By this time in January, no doubt your mailbox has been bursting with seed catalogs. The collection next to my computer is several inches tall now. Their colorful pages await the countless hours I’ll spend dog-earing corners, choosing and dreaming and planning for the year to come. No doubt many of you are doing the same, and we’re all part of a long tradition. Idling over seed catalogs in mid-winter isn’t a new hobby. Seed catalogs have existed for at least 200 years, and vintage seed catalogs can be found all over the internet. Their pages are fascinating to explore, and their covers are often filled with beautiful art that’s perfect for craft projects.
Of course, in the early years printing costs were too prohibitive for companies to include more than a few line drawings. They relied on detailed descriptions of their products, often using the Latin botanical names. Gardeners had to be familiar with these names when perusing vintage seed catalogs. (For that matter, it can really be helpful today too.) By the late 19th century, though, colored illustrations had become common. Seed catalogs, especially their covers, became works of art.
Today, many people collect these vintage catalog to enjoy the lovely illustrations. Some of these collections are massive, and have been donated to universities and even the Smithsonian. Many have been scanned in and are offered digitally for the world to appreciate. Those in the public domain are great to print and use in craft projects. Do a web search for “vintage seed catalogs”, or visit the following sites:
- Smithsonian Institute Seed Catalog Collection: The vast Smithsonian seed catalog collection is only partly available online, but they have some wonderful examples. The collection is searchable by flower type, making it a good source for specific projects you may have in mind.
- Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection: This collection from the National Agricultural Library is fun to browse, as the cover images appear in the searches.
Love the idea of owning a piece of vintage seed history yourself? One of the oldest seed companies in the U.S., Landreth Seeds, has teamed up with American Meadows to offer modern-day seeds in vintage seed packets. These seed packets were printed (but never used) as much as 75 years ago. Learn more here.