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Friday, January 28, 2011

Starting From Seed, Mail Order Garden Catalogs

After grumbling about the cold and rainy winter weather, a colleague reminded me that winter is the best time for planning a garden since many seed catalogs would soon be arriving in the mail. My colleague was right. It just so happens that the entire month of January is celebrated as “National Mail Order Gardening Month.” Nowadays after we’ve ordered our seeds by mail or online, we generally toss or, better yet, recycle those catalogs. However, it wasn’t too long ago that garden catalog publishers used the skills of artists and illustrators to entice buyers with their plant offerings making these meant-to-be-thrown-away catalogs worth collecting.

The first seed catalog printed in America was not at all enticing from a 21st century sales perspective. The Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbaceous Plants printed in 1783 by John Bartram Jr. (son of the famous American botanist John Bartram) was printed rather simply and without illustrations. Catalogs with more sales appeal came about in the middle to late nineteenth century including those crafted by Joseph Breck, James Vick, Dellon Dewey, J.C. Vaughn, Luther Burbank and W. Atlee Burpee. The horticulture and floriculture trades during this period experienced huge expansion due in part to both scientific advancements and the power of advertising. 

Front and back of the 1902 Burpee catalog
W. Atlee Burpee Company records
Archives of American Gardens
No other company did this with more fervor than W. Atlee Burpee & Company. In 1891, Burpee’s catalog was the first to feature engravings made from photographs; by 1901 this process was mechanized. Within just a few years, the industry followed suit and only a few catalogs featured hand-drawn illustrations. Burpee published an extensive catalog each year that was filled with mouth-watering illustrations and descriptions of vegetables and flowers that detailed their size, color, and growth characteristics. Distinctive names such as “Defiance Pansies,” “Matchless Melon,” and “Success Tomato” conjured up visions of triumph in the minds of both amateur gardeners and professional farmers. By 1915, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world, distributing over a million catalogs a year and receiving 10,000 orders a day.

For more information on the history of seed catalogs, see the bibliography compiled by Marca Woodhams, former librarian of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Horticulture branch (now part of Smithsonian’s Botany and Horticulture Library):

The Archives of American Gardens includes the business records of a number of nurseries and seed companies that operated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including W. Atlee Burpee & Company (Pennsylvania), H. Weber & Sons (Maryland), and Bedman Brothers (New Jersey). Many of these collections include nursery and seed catalogs that showcase fine examples of the work of artists and illustrators. In addition, AAG’s J. Horace McFarland Collection features thousands of images that McFarland’s publishing firm, Mount Pleasant Press, used to illustrate the numerous seed catalogs it printed during the first half of the twentieth century.

--Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens 


  1. This is such a delight for winter-weary eyes. It makes me want to plan a garden, and all I have for planting are a few flowerpots. No harm in dreaming, though!

  2. Yesterday I noticed a display of seed packet ceramic tiles at the Smithsonian Castle. I have searched to see if these tiles are offered for sale, but I have not found them. If anyone has a source for these, could you post it here?

    Many thanks!