Label on wooden display box of Shaker Seeds, c 1870
In the middle of the 18C they left England & went to America, arriving in New York in August 1774. In the fall of 1776, they settled in Watervliet, New York. The 1st organized & recognized group of Shakers, it was officially established in New Lebanon, New York around 1787. By 1882 there were 16 other venues.
The Shakers proved to be avid gardeners who saved the best seeds to cultivate the following year. Joseph Turner of Watervliet assigned about 2 acres of land in 1790 for the purpose of raising vegetable seeds to sell for an income. He is the 1st known Shaker to package seeds for sale, making him the first American seed salesman. The Watervliet Shakers were the first people in the United States to sell garden seeds commercially. About this same time the Shaker community at New Lebanon began selling their surplus seeds. However, it was not until 1795, that they set aside land for the purpose of seed production for sale to outsiders. Shakers also did this at Canterbury, New Hampshire, & Hancock, Massachusetts.
At the beginning of the 19C, Shaker seed salesmen were one of the few sources of seeds for the American gardener. Seed sales was one of the Shakers' most successful enterprises, providing the greater portion of their total income. The Shaker seed business stemmed from their rural agricultural roots & sold mostly to small villages & farming communities in the northeastern United States. Their marketing techniques were state of the art. The Shaker Seed Company became known for high quality & fair prices. The Shakers provided useful things – garden seeds – at a time of need for Americans moving West & settling new frontiers.
The Shakers of New Lebanon sold their own garden seeds from 1794. Commercial sales as "a prominent industry" began in 1800. At their zenith, the Shakers of New Lebanon sold over 37,000 pounds of seeds for a value of nearly $34,000 in a 25-year period in the mid-19C. About this same time the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire & the Enfield Shakers in Connecticut had joined the seed selling business as well with over a hundred acres dedicated just to seed production. The Mount Lebanon community was the most successful of all the Shaker communities in purveying seeds. From 1800 to 1880 the Shakers sold their seeds throughout North America, & the seeds were considered of the highest quality available. In some cases, Shaker seeds were the only seed source for rural Americans.
New Lebanon sales records show that in the decade before & after 1800 the onion seed sold the best. Shaker peddler Artemas Markham showed in his records of 1795 that over 200 pounds of onion seeds were sold. In 1800 over 44 pounds of a variety of vegetable seeds sold, including mangelwurzel blood beet, carrot, cucumber, & summer squash, begetting $406 in income. Vegetables seeds were the main offering; however, flowers, herbs, & grasses also were available. The height of the Shaker seed business was in 1840, constituting at that point their chief industry.
The Shaker Seed Company of New Lebanon listed just over a dozen varieties of seeds in their early years. By 1873 they were offering 8 different kinds of tomato, 7 kinds of turnip, 6 kinds of lettuce, 9 kinds of squash, 11 kinds of cabbage, 16 kinds of peas, & 15 kinds of beans. Their catalogs offered over a hundred kinds of seeds by 1890.
Paper envelope packaging
The Shakers are credited with developing the idea of putting seeds in small paper envelope-style packets to sell to the general public. They introduced the innovation of placing tiny seeds in small paper envelopes bearing printed planting instructions for best results as well as storage & sometimes cooking suggestions. The Shakers were the 1st to use paper envelope-style packets as a strategy to sell & distribute seeds.
The concept itself is attributed to Shakers Josiah Holmes & Jonathan Holmes of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. Before the development of the paper packets of seeds, the only way seeds were sold was in bulk in cloth sacks. The first seed envelope packets were made with plain brown paper with the seed variety name, where the seeds came from, & sometimes the grower's name. The 1st paper packets were pieces of paper cut into 8 different sizes for the different seed types. The small paper envelopes were made by hand & folded & glued accordingly. Ebenezer Alden invented a printing block device for printing the envelopes by hand.
Specific machines were made early in the 19C to speed the process of cutting & printing the packets. New Lebanon Shaker journals referred to the seed packet sizes as: pound-bag size, bean size, beet size, onion size, cucumber size, cucumber long size, radish size, & lettuce size. The small paper envelope packets filled with seeds were boxed in colorful wooden displays made by the Shakers & marketed throughout the United States in the 19C.
General stores throughout the United States displayed these wooden boxes with various seed envelope packet "papers" – as the Shakers called them. A typical box would hold 200 envelope packets that sold for 5 or 6 cents apiece. Shaker vendors had routes throughout the nation, many times a long distance from their home, but concentrated in the northeastern United States. Typically, the Shaker peddlers would deposit the wooden boxes of seed packet "papers" to the general stores in the spring on consignment & then in the fall gather them back up with their share of sales. Another method of distribution of the Shaker seeds was through mail-order. The Shaker Seed Company at New Lebanon was the most industrious of all the Shaker communities for producing seeds. The seed envelopes they made between 1846 & 1870 averaged over a hundred thousand packets per year.
The Shaker philosophy encouraged excellence throughout their business practices, which was integral to their success. It also worked against them, as they ignored then outside competitors who, with different commercial philosophies, competed based mainly on price. Improved cheaper transportation methods opened the rural markets to the city commercial seed vendors, & competition then came about. The Shakers were unwilling to compete on price with the cheaper commercial dealerships. Their seed business deteriorated in the long run because of this. In 1790, when the New Lebanon Shaker community developed their seed business, the population in the United States was just under 4 million. When nearly a century later the Shaker Seed Company ceased to exist as a seed business around 1890, the population of the nation was about 52 million.