Please Appreciate This Magnificent Turn of the Century Seed Catalog Art

Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens are currently hosting an exhibition, “Cultivating America’s Gardens,” which traces the cultural history of this practice as business, means of keeping body and soul together, and pleasurable hobby. It is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the stunningly lavish art of pre-photographic seed catalogs.

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“It is exciting to be able to share the wealth of written and visual materials we have here at the Smithsonian to tell the story of how and why Americans have cultivated gardens,” said Kelly Crawford, the exhibition’s lead curator and a museum specialist at Smithsonian Gardens, in an announcement.

The online component of the exhibit explains that, “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.” To say the least.

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Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

Sometimes it gets downright over the top. For instance, these Burpee catalogs are like having gauzy late Victorian commercial aesthetics shot straight into your veins.

Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

In fact this is just a slice of the Smithsonian’s collection; the museum has an entire database of seed catalogs, which you can browse here by specific flowers, fruits, vegetables, and subject matter. It would be frighteningly easy to lose an entire day down this particular rabbit hole.

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Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

Sometimes, however, companies went for humor rather than sheer loveliness. Please enjoy these ridiculous tuber men, especially the carrot dandy with the monocle there in the middle.

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Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

But let’s not skip over his perfect mate, this celery woman, who “grows fit for table use with only one ‘hoeing up.’”

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Courtesy the Smithsonian.
Courtesy the Smithsonian.

These were all produced as trade cards, which were beautifully made and therefore popular as collectibles and decorations.

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According to the Smithsonian, the exhibition covers: “plant exploration and the establishment of botanical gardens, the rise of the lawn, gardens of the Gilded Age (1870–1900), gardens of World’s Fairs, Victory and school gardens, preservation and documentation of historic gardens, the seed industry and plant breeding and sustainable gardens of today.” It runs through August at the National Museum of American History, in the Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery.

Senior Editor, Attic Haunter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

billy-quizboy
billy-quizboy

I haven’t read it in years, but IIRC the “gardening porn” gets quite a shout-out in The Egg and I. I guess these catalogs hit their targets.