Illustration by Laura Thompson

When horticulturist Warner O’Keefe published his annual seed catalog in 1870, he wrote, “We hope, not only prove a valuable aid to our customers but assist in disseminating an increasing taste for gardening art.” The canny Rochester, N.Y.-based seed peddler was onto something. With multiple ornate typefaces, his catalogs were as visually stunning as they were practical. O’Keefe, knew that these printed annuals could sell more than just flowers. As seed catalogs, working on sight unseen, have always had to make fertile ground of the imagination.

At the turn of the 20th century, influenced by the influx of global trade and colonial expansion, the market for exotic trees and blooms turned into a roaring consumer trade. Between 1870 and 1930 the US Census charted a 275 percent spike in seed and nursery firms across the country. And although advertising was still a relatively new concept—the first agency in America had only launched in 1841—lower postal rates, the arrival of mail order, and printing innovations set the stage for a horticultural catalog boom. 

Trade card, C. Ribsam & Sons, Trenton, New Jersey, 1880s, Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection

Up until then, plant nurseries were relatively few and the seed catalog was a plain business. But the arrival of catalogs like O’Keefe’s inspired a canny crop of entrepreneurs to invest in their advertising, many taking different approaches to design eye-catching, color-laden graphics to lure their customers. 

Lower postal rates, the arrival of mail order, and printing innovations set the stage for a horticultural catalog boom. 

Under figures such as Joseph Breck, a founding member of the American Seed Trade Association, and nurseryman John Lewis Childs—hand-illustrated type designs flourished. The text became an ornamental treatment that sold catalogs, just as much as the spectacular flowers within. Detailed illustrations, showing variations in size and form of carbuncular squash and jeweled sweetcorn among others, crept into pages more frequently. Belgian-born Albert Blanc’s editions of Hints on Cacti, published between 1886 to 1898, were decorated by his own hand. The woodcut and electrotype drawings, picturing glimpses of interiors or pots arranged artfully in clusters and sometimes Blanc himself as a human-scale, became so popular that they kickstarted a full-blown transatlantic cacti trend that would put millennials to shame.

But there was no Advertising Standards Authority in the 19th century. “Cannot some plan be devised to put a stop to vegetable and fruit humbugging?” wrote one disgruntled Maryland farmer. Even in these early days of consumer culture, complaints of false advertising and dodgy supply chains were rife. To prove viability the British passed the Seed Adulteration Act of 1869. But in the US, due to the vast geographical distances, the problem was exacerbated by what Bates Harrington called “oily-tongued fellows with florid prints of impossible fruits.” The brainwave of Dellon Marcus Dewey, these stenciled theorem paintings were given to door-to-door salesmen as they could demonstrate a plant’s visual potential. “In a world often devoid of colorful images,” writes academic Cheryl Lyon-Jenness in the Business History Review, “brilliant plates spread across a farm wife’s kitchen table gave itinerant plant peddlers a tremendous advantage.” As one Rochester-based florist and seedsman James Vick observed, some people just like to be “humbugged.” 

The woodcut and electrotype drawings became so popular that they kickstarted a full-blown transatlantic cacti trend that would put millennials to shame.

Of the postbellum entrepreneurs, it was Vick who most leaned into the seductive potential of color. His editorship at Genesee Farmer saw readership swell with the introduction of floral illustrations and ornamental borders, and it was his discerning eye that later launched Vick’s Illustrated Monthly. From its pages, he offered electrotypes of any engravings, for a low fee, to “give our editorial friends an opportunity to illustrate and beautify their papers.” His hopes of cultivating taste and meaning within the American garden didn’t stop there, as he produced colorful adverts, seed packets, seed boxes, and collectible trade cards. And as an incentive with mail orders, he offered free chromolithographs of sprawling floral bouquets, loud with color and worthy of a frame.

