Tuesday, July 11, 2017

19C Brings Retail & Wholsale Seed Catalogs

Seed storage warehouse of Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist. From a 1891 wholesale seed catalog

In North America, more seed and nursery companies came into being during the 2nd half of the 19C, especially after the US Civil War. Mail-order became much more common due to improved transportation networks and US postal reforms in the 1860s that made it cheaper to ship seeds and plant material, as well as catalog. Mail-order companies increased the size and number of catalogs they produced, often including colorful art, and most catalogs were shipped to customers free upon request. As more business was done by mail, catalogs contained more detailed ordering and shipping instructions. 

With the growth of cities & towns throughout the country, seed & nursery companies faced a huge potential market, but also increased competition. As a result, many catalogs tried to distinguish themselves from their competitors by promoting more novelties & giving vegetable & flower varieties names containing superlatives such as “Mammoth,” “Giant,” or “Perfection.” Catalog covers became more elaborate, & companies also devoted more space to illustrations, descriptions, testimonials, contests, special offers, & awards won at horticultural fairs or exhibitions. Novelties were often described in special sections of catalogs that were sometimes marked by different colored pages. Dingee & Conard’s 1889 catalog contained an insert on pink paper listing their discounted collections of popular varieties.

Catalogs catered to commercial farmers, home gardeners, & aspiring market growers. As truck farming increased in scale, there was a great demand for reliable commercial varieties, & some market gardeners began producing seeds for this purpose. Improvements in food preservation led to the need for varieties suitable for canning & pickling; in 1875, the refrigerated railway car was brought into use, leading to an even larger-scale commercial vegetable & fruit trade. 

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