Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Early Seed Dealers & Nursery Owners - Philadelphia

From the middle of the 18C on, gardeners close to Philadelphia could take advantage of local seed & nursery businesses. Although many believe that David Landreth (1752-1836)(who opened his nursery & seed business in 1784) was the first dealer in the area, he was not. John (1699-1777) & William (1739-1823) Bartram had been selling & exporting seeds & plants since the middle of the century from their 1728 botanic garden at Kingsessing just outside Philadelphia. Another early gardener in Philadelphia was James Alexander, who sold vegetable & herb seeds imported from London in Philadelphia in 1751.

From the 1750s through the 1770s, the most successful Philadelphia seed merchant was a Welsh woman, Hannah Davis Dubre (1723-1776) (sometimes spelled Duberry), of the Northern Liberties area two miles from the Philadelphia city limit, on the Wissahickon Road. She & her husband, Jacob Dubre (1719-1768), married in Philadelphia in 1758, & owned 33 acres, which later increased to 50 acres, with a bearing orchard of grafted fruit trees, some meadow land, a large brick house & detached brick kitchen with a pump just outside the door, a barn & several other outbuildings, & a large kitchen garden that included many asparagus beds.

Even after her husband’s death in 1768, “the widow Dubre” kept her garden & business going. From 1754 through 1775 she offered locally grown seed & fruit trees on both a retail & a wholesale basis. She warranted her seeds as “fresh & good: & sold large quantities to local shopkeepers for resale to their clients & to exporters for trade out of the country."
Before 1770, she kept agents in town, including John & Samuel Bissell, John Lownes, & Ann Powell near the Work House on Third Street, to supply both retail & wholesale customers who did not want to travel the 2 miles out of town to visit her plantation. After 1770, she used James Truman, a butcher & meat curer in Elbow Lane near the Harp & Crown Tavern, as her city agent.

By 1766, she was advertising that she could fill large orders for “Captains of Vessels” for exportation to the West Indies “on the shortest Notice.” Over a twenty-year period, Hannah Davis Dubre expanded her operation from a small local seed concern to a large-quantity supply business catering to merchants & international traders.

Peter Crouwells & Co., Gardeners and Florists, in Philadelphia, advertised seeds, bulbs, & roots for sale as far away as the Viginia Gazette in 1786.

In 1780, David Landreth & his family left England for Montreal, Canada, where he intended to establish a seed business. Fairly quickly, the harsh Canadian climate forced him to reconsider; and he relocated to Philadelphia. On January 7, 1784, Landreth started his first garden center on High Street, which is now 1210 Market Street. He chose Pennsylvania; because people appeared to have more free time there, & he believed Philadelphia was the center of wealth & sophistication in the United States. David Landreth was joined in Philadelphia seedstore by his brother Cuthbert Landreth (1746-1828) in 1789.

Landreth's Bloomsdale Farm Circa 1847

Initially, Landreth sold seeds in the Gray's Ferry area of  Philadelphia & to several nearby estates; but his business and his reputation grew steadily and soon he numbered George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and even Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother who married a Baltimore belle) among his customers.  

Landreth’s Bloomsdale Farm 1852

Landreth once extended George Washington 30 day's credit on his unpaid bill. Jefferson in great detail describes his purchases from the Philadelphia brothers in his Monticello diaries. He purchased & planted various fruit trees at his famous Virginia estate after visiting the horticultural hothouses located in Gray's Ferry.

But, in the end, The most important of the new garden entrepreneurs was Bernard M'Mahon (1775-1816), who came to Philadelphia from Ireland in 1796, to establish a seed and nursery business. "He enjoyed the friendship of Thomas Jefferson...the Lewis and Clark expedition was planned at his house...(he was) instrumental in distributing the seeds which those explorers collected."

In 1806, M'Mahon wrote The American Gardener's Calendar, which was printed in 11 editions between 1806-1857. A Philadelphia newspaper called the book "a precious treasure" that "ought to occupy a place in every house in this country."

M'Mahon's main motive in writing was to expand his profitable nursery enterprise. Almost all of America's earliest indigenours gardening books served as the liason between the nurseryman & an emerging middle-income group of home gardeners. An increasing leisure time & interest in the craft grew, there were not enough trained professional gardeners to go around nor the funds to employ them.

By 1806, M'Mahon understood the proud new country well enough to appeal to guilt and national hubris in his efforts to sell his readers on the concept of pleasure gardening. In his introduction, M'Mahon lamented that America had "not yet made that rapid progress in Gardening...which might naturally be expected from an intelligent, happy and independent people, possessed so universally of landed property, unoppressed by taxation or tithes, and blest with consequent comfort and affluence."

M'Mahon concluded that one reason for this neglect was the lack of a proper reference book on American gardening, a situation which he volunteered to rectify. In 1804, his catalogue of seeds included 1,000 "species."

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