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Seeds in the Stacks


Hello and welcome to Seeds in the Stacks. My name is Grace Costantino, and I’m and I’m the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. And today we are behind the scenes at the USDA National Agricultural Library where Special Collections Librarian Amy Morgan and Special Collections Archivist Sara Lee will be showing us some of the seed and nursery catalogs from the Library’s collection. So if you’ve been following BHL on social media you may have seen information about the Smithsonian Libraries/ Smithsonian Gardens Cultivating America’s Gardens exhibit which is currently on display at the National Museum of American History. That exhibit features vintage seed and nursery catalogs and it was that exhibit that inspired us to explore more catalogs with another BHL Member, the National Agricultural Library, who, in fact, has one of the world’s largest collections of seed and nursery catalogs. Over 200,000 catalogs in the collection. So today of course we’re only going to be able to see a very small selection from that massive collection, but what you will be happy to know is that National Agricultural Library has been digitizing their seed catalogs and making them freely available in BHL. Over 30,000 catalogs, as you’ll hear in just a moment, have been digitized to date. Everything you’re going to see today has been digitized. Keep an eye on the comments to this Facebook post because we’ll be posting links in BHL to all of these catalogs so that you can view them after the show. Also, if you have any questions, feel free to post them as a comment on the Facebook post and we’ll try to answer them during the broadcast. So Amy, Sara, thank you so much for having us here today. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourselves and where we are? Sure! I’m Sara Lee and I’ve worked at the Library over 20 years, and I’ve had the privilege of organizing this collection and sharing it with researchers. And I’m very happy about digitizing the materials so that the plant histories and the artwork will be available to so many more people. I’m Amy Morgan and I’ve been with the Library for a year and half. I very much have enjoyed learning everything that we do at this wonderful institution. NAL is the library for the USDA. We are one of five national libraries. We were established in 1862. We house and provide access to 8.5 million items which constitutes one of the world’s largest agricultural collections. In addition, we have specialized information centers, robust digital collections, and innovative ways to use and access information and big data. In Special Collections, we house and provide access to over 15,000 rare books, close to 500 manuscript collections, tens of thousands of photographs, a robust poster collection, and of course nursery and seed trade catalogs. Yes, and we are very excited to explore the seed catalogs today. I understand that the catalogs come from the Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection. Could you tell us more about that collection? Yes, this collection was named after its long-time curator, Henry Gilbert, and it consists of over 200,000 horticultural trade catalogs of American and foreign companies. The Library’s holdings represent businesses located in all states plus over 50 countries. The earliest catalog we have is from 1771, and we still collect modern-day catalogs. The bulk of our holdings do begin in the late 1800s, which was considered the golden age of mail order catalogs. The collection was begun by Percy Ricker, and he was USDA’s first economic botanist, and through the course of his work, he traveled to many plant nurseries throughout the country and he collected duplicate copies of catalogs and if they didn’t have any he would photograph them. So, when he retired in the 1940s, he was able to amass over 70,000 catalogs for the Library. For our digitization project, we have started with scanning the oldest catalogs and now have digitized until 1927, and so we have about 36,000 catalogs now available online. That’s wonderful, and we’re very excited about that at BHL to be able to have those in the collection. So if you are just joining us, we are behind the scenes at the USDA National Agricultural Library where Librarian Amy Morgan and Archivist Sara Lee are just about to start showing us some of the selections from this collection. Again, if you have any questions, leave them as comments on the Facebook post and we’ll try to answer them during the show. So Amy, Sara, what do we have up first? We’ll start with the Prince family nursery. The Prince nursery was located in Flushing, New York, on Long Island. It was America’s first commercial nursery and it was owned by four generations of Prince family members. The business dissolved after the Civil War in the 1860s. We’ll start by talking about this first catalog, which is considered a broadside. So it’s a one-page advertisement listing articles for sale and primarily at this time it was fruit trees. And incidentally, this company sold most of the apples, pears, and cherry trees that were available at the time, and you’ll find them through old American eastern coast nurseries. And prior to having a broadsheet available for people to select plants, you would only find advertisements of seeds in a weekly newspaper and it would tell you that you could go to your general store, or sometimes farmers would have extra surplus available from their farms to sell to people. So, if you notice that, in this case, some prices are available for the various fruits. And most of the fruit trees are sold at one shilling and six pence. There are a few other variations. Some of these very old catalogs don’t even have any prices listed at all, and that’s because a catalog would not necessarily be printed every single year, so they wanted to be able to change and update the prices. I want to point out apples, there are 24 different varieties listed there. And we’ll look next at a broadside, this is a manuscript copy, and this was probably done in the 1830s. There is no date, but it was during the time that William and Benjamin Prince owned the company, and in this case we’ll look again at apples as an example. Apples are now, the fruit trees are being sold for 25 cents, and there is definitely a longer listing of varieties that are available. And you’ll see that there are 80 kinds, including cider and ornamental