 1840 seed catalog was 84 pages long, a small book packed with information as well as a treasure trove of seeds to be ordered, according to Marca L. Woodhams, at the Smithsonian.
Settlers bought seeds for vegetable gardens to feed their growing families, and as they got established in their new homes, had time to grow flowers too. Seed catalog companies catered to these pioneer farmers' needs and in many cases, created the need. Nobody had ever heard of a love apple (the original name of the tomato) so nobody knew they needed them, at least not before the D. Landreth Co. introduced them. Nowadays, where would we be without our tomatoes? Not just for BLTs but also for spaghetti sauce, pizza, ketchup, chili, salsa—you can see, the list goes on and on.
The D. Landreth Seed Co. and others were key participants in what is known as the Columbian Exchange. Before the Western Hemisphere had regular contact with the Eastern Hemisphere, there was no chocolate in Switzerland, no paprika in Hungary, no tomatoes in Italy and no potatoes in Ireland. Likewise, cotton, sugarcane, and most vegetables other than squashes are introductions to the New World. Seedsmen, as they are still sometimes known, imported seeds from Europe and sold them to settlers, as well as providing seeds from the newly explored territories for expeditions to Asia and the North Pole.
For example, Irish immigrant Bernard McMahon arrived in 1796 and began collecting native seeds and exporting them. His 1804 catalog (pictured at right) listed around 1,000 different plant species for sale. He helped distribute seeds collected by Lewis & Clark.
But some of the names I think of as major players in the mail order seed business today didn't get started quite as early. Beginning in the 19th century, mail order seed companies and catalog seed houses were springing up all over the country. Ferry-Morse was started by Dexter M. Ferry in 1856, and in 1930 merged with C. C. Morse & Co., while Park Seed Company was founded in 1868 (and is still owned by the Park family), and W. Atlee Burpee in 1876.
In particular the Burpee company, now owned by the Ball family, was renowned for introducing new and improved varieties of vegetables every year. Stringless string beans! Iceberg lettuce! Fordhook (bush) Lima beans! According to the Burpee website, W. Atlee Burpee was the first person to hybridize vegetables, catering to the wants and needs of European settlers who found that their European varieties didn't do as well in this new American climate. Of course, now every seed company may claim to have the next greatest seeds.
Seed catalogs and mail order marketing of seeds played an important role in American and world history. Without potatoes from the New World crossing back to the Old World, there would be no Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and hence fewer Irish immigrants to North America. (And my best friend—my husband—is the child of Irish immigrants, so let's keep him.)
Seed catalogs provided vital connections between the education centers in the eastern part of the U. S. and the frontier settlements which stretched across the West. They are an important part of American history. Luckily, there are a couple of excellent collections of vintage seed catalogs online. One is the Smithsonian's, to which I have already alluded several times. Another is the Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection, curated by Sherry Vance at Cornell. I particularly indebted to Sherry for providing the genuine catalogue covers.
For more sources of seeds, check the Garden Watchdog. I've started you on Alpine seeds; next comes the list of vendors for Annual seeds, then Asian vegetable seeds, then Bonsai seeds, etc.
Additional information can be found in this full week of other articles in Mail Order Gardening Theme Week here at Dave's Garden:
Additional credits: the thumbnail picture was provided by Lee Anne Stark, who already has her seeds for this coming year. After poring over all these websites, I might have to order some myself. (I did.) The D. M. Ferry seed packet was obtained by April Campbell. Research assistance was provided by Angie Carson.Thanks, ladies.
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.