University of Delaware Library

Special Collections

The Art of Botanical Illustration
Nursery and Seed Catalogs

Lilies of Japan


Nursery sample books were traveling salesmen's books put together from individual plates to show farmers and gardeners what a particular nursery had for sale that season. They were published from the late 1850s until the 1870s primarily in Rochester, New York. These pictures were idealized visions of fruits and flowers to tempt the buyer in the same way modern catalogs arrive in gardeners' homes during the bleak days of winter.

A variety of techniques were used in making these plates. Some of the earliest were individually done watercolor paintings. Others are theorem paintings made with stencils with the details added by hand. Other plates had the outlines faintly lithographed or engraved then filled in with watercolor. At the end of the nineteenth century, all of these processes were replaced by color lithographs and photographic reproduction; but by this time, this method of door-to-door sales was becoming obsolete.

Although the technique varied, the design of the plates were always simple and colorful. The style was reminiscent of American folk art--flat areas of bright primary colors with little depth or shading, against a plain background. Very few of the artists who drew these plates can be identified. Many, in fact, were not professional artists at all, but local women copying printed pictures or coloring in pre-made designs.

D. M. Dewey.
The Colored Fruit Book, for the Use of Nurserymen, containing accurate specimens of colored fruits and flowers, carefully drawn and colored from nature, and designed to represent a medium and fair size of each particular fruit... Rochester, N.Y.: D. M. Dewey, 1859.

Selection of Fruits of America

J. and G. Prestele.
A Selection of Fruits of America. Iowa County, Iowa: Amana Society, 1861.

Joseph Prestele (1796-1867), a Bavarian botanical illustrator and lithographer, moved to America as part of a religious community that founded the utopian settlement at Amana in Iowa. Assisted by his son Gottlieb, Joseph Prestele produced hundreds of plates illustrating the fruits and vegetables for sale by the nurserymen of the Community. Virtually unknown as an artist for over a hundred years, Prestele has recently been recognized as one of the foremost practitioners of American botanical illustration in the nineteenth century.

The Specimen Book of Fruits, Flowers and Ornamental Trees

D. M. Dewey.
The Specimen Book of Fruits, Flowers and Ornamental Trees. Carefully drawn and colored from nature, for the use of nurserymen. Rochester, N.Y.: D. M. Dewey [circa 1875].

Dellon Marcus Dewey (1819-1889), a Rochester bookseller and publisher, developed and promoted the nurserymen's color plte business in the late 1850s. At its height, in the early 1880s, the Company had one hundred to two hundred thousand plates on hand, representing twenty-four hundred varieties of fruits, flowers, and trees.

Colored Fruits and Flowers

Mrs. J. A. Van de Mark.
Colored Fruits and Flowers for the Use of Nurserymen and Amateurs, published by Mrs. J. A. Van de Mark, French artist. Rocherster, N.Y.: Stump & Southworth, job printers, 1868.

Mrs. Julia Van De Mark was listed in the Rochester city directories during the 1860s as an artist and painter. By 1869, she was specifically listed as a fruit and flower artist. The plates in this book were done by a number of companies including D. W. Sargent, Darrow, and Dewey. This image is an example of theorum painting, stenciled with additional painting by hand.

Nurserymen's Colored Fruit Book

J. H. Kent.
Nurserymen's Colored Fruit Book. Rochester, N.Y., circa 1870.

While most plates are unsigned, this image is signed by Max Rosenthal, a well-known artist and lithographer famous for his works on the Civil War.



Strecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation, Rochester, N.Y.
Zinnea. Watercolor painting on paper for commercial seed packet illustration, circa 1930-1940.

The Stecher Lithographic Company developed from a printing company established in Rochester in 1865. In the 1890s, as the demand for nurserymen's catalogs declined, the company began producing lithographed orange box labels for companies in California. The printing firm still exists today as Stecher-Traung-Schmidt Company of Detroit.


