Human Flower Project
More luscious than Penthouse, seed catalogues of the late 19th Century were designed to sell, and to procreate.
John Lewis Childs
Floral Park, NY 1897
You don’t have to have a trowel, or a yard, much less green fingers or familiarity with pH and hardiness zones to come home with a seed packet.
Dig around in any drawer around here and you’ll find sweet pea, zinnia, and even proteas packets from years gone by. We keep on hand an envelope of edelweiss seed a friend brought back from Germany years ago just…, well, just because.
Seed packets contain promise, especially for those of us who know little or nothing about viability. They’re the proto-triumph of potential, miniature bulwarks against future gloom and deprivation. Maybe that’s why repositories of them are called “banks.”
Miss C.H. Lippincott
Minneapolis, MN, 1897
Seed catalogues are a big come-on in this regard (the only one we get now is Kitazawa – specializing in Asian herbs and vegetables). In fact, seed catalogues often serve as porn, generating loads of lonely excitement but little in the way of produce.
S.Y. Haines & Co.
Minneapolis, MN, 1899
Jessica Saddeq of the Smithsonian got us thinking about all this with her recent email about SI’s recognition of National Garden Month. Jessica kindly pointed us to the Smithsonian’s beautiful collection of seed catalogues, many from the 1890s.
What a turn on! And what artistry. Today’s seed packets are usually illustrated with some very straightforward color photograph, taken in full sun. Kitazawa sticks with an elegant combination of drawings and green ink. Botanical Interests also goes for drawings on its seed packets, though their seed hasn’t done so well for us (probably the honest truth is we haven’t done so well by their seed.)
The Smithsonian catalogues contain some interesting pop cultural history. We saw several examples of the late 19th century craze for Japonisme, the prime example being fascination with varieties of morning glories. And we were also interested to find such linage given over to Cinerarias, a flower we never see today. Why is that? From our bit of research, it seems they’re showy potted plants but quite finicky about light and temperature conditions, true hothouse flowers.
While it’s not floral illustration, we had to pass along a particularly astonishing catalogue cover from William Henry Maule. The Prizetaker onion hovers over a field like the Wizard of Oz’s departing balloon, or more ominously, an atomic cloud.
Far from being tantalized by such imagery, contemporary locavores are running for cover.
Wm Henry Maule, Philadelphia, PA, 1889