Many Seed Catalogs Have Long Histories
Looking Back - Mountain Home Magazine
Joyce M. Tice
February 2007

It’s February, and I know that you gardeners are going through your seed catalogs and dreaming of your next garden which will be better than the last. By September or October we are often tired of our gardens, tired of working so hard, and glad to see the first frost take it all away so we can go inside and do something else. By December, when the shortest day is over and the days start to lengthen, we get the first symptoms of Spring Fever. We start watching the mail box for our seed and nursery catalogs, and we start planning all over again.

Do you know that some of the seed catalogs we receive have long histories? Our great grandparents may have received catalogs from some of the same companies that we do. In the 1890s scrapbooks that I wrote about here a couple of months ago, I found beautifully colored Burpee catalog pages showing bright red tomatoes and colorful sweet peas or pansies.

1876 - Burpee is a fine example of the longevity of seed companies. Seed companies and nurseries, by their nature, must be built over a long period of time, and many pass along family lines for generations. J. Atlee Burpee, at the age of eighteen in 1876, founded the still thriving Burpee seed company. In 1884 he produced a catalog, and by 1915 over a million of them were sent out to potential customers. Fordhook, the experimental seed development station for Burpee, has produced many new seed varieties.

1870 - The 2007 R. H. Shumway catalog from Wisconsin proclaims its 137th year. The introductory letter is signed by R. H. Shumway III, a descendant of the company’s founder. Since about 1999 Shumway has been under common ownership with the Jung Seed Company, also of Wisconsin. Jung is celebrating its centennial this year.

1907 - John William Jung, like Mr. Burpee, had an early interest in plants. In 1905 he went to work for another seed company and learned how NOT to run a company. In 1907, he published his first catalog from a bedroom in his parents’ house. The company is now run by grandchilden of the founder.

Closer to home, the Miller Brothers nursery in Canandaigua NY is well knows for its fruit trees, and it is near enough that many of us drive there in the spring for our stock. The present owners claim descent from Great-Great Grandfather Miller who started the nursery over a century ago right where it is now on the lake. They are family owned since 1934, which is probably their incorporation date.

1868 - Park Seed Company now in South Carolina dates back to 1868. George Watt Park grew up on a farm in Libonia, Pennsylvania. He grew flowers as a child, and at age sixteen he printed up a list of seeds for neighbors and friends. In 1868 his first real Park Seed catalog was eight pages. He started a gardening magazine, and in 1877 it had a circulation of 20,000 paying subscribers. A late life marriage moved him and his company south, and his widow ran the company after his death. It is now owned and operated by granddaughter Karen Park Jennings.

1816 - Stark Brothers Nursery in Missouri, known for its fruit trees, originated in 1816 when James Hart Stark and other pioneers from Kentucky moved to Missouri. He took with him a small bundle of apple tree scions and from that the nursery was begun.

It’s inspiring to see businesses started so long ago still thriving in our fast-paced and ever-changing world where most new businesses don’t last ten years. Congratulations and best wishes to them all. I will continue this article on my website with even more long lived nursery and seed companies.

Actually I will continue this, just not today. There are many seed companies that we all know whose history is very long and very interesting.
2008 Continuation

1879 - Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY was started by Englishman James Harris in 1879. For its first  hundred years the company was family owned and is now run by long time Harris Seed employees.

My 2008 Garden in 1915
Looking Back - Mountain Home Magazine
Joyce M. Tice
March 2008

While getting ready for my 2008 garden this winter, I started wondering what I would have been able to plant if I were gardening a century ago. I expected fewer choices than we have now, and I have been through enough old magazines that I should have known better.

My first stop in this quest was ebay where I hoped to pick up some inexpensive old seed catalogs. Let me advise you to save your old catalogs. Your young grandchildren will be able to finance their retirement with them. I was able to get a few Burpee catalogs from the 1930s at prices not too painful, and I picked up a 1915 Burpee on CD that someone had digitized and made available in PDF. Catalogs from 1900 to 1920 might go for $50 to $76 and any from the 1880s might go as high as $122. An 1856 catalog went for the bargain price of $98. Part of the price competition right now is from an arboretum someplace buying up everything in sight for their collection and apparently without any budget limitations whatever. Smithsonian has a good collection and will let you look at the digitized front and back cover for free online. Anymore than that costs – even if you’ve been a member most of your adult life. The short of this is that while we can’t afford a time travel ticket back to 1908, we can get as far as 1915 in the economy seats to make some comparisons. 


Among the herbs, the 1915 catalog offered almost all and more that I intend to grow this year. Dill, basil, thyme, and seventeen other herbs were available. Neither curly parsley nor Italian parsley were offered, but the 1933 catalog, the next issue I have, offered four varieties of parsley. Twelve tobacco seed varieties could be purchased from the 1915 herb page in small packet quantities or by the pound for farm crops. Tobacco as a farm crop was grown extensively in this area in 1915, and many of our old tobacco sheds still stand.

This year I want to grow more decorative gourds and dry them for use in crafts by some of my more artistically gifted friends. The 1915 catalog offers seven varieties of gourds and one mix while the 2008 offers five, and two of those are mixes of several varieties. The spoon gourd offered in 1915 is part of a decorative collection in 2008. The 1915 catalog recommends drying it for darning socks or glove fingers or as a baby’s rattle. The luffa sponge, which we know as a bath sponge, was called the dishcloth sponge in the 1933 catalog. The egg gourd, which we use for decoration, was recommended as a “Nest egg” in 1933 to put in with the laying hens.

At least thirty-two tomato varieties were available in 1915 including the cherry tomatoes, and the 1933 catalog listed the same number though not necessarily the same varieties. Consumers today complain of the loss of flavor in a market geared toward producing the ideal commercial tomato that can survive a drop from a ten-story building without damage. Home gardeners still have more flavorful choices than the commercial varieties and supposedly better disease resistance than 1915 varieties. The 2008 Burpee catalog presents five tomato seed varieties that it calls “New for 2008.” This is in addition to 48 other varieties arranged by functional category. Or you can order the plants already started.

Neither kale nor broccoli could be purchased from Burpee in 1915. By 1933 three varieties of broccoli and four varieties of kale were available. All other vegetables I intend to grow were readily available in 1915. The variety of flowers was also as extensive as what we have today though many of our present day hybrids have been developed since.

There were items available by mail order from Burpee in 1915 that aren’t in the catalogs now. You could select from four varieties of laying hens or buy the eggs for hatching. You could buy Fordhook Scottish Collies, two months old, individually or by the pair, “mated and not akin.” You could buy four varieties of a great big ugly root called Mangel-Wurzels, useful for stock feed.

In 2008 you can buy gardening aids not offered in 1915.  That includes electric grow light fixtures, seedling heat pads, cushions to kneel on or T-shirts with the Burpee logo on them. In 1915 you could not buy the nice tomato ladders I like so well. You had to tie your tomatoes up with a stick and some old rags – not even panty hose to help. Remember that? I think that a few luxuries aside, I could garden just as happily in 1915 as I can in 2008.  But, I couldn’t have voted, and I sure like jeans for gardening a lot better than the near ankle length dresses women wore then.

Illustration Caption – This happy gardener comes to us from the pages of a 1912 magazine seed company advertisement. Note his garden attire of the best part of a three-piece suit.
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
Published On Tri-Counties Site On 04 FEB 2007
By Joyce M. Tice
Email: Joyce M. Tice
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