University of Delaware Library

Special Collections

The Seed and Nursery Trade


D. M. Ferry & Co. Seeds Commercial growers of seeds and nursery plants played an important role in the development of horticulture in America. Responsible for the wide distribution of seeds and plants across the country, they determined what was available for cultivation. Moreover, many early seed growers and nursery owners were horticultural experimentalists and botanical enthusiasts, and were largely responsible for the introduction and dissemination of new garden species in the United States, and the development and popularization of new plant varieties for the American garden. Materials relating to commercial seed and plant cultivators reveal trends and tastes in American horticultural practice both regionally and nationally.

From the time of the earliest settlements until the end of the eighteenth century nearly all seeds planted in America were imported from Europe. Large seeds like those of beans and peas may have been grown indigenously, but the finer seeds appear to have been European. The one exception seems to have been onion seed, which Connecticut developed an early reputation for producing. Enterprises specializing in importing, growing, or distribution of seeds were a late eighteenth-century development. Until that period seeds were sold by nursery owners or at general stores. It was with the imported and domestic seeds of David Landreth in Philadelphia and Grant Thornburn in New York, and the high-quality, home-grown Shaker seeds of Watervliet and New Lebanon, N.Y., that the seed trade became a full-time American business. Nurseries, by contrast, were in operation as early as the mid-seventeenth century. The Connecticut nurseries of George Fenwick and Henry Wolcott, Jr. are known from the 1640s. Robert Prince founded his nursery in Flushing, Long Island, in 1737, and was the first to attain recognition throughout the colonies. By the early nineteenth century the nursery business was a thriving profession with numerous, well-established nurseries all along the eastern seaboard, and several emerging on the western frontier.

The history of the seed and nursery trade is thoroughly documented in the horticultural collections of the University of Delaware Library in trade catalogs, sample books, original illustrations, posters, advertising circulars and broadsides, seed packets, trade cards, and other ephemera. Foremost among these materials are the collections of seed catalogs and nursery sample books. Special Collections' holdings in seed catalogs comprise the serial publications of over 700 American and European seed houses and nurseries from the late eighteenth century to the present, with a concentration in the years between 1870 and 1930. The collection contains catalogs for over 600 firms across the United States, particularly from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois, and a representative collection of over 100 European seed catalogs. Holdings include runs of well-known seed catalogs produced by the W. Atlee Burpee Company (1881-1981), Ferry & Co. (1874-1913), James John Howard Gregory (1869-1933), Peter Henderson & Co. (1872-1947), and James Vick (1866-1900), and examples of notable and obscure seed growers.

An outstanding major resource for the study of the nursery trade in the United States is a group of nearly 100 nursery sample books dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth century. These unique sample books contain watercolor and stencil paintings, hand-colored lithographs, chromolithographs, and photographic plates illustrating fruits, flowers, shrubs, and trees that were selected by nurserymen to represent their stock. Most of the nursery plates in this collection were produced in Rochester, New York, an early center for horticultural publishing and illustration due to the large number of major nurseries in the area. These books were used by nurseries throughout the country. Nurserymen would select the plates they wanted from the horticultural printer's catalog of prints, bind them in leather, and stamp the finished volume with the name of nursery. The sample book could then be used as a lavishly illustrated catalog of the nursery's stock both at the nursery and by salesmen travelling the countryside as the nursery's representatives. Although sample books were compiled from commercially produced plates, each volume is unique to the nursery it represents, demonstrating the range and specializations of the nurseryman's stock and the tastes and preferences of his clientele. Several companies that contributed to the early development of illustration for the nursery trade represented in this superb collection of nursery sample books include the Rochester lithographers and publishers D. M. Dewey, Rochester Lithographing Company, Stecher Lithograph Company, and Vrendenburg & Co.; and E. B. and E. C. Kellogg of Hartford, Connecticut.

Goldthwait & Moore, Philadelphia, Pa.
A Catalogue of Garden, Grass & Flower Seeds. . . . Philadelphia: Thomas Bradford, 1796.


James Bloodgood & Co., Flushing, N. Y.
Catalogue of Fruit & Forest Trees, Flowering Shrubs & Plants. . . . New York: J. Gray & Co. [ca. 1820].

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Albany Nursery, Albany, N. Y.
Catalogue of Fruit Trees, and of Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Herbaceous & Green-House Plants. . . . Albany: J. B. Van Steenbergh, 1827.


David Landreth and Sons, Philadelphia, Pa.
Seed catalogs. Selection of catalogs from 1811 to 1903.

The Landreth business, founded in Philadelphia in 1784, is considered the first truly successful seed establishment in the country. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was the leading seed house in America and had attained a world-wide reputation. The Landreth Nurseries were one of the original and largest growers in the East of the osage orange brought back by the Lewis and Clark expedition, and among the first to import and cultivate seeds from Japan when that country opened its doors to the West in 1853.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Charles H. B. Breck.
New Seed Store. Garden Seeds, of the growth of 184-, Raised For, and Put Up By Charles H. B. Breck, At his Seed Establishment. . . . [Boston: s.n., ca. 1840s]. Broadside.


Wulliam Henry Child.
Cornish Flat Nursery. The subscriber, at his residence near Cornish Flat, has for sale the following descriptions of choice Fruit Trees, in a healthy condition, and suitable for transplanting the present Fall. Cornish Flat [N. H.]: W. H. Child, 1855. Broadside.


Old Rochester Nurseries, Rochester, N. Y.
The Rebecca Grape. A New Native White Grape. Rochester: Heughes' Book and Job Press [ca. 1858]. Broadside.


