The arrival of seed and nursery catalogs in your mailbox may be something you have looked forward to since you were a child. Maybe you even remember a parent's or a grandparent's excitement as they pored over a colorful catalog showing beautiful plants and flowers.
Well, as it has affected so much of our lives, the Internet has changed the way we shop for seeds. Some companies have suspended publication of a print catalog in favor of a website. Others are keeping a foot in both worlds--real and virtual--but are spending less time and money on their "snail" mailings.
Seed catalogs do continue to have a colorful and important place in history, and not just gardening history. These publications offer an interesting and informative glimpse into our past, so much so that the Smithsonian Institute Libraries has a collection of about 10,000 seed catalogs dating from 1830 to the present day. The pages of these catalogs reveal not only details about the history of gardening in the U.S., but their text and illustrations also provide a fascinating look at printing, advertising and fashion trends through the years.
The honor of publishing the first American seed catalog goes to 18th century horticulturist David Landreth. 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 -- introduced the zinnia, the white potato, various tomatoes and Bloomsdale spinach to America, largely through its catalogs.
As American pioneers moved westward, ordering seed catalogs became an important way to bring fruits, vegetables and flowers with them to their new homes. When the nation's railway system grew and the mail service improved, the seed and nursery trade expanded as well.
After the Civil War, the mail order seed market became quite competitive, and nurseries used their catalogs to announce novelty items such as "Mammoth," "Giant" or "Perfection" varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables.
According to the Oregon State University Library website, catalog covers became more elaborate, and catalogs contained more than basic information and began to include more detailed descriptions, testimonials, special offers, contests and awards the nurseryís plants had won at horticultural fairs or exhibitions. For example, Dingee & Conard's 1889 catalog contained a special insert on pink paper that gave a detailed listing of its discounted collection of popular varieties.
Many of the catalogs in the Smithsonian collection are from the Burpee Company. Founded in Philadelphia in 1876 by W. Atlee Burpee, the company grew large enough by 1915 to be mailing more than a million catalogs a year to American gardeners. The Burpee catalog was the first to offer yellow seed corn. It also introduced the cabbage variety called 'Surehead', an improved carrot called 'Long Orange', the seedless tomato and the personal-sized 'Snackpac' watermelon. Today the company still offers free catalogs to customers.
Boston's Joseph Breck & Co., established in 1818, published its first seed catalog in 1840. Called "The New England Agricultural Warehouse and Seed Store Catalogue," the 84-page publication included illustrations and horticultural details next to product listings. Today the company is called Breck's Bulbs, and it still mails free catalogs to customers.
Seed catalogs have reflected the times. For example, catalogs from 1945 celebrated the end of the World War II with colorful pictures and the advice to settle down and to decorate your home with flowers. Flower varieties were given victory-related names. The back cover of the Jackson & Perkins catalog in 1945 featured the 'Purple Heart' viola, for instance. In one patriotic display, the 1945 Burpee Seeds catalog depicted a V-For-Victory- shaped red Swiss chard plant surrounded by bomb-like carrots over a tomato shaped like a globe.
The beauty of seed catalogs comes from their photography and, in some cases, their artwork. Territorial Seed Co., based in Cottage Grove, OR, for example, currently uses the work of a local artist, Lavonne Tarbox-Crone, for its catalog covers and seed packet artwork. The company website states, "We are so stunned by her ability to render vegetables and flowers so vividly with watercolors."
Printing and mailing catalogs has become a huge expense for nurseries, and some have decided to outsource the production of their catalogs, to charge for their catalogs or to discontinue them altogether. A current message on the D. Landreth Seed Co. website, for example, announces that the company will not be producing a 2015 catalog but that customers can order a 2013-2014 catalog for $5, with the company honoring those prices. Another message on the site says that the $5 fee helps pay for the cost of producing the catalog in America by Americans, rather than through outsourcing to other countries.