Dealers in Williamsburg, Virginia
Traveling Peter Bellet was not the town’s first seed merchant or seed trader. John Custis (1678-1749) was a prominent citizen of Williamsburg with an impressive garden. He sent seed to John Bartram, the Philadelphia naturalist & botanist. Bartram told Peter Collinson that Custis’ garden was 2nd only to that of John Clayton, the English born Virginia naturalist of Gloucester County. Custis also sent seeds across the Atlantic to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), who was a wealthy English Quaker woolen merchant &botanist.
Williamsburg gardeners Thomas Crease & James Nicholson, who worked consecutively at the college of William &Mary from 1726 until 1773, supplemented their income by selling seeds & plants grown in the college’s botanical & kitchen gardens, as did James Wilson after 1779.
Terraced Kitchen Garden at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg
William Smith advertised trees he was growing in his nursery in Surry County in the 1755 Williamsburg newspaper, as did Thomas Sorsby of Surry County in 1763.
Orchardist William Smith offered, "Hughs’s Crab, Bray’s White Apple, Newton Pippin, Golden Pippin, French Pippin, Dutch Pippin, Clark’s Pearmain, Royal Pearmain, Baker’s Pearmain, Lone’s Pearmain, Father Abraham, Harrison’s Red, Ruffin’s large Cheese Apple, Baker’s Nonsuch, Ludwell’s Seedling, Golden Russet, Nonpareil, May Apple, Summer Codling, Winter Codling, Gillefe’s Cyder Apple, Green Gage Plumb, Bonum Magnum Plumb, Orleans Plumb, Imperial Plumb, Damascene Plumb, May Pear, Holt’s Sugar Pear, Autumn Bergamot Pear, Summer Pear, Winter Bergamot, Orange Bergamot, Mount Sir John, Pound Pear, Burr de Roy, Black Heart Cherry, May Duke Cherry, John Edmond’s Nonsuch Cherry, White Heart Cherry, Carnation Cherry, Kentish Cherry, Marrello Cherry, Double Blossom Cherry, Double Blossom Peaches, Filberts Red & White."
Nurseryman Thomas Sorsby had available, "Best cheese apple, long stems, Pamunkey, Eppes, Newtown pippins, Bray’s white apples, Clark’s pearmains, Lightfoot’s Father Abrahams, Sorsby’s Father Abrahams, Lightfoot’s Hughes, Sorsby’s Hughes, Ellis’s Hughes, New-York Yellow apples, Golden russeteens, Westbrook’s Sammons’s, horse apples, royal pearmains, a choice red apple, best May apples, Sally Gray’s apple, Old .England apple, green apple, Harvey’s apple, peach trees [Prunus persica], and cherry trees."
In 1759, the Governor's Palace gardener placed the following ad in the Virginia Gazette,"Just imported in the Good-Intent, Capt. Reddick, and to be sold Cheap, for ready Money, by the Subscriber, living at the Palace, in Williamsburg; where Gentlemen may depend on being well served, with the following Garden-Seeds, by - Their humble Servant, Christopher Ayscough.
"Six-week Peas, Charlton Hotspur Peas, Marrowfat Peas, Nonpareil Peas, Spanish Morrotto Peas, Sugar Dwarf Peas, Windsor Beans, Long-poded Beans, White Blossom Beans, Green Beans, Nonpareil Beans, large English Turnip, early Dutch Turnip, early Dutch Cabbage, Sugar-Loaf Cabbage, Battersea Cabbage, large Winter Cabbage, Red Cabbage, Yellow Savoy Cabbage, Green Savoy Cabbage, early Colliflower, late Colliflower, Colliflower Brocoli, Purple Brocoli, curled Colewort, Scarlet Raddish, short-topped Raddish, white Turnip Raddish, black Turnip Raddish, white gass Lettuce, black Gass Lettuce, brown Dutch Lettuce, Nonpareil Lettuce, Silesia Lettuce, white curled Endive, white Spanish Onion, English Onion, Leek, Chardoon, Italian Celery, white Mustard, Garden Cresses, Winter Cresses, Charvel, Clary &c."
In Williamsburg, shipments of seeds arriving from England were also sold in local shops. In 1773, a Virginia Gazette notice announced, "JUST arrived, in the Unity, Captain Goosley, and to be sold at John Carter's store, for ready Money, a Variety of fresh GARDEN SEEDS, namely, Early Golden Hotspur Peas, Early Charlton Peas, Ledman's Dwarf Peas, short Sugar Peas, Dwarf Marrow Peas, Long Pod Beans, Windsor Beans, Canterbury Dwarf Kidney Beans, Silver Skin Onion Seed, Carrot Seed, white round Turnip Seed, Salmon Radish Seed, Spinnage, solid Celery, curled Parsley, curled Cress, Early Dwarf Sugar Loaf Cabbage, large ditto, large English Ditto, best Colliflower Seed, purple and green Brocoli, white Coss Lettuce, Silensia."
When early peas became the rage in the 1770s, 2 stores in Williamsburg, Greenhow StoreRobert Nicolson Shop, which did not often sell seeds, offer peas for sale among their general merchandise lines.
