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Seed Catalogues

Kitchen gardens, which individuals planted near their homes for vegetables, fruit, and cooking and medicinal herbs, existed by necessity in the colonial period. Their use declined in the North during the nineteenth century as the population shifted from an agrarian to an urban lifestyle with expanding industrialization.

Beginning in the 1840s, movements promoting the health and psychic benefits of country living and gardening were led by Henry Ward Beecher and Andrew Jackson Downing, who published his influential Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening in 1841.

The building of railroads and other public transportation during midcentury allowed the upper and middle classes to commute into cities for work, while living more comfortably at their outskirts. In post–Civil War suburbs, people once again planted flower and kitchen gardens, this time to alleviate the stresses in their lives, to find pleasure, and to supply themselves with healthful produce. Seedsmen, who had been selling their products for decades at general stores, began competing for these new gardeners’ business through direct mail.

Companies had the same seeds to sell, and so they attempted to outshine their rivals through the size of their catalogues, the beauty of their illustrations, and their shrewd marketing of “new and improved” strains, which they actually recycled from the eleven hundred known species and varieties of vegetables.

Postbellum gardeners looked forward to receiving the seedsmen’s catalogues each winter, when they could pour over the detailed illustrations and superlative-laden descriptions and dream about the delicious food and beautiful flowers they would cultivate come spring and summer.


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