B. K. Bliss & Sons, New York, N. Y.
Seed Catalogs. Selection of catalogs from 1858 to 1884.

B. K. Bliss is credited with introducing mail-order marketing to the seed industry, and was the first to include colored plates in their catalogs in 1853. Bliss introduced several new varieties of seeds, including the American Wonder and Abundance peas.


D. M. Dewey, Rochester, N. Y.
The Colored Fruit Book for the Use of Nurserymen. . . . Rochester: D. M. Dewey, 1859.

With the ownership stamp of E. B. Lamborn. Consists of sixty-six watercolor, stencil, and hand-colored lithographic plates of fruits, flowers and ornamental trees. Added at end are publisher's advertisements for colored plates and horticultural books.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Wawaset Nurseries, Wilmington, Del.
Edward Tatnall's Descriptive Catalogue of the Wawaset Nurseries, Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington, Del. [Edward Tatnall, ca. 1860].

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Rock Lake Vineyard & Nursery, Lake Mills, Wis.
Rock Lake Vineyard & Nursery Now Ready for the Trade. One Hundred Thousand Grape Roots! Madison, Wis.: Patriot Steam Press Print [ca. 1862]. Broadside.


Chase Brothers, Rochester, N. Y.
Men Wanted! To sell Nursery Stock in their own vicinity. Rochester: Chase Brothers [ca. 1865].
Printed announcement.


[Shaker Community, New Lebanon, N. Y.]
Descriptive Catalogue of Vegetable Seeds, Raised at New Lebanon, N. Y. .
. . [New Lebanon, N. Y.] Joel Munsell, 1871.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Chase Bothers and Woodward, Rochester, N. Y.
Chase Bro's and Woodward flower and vegetable seeds. Buffalo, N. Y.: Clay, Cosack & Co., 1873.
Chromolithographic Poster.


Bloomington Nursery, Bloomington, Ill.
Wholesale Price List of the Bloomington Nursery. . . . Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1875.


Bloomington Nursery, Bloomington, Ill.
Nursery sample book. ca. 1876.

Many of the 53 plates in this sample book were made by the Bloomington Nursery staff, supplemented with plates by D. M. Dewey and various Midwestern lithography firms.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


William H. Prestele (1838-ca.1900).
Catalogue of Fruit and Flower Plates Drawn from Nature. Iowa City, Ia.: Republican Job Print, 1879.

The earliest nursery plates are attributed to William Prestele's father, Joseph, who began producing lithographic illustrations for use by nuserymen in the late 1840s. William Prestele continued the business after his father's death in 1867.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


C. W. Dorr and Co., Des Moines, Ia.
Dorr's Iowa Seeds 1885. Des Moines, Ia.: C. W. Dorr and Co., 1885.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


James Vick, Rochester, N. Y.
Chromolithographic trade card for Vick's Early Scarlet Globe Radish. [s.l.: s.n.] 1887.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Ottawa Star Nurseries, Ottawa, Kan.
Nursery sample book with chromolithographic plates by various companies, including C. F. Nicholson and Son, Brighton, N. Y.; Stecher Lithograph Co., Rochester, N. Y.; and Rochester Lithographing Co., Rochester, N. Y. [ca. 1890].


R. H. Shumway, Rockford, Ill.
R. H. Shumway's Illustrated 1892 Garden Guide. Rockford, Ill.: R. H. Shumway, 1892.


Christy Engraving Co., Rochester, N. Y.
Nursery sample book with colored photographic plates. Rochester: Christy Inc. [ca. 1900].


D. M. Ferry & Co., Detroit, Mich.
D. M. Ferry & Co's Standard Seeds. Detroit: Calvert Lith. Co. [ca. 1900].
Chromolithographic Poster.


Caleb Boggs & Son, Cheswold, Del.
24th Annual Catalogue Small Fruit and Vegetable Plants. [s.l.: s.n.] 1904.

Charles van Ravenswaay Collection


Enid Nurseries, Enid, Okla.
Fruit, Trees and Flowers Reproduced from Nature. . . . Rochester: Vredenburg & Co. [ca. 1905].

Nursery sample book with the stamp of the Enid Nurseries, J. A. Lopeman, Proprietor. Consists of seventy-four chromolithographic plates.


City Garden Seed.
Chromolithographic advertising label. [s.l.: s.n., ca. 1910].


William D. Burt, Dalton, N. Y.
Chromolithographic seed packets. Rochester: Genesee Valley Lithograph Co., 1915.


William D. Burt, Dalton, N. Y.
Chromolithograhic advertising labels. [Rochester: s.n. ca. 1910].


W. Atlee Burpee Co., Philadelphia, Pa.
Fordhook Set of Twelve Picture Postcards. Philadelphia: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. [ca. 1910].


Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation, Rochester, N. Y.
Watercolor illustrations for commercial seed packets, ca. 1930.

Painted by various artists for the Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation of Rochester, N.Y., these watercolors were the basis for chromolithographic seed packets of vegetables and flowers.


Philips-Thompson Co., Wilmington, Del.
Chromolithographic and tinted photographic seed packets. Rochester, N. Y. and San Francisco, Cal.: Schmidt Litho. Co. and Stecher-Traung-Schmidt [ca. 1930-1950].

Gift of Bernard Herman


Exhibit Home | Essay | Fruit | Flowers | Gardening | Landscape | Agriculture | Botany

For reference assistance email Special Collections
or contact:

Special Collections, University of Delaware Library
Newark, Delaware 19717-5267
(302) 831-2229

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