It’s Spring! A Spotlight on Seed Catalogs

From our docent and Girl Scout Ambassador, Ava Gonzalez:

In researching Victorian gardening for the Hunter House, my favorite materials to flip through were historic seed catalogues. Through the Smithsonian online collection and the Internet Archive, hundreds of catalogues with their elaborately decorated covers are available for public viewing. Nineteenth century glamour may not scream “Burpee Seeds”, but a lot can be learned from these materials. Traditionally speaking, families were dependent upon themselves and the community to acquire fruits and vegetables. Colonial mothers kept extensive vegetable gardens. Through the World Wars, as fresh
produce was diverted to troops, women and children supplemented their rations through Victory Gardens (In Canada, they could receive “Soldiers of the Soil” pins). There is no question, however, that all classes of Victorian people often found themselves preoccupied with gardening, as it was through gardening that food was produced. Wealthy Victorian families might have hired a gardener to live on the property, and expected him to raise pineapples, grapes, and other exotic fruits all year round. It was only later, in the 19th century that eventual cultural, commercial, and population changes would cause a strong shift from home gardening. The seasonal catalogues reveal a wealth of information about the Victorian lifestyle. Let’s take a look.
The first selection is 1897 Seed Catalogue, distributed by Robert Evans & Co.

evansgarden 1

Funnily enough, this catalogue is the only featured under the search tag “cannon balls”. The Queen herself sits in the upper left hand corner, seeming to gaze down upon her soldiers, port, and a wash of ripe vegetables. Above her are several flowers, all labeled with their names; no matter how pretty a piece of artwork might be, it is still an advertisement.

Robert Evans & Co. was a seed company based in Hamilton, Ontario; one of the only records I have found of it is a passage of the book, Hamilton: The Birmingham of Canada (1892). A line on page 101 reads, “Wherever there is a farm or a garden, or a
lover of flowering bulbs and plants, the name of Robert Evans is a household word, and ample guarantee for the name, germinating qualities, and value of the seeds sent out”.
See more about it here:

The next piece is the back cover of the Parker and Wood Seeds, Plants, and Bulbs of 1892.

1892garden b

A young lady stands holding a bouquet of wildflowers. I find the image reminiscent of the earlier Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais. The young woman on this plant catalogue stands in front of a stream, and looks out into the distance. In fact, the Smithsonian Blog Unbound pairs it with a short quote by late docent and writer Elizabeth Periale.
“Everything is flowering, there are still a few cherry blossoms to see, so I might as well wisp downtown to catch today’s parade and other events, a garland in my hair, my ethereal gown trailing along the Mall. . .”

Many Victorian catalogues featured women as models, touting bunches of flowers or baskets of veggies. One might say that it idealized farming; they showed women hoeing or raking in a field of crops, with perfect hair, makeup, and dresses, despite the grueling activity.

The last cover is from Vaughan’s Seed Store Autumn Bulbs and Plants (1898).

vaughangarden a

In contrast to the Canadian pride shown in the first catalogue, a row of flag colored hyacinths aim to create nostalgia for the past days of summer. Most early Victorian  publications featured detailed chromolithographs of the new offerings for the upcoming year. In fact, seeds salesmen of the 19th century are responsible for the popularization of most new species among the general public. Landreth’s Seed Co. introduced The United States’ first white potato is 1811. Clever marketing, like seen on this cover, draws in even the most conservative gardeners. Written just above two waving American flags, Vaughan’s has printed, “Gardening is an employment for which no man is too high or too low”.

To read more about Vaughan’s Seed Store, visit the Western Springs Historical Society website: grass-seed- to-catalog- sales/

There are hundreds of seed catalogue covers I haven’t mentioned, with countless strange features. Carnivals, children, and flocks of cherubs all grace the front page. Not to mention how many quirky descriptions fill their pages. Please feel inspired to take a look for yourself, or ask neighbors if they have any extra gardening papers in their sheds. Many a grandparent squirreled them away, only to be found year later, stacked like National Geographic in the attic. You’d be surprised what you might find!


***Ava is responsible for the creation of our new Victorian Kitchen Garden exhibit, which is opening this spring. We are indebted to her for her efforts.***


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