apples. And one very interesting thing about this particular catalog is that starting in the early 1800s, this nursery would list their fruit trees in the order that the fruit ripened, so that would allow the farmer to plan for a succession of fresh fruit over the season. The next catalog I want to talk about is located here. It’s more of a booklet style and you can see that there’s additional description that is listed and again we’re looking at apples as an example. So you’ll see that there are codes here and this particular apple the Alexander is striped, it’s oblate in form, the size is very large, as a use it’s listed as table and kitchen, and it’s an excellent quality, and the season when it matures is between September and December. It’s very productive and juicy as well. So the information available has increased. And now there are over 420 varieties listed in this particular catalog. And over the years, the Prince family, they would collect more plants in different ways. They placed an advertisement in the paper where they would ask that sea captains when they traveled, they would ask them to collect native plants and seeds and bring them back and the Prince company would pay them for them. Another way that they were able to obtain plants was through plant collection expeditions located here in the United States, and most notably William Robert Prince went on these expeditions. He went with Harvard University and Columbia University, and he intended to collect all native plants that he could find in the U.S. and offer them for sale through his company. And all Prince members just had a love of botany and horticulture and published information about them in book format as well. We also have the business records of the company. The records consist of account books, and you’ll see an example that is here. That’s from 1848. And we also have a lot of correspondence, and here you will see a letter from Robert Carr. He had come into possession of the Bartram Nursery in 1813, and he was notifying the Prince family that they could now communicate with him. Well an interesting story about this nursery is that it was so well known that during the American Revolution the British General Howe made it a point to have his troops surround the whole nursery so that they didn’t lose any single plant, so that just shows you how well-known and amazing the company was. Definitely, well thank you! So who do we have up next? We have Breck and Sons. It was founded by Joseph Breck in 1822, he started a seed company and would eventually become a nurseryman as well. Not only was he a seedsman and a nurseryman, but he also was an author and a publisher of magazines and horticultural books. This is one of his books, The Flower Garden, and as he puts it, it’s for the new gardener who wants to enter the temple of flora. It was published in 1851, and it is today considered an excellent 19th century American gardening guide. So he took these skills and he innovated catalogs by creating interesting catalogs. 1838, 1840, same time period that we were with the Prince nursery. But he added a few things. One was that he added French names to go with the plants, the other is that he interwove essays in between the goods that he sold. This is a cultivation of flowers, and the cultivation of vegetables. And then he also added these lovely etchings, and there are 72 in the book, and they are what you think you would find in a gardening catalog, agricultural implements that you would need for the farm. But he also added household goods, such as this lovely stove, and the tea kettle, and the safe. And then he ends the catalog with this beautiful agricultural scene on the farm. And while he was a businessman, he also believed that horticulture could be an uplifting educational tool, and that’s partly why he added these illustrations, and the essays and the French into his catalogs, because these went far and wide to very rural, isolated areas. So now we’re going to fast-forward to 1886, and this is a catalog that was produced by his sons. By now Joseph has passed away. And you can see that it has a lovely, colorful cover and the picture of Joseph. What they did, they kept the illustrations and the essays, but they offered these lovely, lovely plates. So for example we have that cute little one with the potato, and then this mythical angel of midnight field corn, and then these lovely dahlias. Breck and Sons were very successful, and the company went from generation to generation, in fact, it went through five generations and then it was finally sold in the late 1900s. Great, well this has been so wonderful to get a closer look at these. If you are just joining us, we are behind the scenes at the USDA National Agricultural Library looking at some of these amazing vintage seed and nursery catalogs from their collection. If you have any questions, be sure to leave them as comments on the Facebook post and we’ll try to answer them during the show. And again everything you’re seeing today has been digitized in the Biodiversity Heritage Library so keep an eye on those comments on this post. We’re posting links to them as we show them to you. So Amy and Sara, what do we have up next? We’re moving into Vick’s. It was founded by James Vick in 1860, he started a seed business. James was originally from England, and then when he was around 12 years old, he went with his family to New York and that’s where he opened his business. Now prior to getting into the seed business, he had been a printer for newspapers, and this really helped him with his floral guides, which is what he called his catalogs. This first one was in 1862, this one is from 1869. And what he did was he revolutionized it by putting a color plate. He used chromolithography, and he really set the standard for the rest of the industry, you saw that in the Breck catalogs. He also was a writer, a journalist, so he really knew how to connect with people. He developed this personal, chatty way of communicating, in fact, he starts gossiping with his customers on the first page. Now he didn’t just publish and write catalogs, he also published books and monthly magazines as well. You see here in 1879, November’s monthly magazine, he has the beautiful etchings, and he has this lovely color plate Fuchsias. So one question that we have, are the artists for these catalogs often recorded or are they more often anonymous? That’s a good question. This just says painted