By Donald-Brian Johnson
“She’s waving her scallions at Hitler’s battalions—
She’s up to her heart in victory!”
Chances are, the scallions celebrated in that World War II ditty first caught the eye of their gung-ho Victory Gardener courtesy of a colorful seed catalog. From the mid-1800s onward, many a wintry day passed faster as mailboxes welcomed the latest seasonal offerings from Gurney’s, Earl May, Burpee’s, and other gardening industry “names.” Seed companies were in the business of selling attainable dreams. The dawn of inexpensive mass printing allowed them to present those dreams as enticingly as possible.
Just look at those “Giant Mastodon” strawberries cascading down the cover of 1950’s Earl May catalog. Nearly 70 years later, they’re as ripe and luscious as ever, holding the promise of strawberry-shortcakes-yet-to-come. Would yours look the same? Well, of course they would! As Earl May promised, “You can’t go wrong planting a Mastodon.” (Or a “Superfection.” Or “Red Rich—The Wonder Berry.”)
Seed catalog copywriters and art directors aimed for descriptions and illustrations guaranteed to thrill. Chrysanthemums weren’t just chrysanthemums—At Gurney’s, they were “Brilliant Blaz-O-Mum Bargains.” A simple red petunia was reborn as “Fire Dance: strikingly beautiful, rich scarlet–red, with a bold flashlight throat of golden yellow!” (“Large packet only 50 cents postpaid!”).
Paging through a vintage seed catalog is like . . . well, chatting over a garden fence. Seed companies specialized in a folksy neighborliness that kept the customers coming back for more. It was an all-in-the-family operation, and various Gurneys, Burpees, and Mays dot the pages, offering planting tips, and posing with oversize garden bounty (“Here’s Jill Gurney, Sid’s youngest, enjoying a ripe, delicious Gurney plum”). The writing style was conversational, and determinedly one-on-one. A few samplings, courtesy of Earl May, 1950:
“You’re missing some mighty fine eating unless you have some clumps of Rhubarb on your place.”
“Flower friends, I have made up a collection of annual flowers which I know will bring you a world of beautiful blooms: ‘Mrs. May’s Garden Gay!’”
“Boys! Girls! Sell seeds! Earn cash! Win valuable prizes! Special grand prize: this fine Pony, black and white, gentle and well-mannered! Hurry! Hurry! Send for your seed collections right away!”
And, since friendship is a two-way street, the customers wrote back:
“Dear Gurney’s: This is my daughter feeding the little orphan pig we raised on a bottle. We are users of your seed, and always have a good word to say for your company.”
“Dear Mr. Gurney: I am sending a picture of my son, who is in the Marine Corps. He is now on duty in the South Pacific. The flower bed where he is standing is all petunias. It sure was beautiful, and of course the seed came from you.”
For their largely rural customer base, seed catalogs offered the advantage of one-stop shopping. In addition to the expected, the 1946 Gurney’s catalog included liquid hog medicine, live chicks, high wheel cultivators, four-leaf clovers (“a real good luck omen for your Victory Garden”) and solicitations from the Gurney Fur Department (“your best market for Furs, Rabbit Skins, and Pelts.”)
Considering their age and constant perusal, many older catalogs remain in surprisingly good condition, and can be found affordably online, or at paper shows, in the $20-$30 range. Those looking for something frame-able or montage-able may opt for vintage seed packets, which average $1-$2 each. Some entrepreneurs have even done all the work for you, printing seed packet images on wallpaper borders, tote bags, and T-shirts.
Maybe your only experience with a garden is walking through one. Maybe, like me, you “can’t grow dirt.” But, with seed catalog in hand, you too can be a dreamer. Columbine . . . lythrum. . . Canterbury bells. . . blue mist, bleeding heart, and bachelor’s button. Which will it be?
Oh, why not try them all? It’s spring, and hope blooms eternal. In the words of Geo. W. Gurney, (circa 1956), “Happy Gardening To You!”
In memory of Charles M. Johnson, Sr. (1926-2009), a very practical, loving gardener (and Dad)
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries (or gardening tips) to: firstname.lastname@example.org