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PAGING THROUGH THE PAST

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Recently a friend who is a great gardener told me about the Garden State Heirloom Seed Society, and its website, www.historyyoucaneat.org. According to its founders, the website is devoted, to "New Jersey heirloom fruits and vegetables, and their culinary, medicinal, and historical value, to food and history-lovers around the globe. The site is fascinating. An essay written by Joseph Cavanaugh, the Society’s founder, on Peter Henderson & Company, a New York-based seed purveyor that operated from 1871 until the early 1950’s especially intrigued me. Founded by Peter Henderson, a New Jerseyan, the company maintained seed farms in Red Bank and Teaneck. The Cavanaugh piece was accompanied by a photo of a Henderson catalog cover, and facsimiles of some inside pages.

The Henderson cover is typical of everything that I love about old seed and garden catalogs. The colorful drawing features nine or ten voluptuous roses, fully opened and virtually leaping off the page. The only text is the company’s name at the bottom right. The roses speak, or sing, or shout, for themselves. In his essay, Joseph Cavanaugh says, "Most seed catalog collectors would agree that Henderson’s catalogs have no equal to this day."

It is not surprising that old seed catalogs have become sought-after collectibles. The illustrations are often lovely renderings of fruits and vegetables, but but they also say something about the state of America during the years when the catalogs were issued. Right now the vogue for these old-fashioned images is so strong that the venerable Burpee seed company has published an antique-style catalog to showcase its Burpee Heirlooms seed collection. The Burpee Heirloom seed packets are reproductions of late nineteenth and early twentieth century originals.

Around the turn of the last century there were hundreds of small and large seed companies doing business all over the United States. One of them, Farmer Seed Company of Faribault, Minnesota, issued a catalog for Spring 1906 featuring a romantic illustration of a rustic farmer with a seed satchel over one shoulder, striding through a plowed field, strewing his seeds. The picture is garlanded with pink clover and wheat stalks. Clearly the artist depicted a bucolic ideal rather than a rural reality, but the cover made the act of planting seem both noble and picturesque.

The same year, D.M. Ferry & Company, located in the urban mecca of Detroit, Michegan, issued a catalog with a distinctly different flavor. The cover features a colorful display of fancy pansies in the foreground, and a large domed building in the background. The structure reminds me strongly of the Lord & Burnham conservatories at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Developments in technology in the late Victorian era made such marvels of glass and steel possible, and garden aficionados and apostles of progress in all its forms loved to show them off. Seed vendors were no exception.

Another Henderson catalog, for Spring 1913, shows a portion of an estate garden, complete with a parterre full of clipped box hedges enclosing bountiful rose bushes. Though the well-satisfied prosperous Edwardian era was already gone, the picture projects an image of civility and sophistication. It is a world away from the toiling husbandman of the 1906 Farmer catalog.

Probably my favorite cover illustration graced the 1901 Burpee catalog. Three plump cupids float through the blue heavens with the top of planet Earth visible below. Joined by a red ribbon that scrolls across their pink bodies, the cupids are holding up a tray laden with a rich assortment of perfect fruits and vegetables. Perhaps the theme was "heavenly produce for a new century." Whatever the contents, the cover is so sentimental it could almost pass for a Valentine’s Day card.

These days, of course, photography has displaced artists’ renderings on most catalog covers. The fruits, vegetables and flowers are just as large and perfect (especially the dahlias and tomatoes), and twice as glossy, but less idealized. There are still a few catalogs, however, that hearken back to earlier times. The Cook’s Garden of Londonderry, Vermont uses woodcuts that evoke the rural life to illustrate their catalogs. Select Seeds, a purveyor of antique flower seeds and plants, has a photograph on its most recent catalog cover, but the combination of photographs and botanical illustrations inside the book reinforces the old fashioned nature of the product.

I wonder when someone will rediscover cupids?

For those with an interest in seeing or studying old seed catalogs, the LuEsther Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden has an enormous collection. Cornell University also owns a large number of catalogs. The occasional stray catalog or antique seed package may even be lurking in the dark corners of an antique shop near you. For more information about the Garden State Heirloom Seed Society, visit the website or contact Joe and Roberta Cavanaugh at PO Box 15, Delaware, New Jersey 07833; tel. (908) 475-4861.

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