for James Vick’s Monthly. And then some of the lithographs when you see, it will say “painted for”, but then other ones, for example with Breck, it had the company that actually did it and it wasn’t him, but he was a publisher too, more so than, I think Breck was somewhat, but he really was into publishing. So he also wrote a book, Vick’s Flower and Vegetable Garden, and he follows a pattern. He has the lovely etchings and the essays, and then he has this lovely color plate, very vivid. And so, I put these two out, these are later catalogs from late 1880s- 1890s. I just wanted to show you the lovely striped rose. And also the poppies right here. And they also used quotes: “Nothing is beautiful but the truth.” Now this is a fine example over here of as the name would suggest a blending of the monthly magazine and the floral guide. The first 30, 40 pages of this is really a magazine, a gardening magazine, with how to create prize asparagus and some tips on how to landscape some gardening hints, and then the company brings you inside. This is how they fill an order, and in fact it’s kind of cute on the next page they ask customers to please don’t sign an order Mrs. John Smith and then inquire about where is Mary Smith’s order, and I also saw that in one of the other magazines, so it must have been a problem. So you see these lovely illustrations, and the Vick company was extremely successful. They had 300 orders a day, 3,000 letters, their publications reached 250,000 in circulation, they were successful not so much because their products were superior, they were excellent products, but they weren’t any better necessarily than anyone else’s at the time. It was because they had good PR. Excellent, and that is so often the case. Another question that we’re getting, do we know if the archives of these companies still exist beyond perhaps what is here in the seed catalogs. Well, many of the companies have been sold, so I’m not aware, we can get back to you on that one, that is a good question, and we can research that for you. Great, thank you! So who do we have up next? We have Peter Henderson. He was one of the leading authorities of the time on commercial floriculture. He had his own seed and supply business, and he also was credited with improving the handling of plants for commercial purposes. He was a Scotsman and at an early age showed an aptitude for gardening and he apprenticed at Melville Castle, and he also won an award for his herbarium there. He came to the United States in 1843, and he ended up working for three different nurserymen, all of whom were Scotsmen. He eventually with his brother established a business in 1847, and they grew vegetables in New Jersey and then they would take them to New York to the market. And eventually they parted ways and Peter Henderson went into growing ornamental plants. You will see here we have a picture of his greenhouses, and he developed an innovative way to handle the heating and ventilation system and so these were state of the art for the time period. He also had a company building in New York City, and you will see that it was located on Cortlandt Street, which incidentally would be at the eventual site of the World Trade Center buildings. It’s also interesting to note that the dimensions of the building are listed here, so it says “frontage 51 feet, depth 130 feet.” Peter Henderson really perfected the art of offering not only just seeds and bulbs in catalogs, he included gardening and lawn tools. This sales concept he named “everything for the garden”, so many of his catalogs have this statement on them. I want to page through this particular catalog from 1909 which is done with a beautiful cover, it’s on heavy paper and has a wax coating. And first we’ll look at this advertisement for Henderson’s lawn grass seed. And he developed a lot of his products and this one in particular you will see it was given gold medals at the Columbian Pan-American and Jamestown Expositions. And you will see that he also provided golf course grass seed. And then one day he was in the countryside in Virginia and he noticed that there was a mutant form of a lima bean just growing on the side of the road. Well it was in bush form and prior to that the lima bean plant had only been available in the pole vine method. So he was able to make his own variety and sell that and it was very successful even in other seed catalogs. And you’ll notice here that we are seeing some photographs coming into play into this catalog as well as later I’ll show you some color plates. And I wanted to point out that there’s always a picture of a man in his catalogs and the man is different ages. This particular gentleman is older, but you will see on this catalog there is a younger gardener, and I like to think that perhaps this is Peter Henderson himself because he looks so similar to the image we have of Mr. Henderson. So one of the questions that we’ve gotten are have any of the plates or images that we’ve been seeing been reproduced today and sold in various ways. I know that at least you can find seed catalog calendars with some of these artworks reproduced. Right, and we have offered for sale in the past some of these images in note ard format as well and we do get customers who do approach us about having copies of images to make a product out of them. Excellent. And even at this time period as well I did notice in some of the catalogs that they did offer, usually as a set of four, some of these plates. So even back then I’m sure they appreciated the decorative quality of them. And here you’ll see some of the drawings that are in here as well, and they’re equally beautiful. And then in the back there are more of the products such as fertilizers, insecticides, some of the apparatus used for various gardening efforts, and even some tools. And not only did Peter Henderson provide his own products in these catalogs, he wrote the descriptions for the products. He was a very prolific writer. He had so much knowledge that he was very willing to share with the public, even if it meant letting his competitors know about his research. He was editor at one point, and he contributed to various horticultural publications, and at one point he had a monthly column for American Agriculturalist. His son wrote in the biography that he authored about Henderson that he was probably the most paid American writer at the time because they so desired his monthly articles. And even