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Seed Catalogs Offer Glimpse of Yesterday

By Marcia Wood
July 30, 1999

Looking for that special horse-drawn lawnmower? You may not find one for sale, but an old seed catalog has an ad for an "improved" model. That catalog and more than 170,000 others in a special library collection offer a nostalgic glimpse of old-time American farming and gardening.

The seed catalogs--dating as far back as the late 1700's--also serve as a scholarly resource for botanists, historians, statisticians, landscape architects and others, according to Susan H. Fugate. She oversees the catalogs and other special collections at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Md.

NAL, the world's largest agricultural research library, is part of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific agency.

The catalogs describe thousands of trees, shrubs, bulbs and other plants that farmers and gardeners of yesteryear bought from seed companies, nurseries and growers. Ads in some catalogs 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."

Library users have combed the catalogs to find out more about the history of a nursery implement or gardening tool, or to trace the inadvertent sale--and resulting spread--of plants today regarded as weeds.

Begun in 1904, the collection has been enhanced by donations from attics and files of nursery companies and institutions such as the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, University of California at Berkeley, and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City.

The seed catalog collection is featured in an article in the July 1999 issue ofAgricultural Research magazine, available on the World Wide Web at:


Contact:Susan H. Fugate, Special Collections Section, ARS National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705, phone (301) 504-5876, fax (301) 504-7593,