Left: Petunias, Chromolithograph, Vick’s Illustrated Catalogue and Floral Guide (1871). Right: The cover of Vick’s Illustrated Catalogue and Floral Guide (1871). Nursery and Seed Trade Catalogues Collection (MSS Seed), Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University

Chromolithography became the dominant method for catalog covers between 1890 to 1914. The method saw artists draw onto a series of stone slabs, each devoted to a single color, then printed in succession to create a layered design. It produced alluring visual covers that sold. W. Atlee Burpee’s firm saw between 3,000 and 7,000 mail orders a day in 1911, leading him to nickname his catalogs the “silent salesman.”

One especially whimsical Burpee cover shows cherubs lifting a cornucopia of produce into the heavens. “Vegetables and flowers were often made to look very large,” says Alice Krinsky Formiga of Oregon State University. The assistant professor explains that while artistic representations were used as a reliable demonstration of fully-grown plants, at times artwork was commissioned to “evoke a sentiment.” Themes of hope to progress to patriotism can all be mined in the nursery and seed trade catalogs archives, alongside evidence of the social hierarchies at play. “Many of the women appear as elegant ladies in a garden,” she says, “not dressed for digging in the dirt.”

The cover of Garden Museum Journal No. 38 The Elphick’s Archive, The Garden Museum, London. Images courtesy of the Garden Museum, published with kind permission from Anthony Elphick

It wasn’t always the largest firms that were producing the most sophisticated designs. Elphick’s, a family-run firm in Britain, developed a creative strategy that included commissioning well-respected photographers. Charles Jones, an “ingenious gardener” according to The Gardener’s Chronicle, shot Elphick’s catalog’s gelatin silver portraits of vegetables and flowers. With an expert eye, his still life illustrations reverentially linger on the organic forms and textures of each vegetable. It was common for firms to buy stock imagery for marketing, but Elphick’s publications show the tremendous care that went into their creative vision. “Our catalog was distributed to massive amounts of people, from large country houses to convents and the county council,” says Tony Elphick, the last generation to look after the firm in its 180-year-history. “It was a way of communicating.” 

Seed catalogs’ role as communicators and educators came to the fore during the WWI and WWII, as firms looked to the “victory garden” movement that took shape across Europe, Australia, and the US. Aligning with state-backed propaganda, US seed firms pictured Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty to emphasize Hoover’s oft-cited message, “food will win the war.” In WWII, the same movements were mobilized. Burpee, and others, produced covers of V-shaped corn or vegetable bombs. It’s estimated more than 20 million victory gardens were planted, as urban Americans turned every inch of space into a kitchen garden. Many of whom turned to seed catalogs to learn how. 

But for all the patriotism, Joyce Connolly, museum specialist at Smithsonian Gardens, notes that the heyday of vegetable seeds only lasted through World War II. “The advent of the supermarket in the 1930s meant that people did not have to grow their vegetables out of necessity,” she explains. “It was easier for most people to buy them from the store.”

Images from the Elphick archive.

As the spring season is underway, echoes of the early 20th century can be seen today. “Heirloom” fruit and vegetables appear to be having a bumper year. Open-pollinated varieties have been spotlighted for their role in forming greater resilience against food insecurity and climate change, as their seeds can be saved. Hudson Valley Seed Company and Piccolo Seeds, who both showcase visually enticing packets, have boosted the movement to claw back our horticultural heritage from biotech by reaching into historic gardens. But they are continuing another legacy: a rich visual history set in motion over a hundred years ago by 19th-century seedsmen like Albert Blanc and Elphick. 

In the age of the internet, the printed pages of earlier seed catalogs have a simple allure. “I think seed catalogs are very nostalgic for many people,” says Tony Elphick. “They are a reminder of their youth.” They reflect a time when the ritual of eating wasn’t about stomping to the nearest Walmart, but about conjuring magic from the infinitesimal nothingness of a seed. And for newer generations, too, the seed packets of today increasingly exercise that radical potential—take Hudson Valley’s Pansy Mix Art Pack in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, reclaiming a once derogatory term for a beautiful purpose. “The point of having art on our pack is not only to create an intersection of art and agriculture,” says Catherine Kaczor, “but also to tell the story of seed which is so deeply rooted in our history and culture.”