Gardening as Enterprise

Gardening spurs innovation in both business and plant science.

Selling Seeds

Tiny seeds play a huge role in any garden. The business of selling seeds grew enormously in the late 1800s with the increase of seed growers and nurseries, many specializing in certain types of plants.

Seed companies relied heavily on advertising, particularly in the form of mail order catalogs. Businesses also used a variety of techniques to promote their products, including collectible trade cards and prize contests.

D.M. Ferry & Company sold its seeds through mail order catalogs and door-to-door sales.

Seed box, D.M. Ferry & Company, Detroit, Michigan, late 1800s
Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection

Ferry & Company sold its seeds through mail order catalogs and door-to-door sales. It also distributed boxes like this to display seed packets at markets, hardware stores, and other retail outlets.

To attract buyers, seed companies decorated seed packets with mouth-watering illustrations of vegetables and flowers--a significant improvement over early packets that were labeled only with text.

Bush bean Lima Peas Calendula Okra Zinnia Tomato

Burpee Company seed packets, 1920s, Archives of American Gardens

Colorful trade cards made their debut at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Seed companies quickly adopted them to advertise their products, and the rich colors made them appealing for collecting, trading, and scrapbooking.

Carrot Man, Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Trade card, Rice's Seeds, Cambridge, New York, 1887

Celery Lady, Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Trade card, Rice's Seeds, Cambridge, New York, 1887

Rutabega, Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Sweet potato, Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Trade card, John B. Varick Co., Manchester, New Hampshire, 1885

Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection

David Landreth of Philadelphia opened America's first seed house in 1784. The seed industry grew slowly at first; by 1850 there were still fewer than 50 seed companies. This was partly due to the fact that farmers and gardeners typically saved their own seeds from the previous year's crop. They also traded seeds with other growers.

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreth Seeds, 1900

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreth Seeds, 1900, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreth Seeds, 1902

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreths' Seed Catalogue, 1902, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreth Seeds, 1903

D. Landreth & Sons, Landreths' Seed Catalogue, 1903, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Joseph Breck (1794-1873), who began his seed business in 1818, was a founding member of the American Seed Trade Association. He was also a pioneer in publishing attractive and information-packed catalogs. He experimented with marketing tactics aimed at specific audiences; for example, he offered a selection of seeds specifically for buyers in the West Indies.

Joseph Breck & Sons Corporation, Seed catalog, 1902

Joseph Breck & Sons Corporation, Seed catalog, 1902, Boston, Massachusetts

Joseph Breck & Sons Corporation, Breck's High Grade Seeds, 1910

Joseph Breck & Sons Corporation, Breck's High Grade Seeds, 1910, Boston, Massachusetts

Until the mid-1800s, most seed houses were located on the East Coast. Starting in 1882, John Charles Vaughan (1851-1924) of Chicago issued eight catalogs annually, each aimed at a different market. Vaughan capitalized on the growing interest in scientific agriculture by addressing customers in lofty academic terms and impressing them with learned lectures on botany, geology, and chemistry. His catalogs also included numerous biblical references.

Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1930

Vaughan's Seed Store, Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1930, Chicago, Illinois

Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1935

Vaughan's Seed Store, Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1935, Chicago, Illinois

Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1936

Vaughan's Seed Store, Vaughan's Gardening Illustrated, 1936, Chicago, Illinois

Established in 1876, Philadelphia-based W. Atlee Burpee & Company became the world's largest mail order seed business during the early 1900s, publishing "annuals" that described its many flowers, vegetables, fruits, and bulbs.

Sweet Pea Society Annual, 1917

W. Atlee Burpee, about 1900, from Sweet Pea Society Annual, 1917. Archives of American Gardens

W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) brought the seed catalog into the modern age, even while staunchly resisting inventions such as the automobile, electric light, and telephone. By 1901, Burpee was using a fully mechanized photoengraving process for his catalogs. When the firm switched to photography, hand-drawn illustrations disappeared from seed catalogs in just a few years.

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W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Special Advertisement of Burpee's Seeds, 1894, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Seed Sense, 1901, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Burpee's New Annual, 1910, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Burpee's Farm Annual, 1902, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thanks to this "silent salesman" (as Burpee's called its catalog), by 1911 the company received between three and seven thousand mail orders a day.

Plant Breeding

Bigger! Fancier! New and improved! To attract customers by offering something unique, seedsmen and nurserymen developed new varieties of plants. Competition among seedsmen to create the latest and greatest in plant hybrids was so fierce that some companies, such as Burpee, had their trial gardens protected by armed guards.

Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was the site of one of W. Atlee Burpee & Company's trial grounds. Burpee rigorously tested seeds to ensure their quality before offering a particular variety to the public. As a sign of their high quality, many Burpee varieties carried the name "Fordhook."

Fordhook Farm trial gardens postcard, 1907

Fordhook Farm trial gardens postcard, 1907

Some vegetable varieties that you may know very well--such as Iceberg lettuce (introduced in 1894) and Big Boy hybrid tomato (introduced in 1949)--were bred at Burpee's Fordhook Farm.

California botanist, horticulturist, and nurseryman Luther Burbank (1849-11926) was an extraordinary plant breeder. He developed hundreds of varieties of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and grasses. He shares the cover with one of his best-known introductions: the Shasta daisy, named after Mount Shasta in California because of its snowy white petals.

Cover of Burbank Seed Book 1914

Cover of Burbank Seed Book 1914, San Francisco, California

Competition fueled a drive to develop bigger and brighter flowers. Seedsmen and plant breeders like Henry Eckford (1775-1832) in England and W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) in America introduced many new hybrids. In the early 1900s, a time when sweet peas were all the rage, Eckford's cross-breeding efforts had developed one third of the 300 varieties of sweet peas then available.

Eckford's Seeds, Catalogue of Giant Sweet Peas, 1900

Eckford's Seeds, Catalogue of Giant Sweet Peas, Culinary Peas, Vegetable Seeds, etc., 1900

Henry Eckford, Eckford's, 1904

Henry Eckford, Eckford's, 1904, Wem, Shropshire, England

Henry Eckford, Eckford's Novelties for 1912

Henry Eckford, Eckford's Novelties for 1912, Wem, Shropshire, England

Praise Those Seeds! Win a Prize! In 1924 and 1925, the Burpee Company held contests asking customers to write a letter describing "What Burpee's Seeds Have Done for Me." Winners received cash prizes, and Burpee used quotes from the letters in its catalogs.

Contest Announcement, 1924

Contest Announcement, 1924, W. Atlee Burpee Co., Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Contest submission from Adam V. Ronk

Contest submission from Adam V. Ronk

In 1960, David Burpee (son of W. Atlee) started a campaign to officially designate the marigold as the national flower of the United States. He did not succeed. The rose was awarded this title in 1986.

In 1954 the Burpee Company offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could produce a white marigold. Burpee awarded the prize in 1975 to homemaker Alice Vonk of Iowa, who spent 20 years breeding a variety called Snowbird.

. Atlee Burpee & Co., Burpee's Seed Catalog, 1937

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Burpee's Seed Catalog, 1937

White marigold announcement, Burpee catalog, 1975

White marigold announcement, Burpee catalog, 1975