What Folks Once Grew
1914 Adams Seed Book
More than just nostalgic relics, seed catalogs help trace
Among the treasures housed in ARS'
National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, is a unique collection
of more than 170,000 seed catalogs.
Dating as far back as the late 1700s, these nostalgic volumes describe
thousands of trees, shrubs, bulbs, and other plants that farmers and gardeners
of yesteryear bought from U.S. seed companies, nurseries, and growers. The
collection includes catalogs from overseas firms as well.
In many catalogs, ads display farm and garden implements such as an
"improved" horse-drawn lawnmower and special "horse boots"
to keep the animal from "sinking in damp or soft ground." Other pages
offer neatly boxed sets of "ladies and children's garden
toolsuseful, handy, and small."
Besides giving a tour of farming and gardening Americana, the catalogs serve
as scholarly resources for botanists, historians, statisticians, landscape
architects, and archaeologists, among others.
"The catalogs have been used to document when a particular plant or
seedsuch as a sunflower or melonwas first available for sale in
America," says Susan H. Fugate, who is in charge of Special Collections at
the National Agricultural Library.
"Specialists have searched the collection to find out more about the
history of a nursery implement or gardening tool," she says. "Some
users have consulted the catalogs to trace the inadvertent sale of plants, like
water hyacinth, that today we regard as weeds."
What's more, the catalogs "provide insight into early methods of
cleaning, preserving, and shipping seeds," Fugate says. "Prices of
plants and other items reveal economic conditions and regional variations of
prices. We can also see trends in American landscape design."
The development of the suburban lawn, for instance, is reflected in new
listings for home lawnmowers showing up around 1870. Other catalog entries show
the introduction of chemical agents for insect and weed control, as well as the
sale of biological control agents such as ladybugs.
"The collection was started in 1904 through the efforts of Percy L.
Ricker, USDA's first economic botanist," says Fugate. "One of the
earliest major donations was from the librarian of the Massachusetts
Horticultural Society, William P. Rich, who donated several thousand catalogs
covering the period 1845 to 1890. Hundreds of other catalogs came from attics
and files of nursery companies and institutions such as the University of
California and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City."
The oldest, most valuable catalogs include some printed on papers that
contain much more acid than today's stocks. Now brown and brittle, these
extremely fragile documents are kept in acid-free folders or pamphlet boxes
specially made for archives.
In addition to these catalogs, the library's Special Collections staff
safeguardsand helps people userare books, historic papers,
correspondence, photographs, drawings, and other materials.
The National Agricultural Library is the world's largest agricultural
research library.By Marcia
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Susan H. Fugate is with
Special Collections, USDA-ARS National
Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2350;
phone (301) 504-5876, fax (301) 504-7593.
Visit the National Agricultural Library on the World Wide Web at
"What Folks Once Grew" was published in the
July 1999 issue of Agricultural