James Wilson was the gardener at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. In 1774, he placed an ad in the local paper, "Just Imported, and to be SOLD by JAMES WILSON, Gardener at the College, the following SEEDS, which are all fresh and the best of their Kinds,
PEASE - Earliest, best Charlton, Golden Hotspur, Nonpareil, Marrowfat, Green Rouncival, Spanish Moratto, and Glory of England.
BEANS - Mazagon, Long Pod, Windsor, Early Hotspur, and White Blossom.
CABBAGE - Early Yorkshire, Early Bottersea, Early Sugar Loaf, White Dutch, Red, and Large Hollow.
TURNIP - Early Dutch, Norfolk Early Green, and Round Red.
RADISH - Salmon, Short Topped, White Spanish, and Black-
Green and Yellow Savoy, White and Purple Brocoli, Early and Late Cauliflower, Red and White Beet, White Mustard, Round Leaf and Common Cresses, Solid Celery, London Leek, Early Carrot Skiret, Lettuce Seed of all Sorts, fine Spinage Seed, Cucumber Seed of Different Kinds, and a great Variety of other Seeds, too tedious to mention."
When gardener James Stewart, who was also a dyer & weaver, returned in 1775 from several months in England, he offered seeds & roots of dye plants for sale to his fellow Virginians with instructions on their cultivation & the manufacture of dyes for linen, cotton, & woolen fabrics.
Joseph Hornsby, who lived in Williamsburg in the Peyton Randolph house from 1783 until 1796, purchased from Bellet just before moving to Kentucky. When he decided to move West, Hornsby began gathering up seeds & small plants from his own garden & sorting them into labeled bags. Those plants that he could not easily remove, he purchased from Bellet to plant in his new garden in Kentucky. In his Diary of Planting &Gardening, in March 1798, he reported that he had sown the seeds from Bellet, & “the Plants were very fine.”
Bellet used the same technique to sell his flower stock. He appealed to the immediacy of the senses rather than the memories of his prospective customers, in the days before color-illustrated advertising. Bellet also offered flowering shrubs & ornamental trees as well as more practical fruit trees & vegetable seeds.
In the fall of 1799, Bellet’s newspaper advertisements listed prices for the first time, & they noted that he was still importing seeds & plants from London. The ad promised that he would prepare a new catalogue for potential clients in the coming spring. By 1799, Bellet has also added grafted fruit trees to his stock.
Bellet’s next public notice appeared in October 1800. Now permanently settled in Williamsburg, his business was developing into a regional nursery & seed distributorship. How seeds, trees, & shrubs were shipped to mid-Atlantic gardeners who placed orders was not specified in the newspaper notices. By 1800, Bellet was collecting & saving seed from his own Virginia beds & offering them for sale to the public in addition to his usual imported seed stock. He offered to sell seed by the pound or by the box.
Nurseryman Bellet expanded his base of operations southwards to Norfolk. He completed his 1801 catalogue during the slow winter months of 1800, & offered it to prospective buyers at the store of a French merchant named Bonnard, at the Norfolk Market. Bellet advertised in the fall of 1801, that he had 8,000 growing trees for sale plus his usual supply of flower &vegetable roots & seeds. His nursery stock consisted of 1-4 year old varieties of grafted trees including 46 apples, 44 pears, 30 peaches, 18 plums, 10 nectarines, 10 apricots, 20 cherries, 4 almonds, 5 mulberries, and 5 walnuts. He had imported 80 varieties from Normandy alone.
By 1803, Bellet’s stock of fruit trees at this Williamsburg nursery had grown to 20,000; and he had regular sales agents in both Petersburg & Richmond who would accept orders for seed & plant stock. His agents in nearby towns were given their own supply of free printed catalogues.
In an 1803 advertisement Bellet offered to sell his trees wholesale, retail & on credit. So large was his stock that he was proposing to supply “country stores” with seeds & plants for resale “on the most moderate terms.” Store owners intrigued by the idea could apply to Bellet directly at this nursery in Williamsburg or to his Richmond agent, said the ad.
Bellet had increased the size of his 5 acre nursery in 1804, by buying 15 acres of adjoining land. Here he planted even more trees, but apparently his health & energy were beginning to fail. After 10 years in Williamsburg, Bellet decided to return north. In the winter of 1804, he offered for sale his 20-acre nursery of “well-manuered” land plus his gardening tools, eight slave gardeners, & livestock.
By now his stock of fruit trees had grown to 100,000, but he had allowed his seed supply to dwindle to only “a small quantity,” & he had bought no new perishable stock. Bellet’s intention was to sell his stock, slaves, &tools before May 1, 1805, or put them all up for sale at public auction on that date, after which he planned to sell any remaining plant stock “on lower terms than usual” & then more to New York State. Orders for any part of the property or the whole could be left with Bellet’s agents in Richmond or Petersburg. Bellet had sold 5 acres of his nursery & was attempting to dispose of his last two slave gardeners, when he placed his final newspaper notice two winters later, just before he died in Williamsburg.
Itinerant seed huckster Peter Bellet’s astute marketing tactics had expanded his mid-Atlantic business from a nursery of a few seedlings to 100,000 trees in little more than a decade of residence in Williamsburg.