In the late 1840s, seed companies added black-and-white illustrations to their trade catalogs. The first color illustration may have appeared in James Vick's catalog of 1864. Soon after the Civil War, brightly colored chromolithographed images were regular features of the seed catalog. While these illustrations were not as dramatic as those in the sample books, they were well designed and colorful. Because the seed catalogs were cheaper to produce in quantity, by the 1880s they began to replace the individually compiled and bound nursery catalogs.

The period between the 1880s and the First World War are considered the golden era of seed catalog art. The lithographed images became more elaborate and better designed. Unfortunately, the artists who worked on the images generally remain undocumented. By the 1920s, photography had almost entirely replaced the artist-drawn plates. While the photographic images were more realistic and cheaper to produce, they lack the individuality of the hand-done illustrations.

Dingee & Conard Dingee & Conard Company.
Our New Guide to Rose Culture 1901. West Grove, Pa.: Dingee & Conard Co., 1901.

The Dingee & Conard Company began nursery operations in West Grove, Pennsylvania in 1868 and began its mail order business in 1874. It later became the Conard-Pyle Company, a mail-order nursery and seed business specializing in roses. It became known for its trademarked "Star Roses," which includes the famous Peace Rose. The Company, which is still in business, donated its archives to the University of Delaware Library.

Vick's Floral Guide

Vick's Floral Guide 1888. Rochester, N. Y.: James Vick, 1888.

James Vick combined a love of flowers with a phenomenal zeal in promoting their sale. He boasted that his seeds came from the best growers in France, Germany, and England. He, like many of his competitors, provided much information on plant culture, offered discounts for group purchases, and sent orders postpaid. By the 1870s, he claimed a mailing list of over two hundred thousand people. Vick also sold versions of his illustrations as decorative pieces. He advertised his "floral chromos" in the seed catalogs and stated that he had sold hundreds of thousands of them.

This illustration was painted by John Walton (1834-1914). Walton was born and educated in England and worked for a sign painter before working for Vick. He also produced other types of advertising material such as book covers and show bills.

The Stark Year Book for 1910

The Stark Year Book for 1910. Louisiana, Missouri: Stark Brothers Nurseries & Orchards Co.

James Hart Stark settled in Louisiana, Missouri in 1816. He produced the first cultivated apples west of the Alleghennies. The Stark Company catalogs of the early twentieth century were clearly influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement designs of magazines such as The Craftsman.

Landreths's Seeds

Landreths' Seeds For Spring Seeding 1902. Philadelphia: David Landreth & Sons, 1902.

David Landreth was America's first producer of seeds. Established in 1784, his nursery helped popularize vegetables such as cauliflower, eggplant, and cantaloupe. He also offered the first collection of camellias and rhododendrons to the United States. His son moved the farm to Bloomsdale, Bristol, Pennsylvania in 1847. There Landreth established what has been stated to be at that time the most complete seed-farm in America.

Joseph Breck & Sons

Joseph Breck & Sons.
Annual Descriptive Catalogue of Seeds &c. Boston: 1883.

Joseph Breck established his Massachusetts seed firm in 1818. He was an early leader in gardening publishing, producing the New England Farmer, Horticultural Register and Gardens and a popular book on flower cultivation, The Flower Garden. The artist of the image is unidentified but the lithographer is identified on the plates as Cosack & Co. Buffalo and Chicago.


Dreer's Garden Book 1912. Philadelphia: Henry W. Dreer, 1912.

Henry A. Dreer, son of a German cabinet maker, founded his florist and seed business in Philadelphia in 1838. A rare example of a signed illustration, this image was done by Alois Lunzer, an Austrian-born watercolor painter born in 1840.


Yokohama Ueki Kabushiki Kaisha.
Lilies of Japan. Yokohama, Japan: The firm, 1922.

Lilies of Japan is a trade catalog of plants cultivated for the western market. The twenty-nine plates are colored by hand.

Gift of the University of Delaware Library Associates.

for reference assistance email Special Collections

This page is maintained by Special Collections

Last modified: 12/21/10

  • UD Library Special Collections  •   181 South College Avenue  •   Newark, DE 19717-5267  •   USA
    Phone: USA +1 302-831-2229  •   ©2014