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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seed Stories

About this time of year gardeners all over the country are planting the seeds they ordered over the winter. Tending tiny seedlings under heat lamps, they wonder if the rainbow chard or Early Girl tomatoes they have planted will live up to the tantalizing images and descriptions featured in numerous nursery catalogs. Last year my family and I planted our first garden, with, shall we say, mixed results. The squirrels ate all of the tomatoes. The beets were KO’d by a sweltering heat wave and the carrots pathetically stayed at the one-inch mark.  I did, however, manage to grow the best cucumbers--crisp and firm, with a delicate, aromatic flavor. That is, until the plants eventually succumbed to a filmy layer of mildew. Despite my mostly failed attempts, I enjoyed the time I spent gardening.
My foray into gardening revealed that seeds can tell stories. Sad or happy, surprising or disappointing, stories and seeds are natural vessels for our hopes. Gardening has consistently remained one of America’s most popular pastimes since the time of Thomas Jefferson, and is currently experiencing a revival propelled by the growing interest in sustainability and green lifestyles. My favorite part of researching in archives is recovering fragments of everyday life—discovering the varied and interesting lives of those who came before us. Dig a little, and you find an amazing story. While gardens are often transient, changing from year to year or disappearing altogether, the experience of growing a garden can be lasting and transformative.
Burpee Company contest announcement.
Founded in 1876, W. Atlee Burpee & Company grew to be the largest seed company in the world by the early twentieth century. Attentive to the growing importance of advertising and the seductive qualities of color, its mail-order catalogs were full of handsome photogravures and chromolithographs of vegetables and blooming flowers. In 1924 the company advertised a contest in its Seed Annual asking customers to write in about “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me,” with prizes for the best stories ranging from five to two hundred and fifty dollars. The thousands of letters that were submitted run the gamut from the frank and scientific, dwelling on the technical minutiae of horticulture, to the touching, funny, and theatrical. Some gardeners were thankful for a new hobby, food on the table, flowers admired and envied by their neighbors, or a chance to connect with their children. Others quite dramatically credited Burpee’s seeds with their recovery from deadly illnesses and curing them of depression and malaise. One mother’s experience of growing a garden with Burpee’s seeds inspired her to thank Burpee for sparing her children from “the evil influence of idle neighborhood boys” and encouraging an “appetite for previously despised vegetables.”

Cecilia Auge, "110 lbs. of pep," in her garden.
Cecilia Auge of Mendota, Minnesota, a self-described “19 year old farmette” planted one and a half pounds of onion seeds on land her father gave her for helping him weed. She earned eighty dollars the first year and twice that much the next. With her hard-earned money she bought an incubator and eggs, effectively producing fifteen chickens from a handful of seeds. “Some my age are richer financially,” she wrote in, “but the knowledge I have gained and being able to be out close to nature . . . has I am sure made me a better more contented, home loving girl than I ever could have been if I didn’t have something all my own to work for.”
The prize-winning Food Club of Ottawa, Ohio.

   August Heckman, leader of the Food Club of Ottawa, Ohio, was such a dedicated customer that she wrote to the company to tell them that “I expect to be with you until flowers from Burpee will bloom on my grave.” Her plant preferences changed over the years, from Witloof chicory one year to zinnias the next, but she always planted Burpee seeds. The girls in her club canned vegetables from her garden and won multiple prizes for their canning displays at state and county fairs.
Roughly 4,000 contest letters, as well as many accompanying photographs, are part of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. The collection includes records of plant trials, business and advertising records, and ephemera from over one hundred  years of the company’s history. The National Museum of American History Library’s  American Trade Literature Collection includes catalogs from Burpee and other seed companies dating back to the early nineteenth century. To all of you who sent away for seeds and are now tending your tiny plants, good luck with your garden story. (I, for one, will be sticking with transplants this year!)
-Kate Fox
Intern, Archives of American Gardens

1 comment:

  1. Way to go, Kate. You write very well. As a gardener I enjoyed the story.