the USDA asked him to write for their 1865 annual report, and we have it open here. He wrote an article about market gardening in the vicinity of New York. This was so popular that he was then asked to write a book, and that book, which this is located here, is Gardening for Profit, and it was the first of its kind about commercial marketing of vegetables. And he went on to write five books afterwards, and we have out some of these. They were published by Orange Judd and you can see the nice covers, and he was also said to have answered all of the letters that he received. He received 175,000 of them. So he must have been quite a busy man, and we know that he was one of the first to exit the ferry to New York City everyday. He even called ahead to restaurants to make sure that they had his food ready so he wouldn’t lose any time, and even at night he was in bed and he was answering letters to the public. So it was this willingness to share all the information he had that advanced horticulture from being an artform to really being a science at the time. Excellent, definitely. So another of the questions that we got that Amy and Sara you might be able to answer was what sort of PR these companies did and the catalogs themselves are definitely PR and having this kind of artwork but is there something further than you can share about maybe the PR they would have done? Well, I mean with Vick’s, he seemed to use magazines and books and of course his catalogs but mostly it was the catalogs but they also, these men were also part of horticultural societies and they were founders within the industry, they had a lot of connections, did a lot of networking. And even it would seem to me maybe branding some of these fruits and vegetables as “Henderson’s” or “Vick’s” or something like that was PR in and of itself. And I read that at the time people were familiar with these people. They would talk in normal conversations, “Oh, Mr. Such and Such today”, so people were well-aware at the time what was popular. So it has been so interesting to learn more about the nurserymen of the past and see these vintage catalogs, but I understand these catalogs were useful not only in the past but also for research today. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? Yes, of course. So as we saw during the broadcast, one of the reasons people want to look at these catalogs is because they’re so beautiful, whether there are color plates inside the catalogs or whether they’re the back of the catalog, the front, and sometimes they have these fun, interesting covers as well. So, just the art of the catalog itself. Also, people are interested in the prices of a particular variety through its lifecycle, trends in landscaping, history of a nursery or even garden tools, and also people want to know when a specific variety first showed up, that first catalog, and how that variety was used, when did it come out of favor, did it go back into favor, that sort of thing, and Sara has a lovely story to share with us on that point. I was contacted by a man who was interested in finding a strain of a sweet pea that was developed by his great-great grandfather. He had a newspaper article that showed information about it and he wanted to find what company may have sold it. So, because many of these catalogs are digitized, I was able to find him several catalogs that listed this variety and set him up with the USDA seedbank, and then he was able to take all of this information and give it to his mother as a Mother’s Day present. We were really happy with that. Well thank you! This has been such a treat to explore these catalogs. I think we have time for maybe one more question. Erin Rushing, the Outreach Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries, has very graciously been keeping track of those questions, so Erin, are there any questions we didn’t get to? We did have a question early-on about access to this collection, and if you need to be a member and how you can access it if you’re not on-site, which I think you’ve addressed with the digitization aspect, but maybe you could speak to how people could use the library? So what are some ways, of course as we’ve said, many of these catalogs have been digitized in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, freely available, you don’t need member access for that, but Amy or Sara, what are some other ways if people wanted to use this collection that they could access it? Sure, they’re perfectly welcome to come in. We’re open Monday-Friday. We would work with them in Special Collections and we would just like information ahead-of-time that they’d like to come in, and then we have the catalogs organized by year and then alphabetically by name of the company, so that’s the way that they’re organized and we are very happy to work with anybody. Or you can email us at [email protected] and we’re happy to answer any questions that way. Excellent, and we’ve also just posted a comment on this post with links to more information about National Agricultural Library so you can also follow those links to find out some other ways that you can learn about the collections and access them. But thank you again so much, Amy and Sara, for taking us behind-the-scenes today. Thank you of course to the USDA National Agricultural Library for hosting us, and if there are any final questions that we didn’t get to or if you have questions after the broadcast, feel free to leave those as comments and we will follow-up with you after the show. Do check out those comments because again everything you’ve seen today has been digitized in BHL, freely available for you to access so you can just click on those links to view all of these catalogs in full. Also, if you like these catalogs and you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, and you want to see more vintage catalogs, we encourage you to visit the Cultivating America’s Gardens exhibit on display now through August 2018 at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. So thank you so much, Amy and Sara, again, thank you to Erin Rushing, Outreach Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries for all her help on this broadcast, and of course thanks to all of you for tuning in. Be sure to follow BHL on Facebook to learn more about historic biodiversity literature and future Facebook Live broadcasts. Thanks again, and we’ll see you next time!

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