The official first day of spring is less than a month away, and many gardeners have spent the cold, dark days of winter leafing through seed catalogs, plotting their outdoor spaces when the earth thaws. And seed catalogs remain blue-ribbon earners; the National Gardening Market Research Company found that American gardeners spent $3.6 billion dollars growing fruits and vegetables in their backyards, patios, and rooftops.
For those interested in the history of seed selling, the seed catalog collection maintained by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries includes more than 10,000 historical seed and nursery catalogs, many donated by Mrs. David Burpee in 1982--such as the one pictured here at left, Burpee’s Farm Annual (1887). A quick glance through the holdings highlights the cornucopia of catalogs for all sorts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and how ripe the American public has been for this sort of advertising for nearly two centuries. Seed selling germinated in America in the early 1700s when gardeners with particularly robust crops would advertise their offerings in newspaper advertisements and through word of mouth. Catalogs wholly devoted to selling seeds bloomed by the mid 1800s, when succulent, hyperpigmented images (often chromolithographic prints) of watermelons, tomatoes, and other lavishly illustrated produce enticed snow-bound urbanites to send in their requests and hope for an early spring. The Biodiversity Heritage Library also maintains a web-friendly catalog of heritage seed catalogs, and much of the Smithsonian Seed Collection is also accessible online.
Roses in bloom. Credit: USDA
Instagram has proved fertile territory for vintage seed catalogs--Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds tantalizes visitors with photographs of magenta-hued sweet potatoes, wax apples,
even black beauty tomatoes, while cover art for Territorial Seed Company’s catalog remains a bright celebration of the bounty beneath our feet.