This guide explores the catalogs of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company of Detroit, Michigan and the extraordinary illustrations published by the firm with a special emphasis on the artwork commisioned by Ferry from Maxfield Parrish and W. Herbert 'Buck' Dunton. Parrish and Dunton were each selected by the firm to illustrate its annual catalog and print advertising. Now, through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the illustrations of the talented artists commissioned a century ago by the D.M. Ferry Seed Company are available on the web site of the Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, providing garden art lovers around the world with inspiration and enjoyment. The complete holdings of the digitized seed catalogs from the D.M. Ferry Seed Company in Mertz Digital may be viewed here.
The origins of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company may be traced as far back as 1856 when Dexter Mason Ferry, Sr. ,as a junior partner, joined the Detroit firm of M.T. Gardner & Co., a seed growing and packing firm. By 1867, after Gardner's retirement, Ferry had bought out his other partners and renamed the company the D.M. Ferry Company. Ferry adroitly expanded the business season after season, adding sales and resources to an exemplary American commercial enterprise. While Ferry demonstrated every talent necessary for continued financial success, fate would answer with a calamitous blow that almost ended Ferry's company. On New Year's Day 1886, the immense warehouse of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company and all its contents were totally destroyed by fire. Ferry himself was out of town celebrating the New Year with old friends in New York. He received the news of the fire's devastation by telegraph and is reported to have said that "The loss has transpired, I can be of no great service today." He then concluded that his first order of business was to return to the New Year's Day celebration with his friends without further interruption.
The next day Ferry was back in Detroit, surveying the damage and organizing the reconstruction of his company. He promptly notified all customers that their orders would be filled fully and on time. He secured temporary working quarters for his organization and recruited and hired a work force, increasing staff by 100 percent in some departments. Ferry secured seeds from every available source, purchasing two competing seed companies, and within two weeks of the fire he had orchestrated a return to business. Ferry rebuilt his warehouse, more massive than ever, using the best fire proof construction materials and methods available. The new facility was monumental, it covered seven acres of floor space and it provided the foundation for an extraordinary expansion of his business.
In early 20th Century America no other seed company approached the size, scope and financial success of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company. The powerful drive and skillful management of D.M. Ferry, Sr. was at the heart of the success of his seed business. Ferry successfully appealed to the practical instincts of his large army of retailers and thrifty customers with his slogan "The Best is Always the Cheapest." Yet another quality of Ferry's may equally be credited for his business success. That quality was the distinctive art published by the D.M. Ferry Seed Company, to advertise its seeds, which attracted millions of customers to purchase Ferry seeds rather than the competition. Ferry catalogs, posters and packages showcased seeds, flowers and vegetables with the artistic flamboyance of a Hollywood studio promoting a new motion picture. Many years after Ferry Sr.'s death in 1907, Life Magazine, in its April, 1951 issue, recalled two generations of the colorful cover art of Ferry Seed catalogs with a tribute article. The article featured a full color photograph of a distinguished D.M. Ferry, Jr. seated in front of a lavish backdrop collage of vintage Ferry Seed catalog covers and posters published by Ferry, Jr. and by his father D.M. Ferry, Sr. (for a link to the Life Magazine photograph click here).
The D.M. Ferry Seed Company of Detroit, Michigan was, in the first half of the 20th century, the General Motors of the American seed business, and not just because its headquarters was in the motor city. Like General Motors, D.M. Ferry dominated its industry, with superb quality controls, excellent management and persuasive artistic advertising. In 1951, Life Magazine reported that the Ferry Seed Company sold millions of seed packages each year, and that these seeds were grown on over 40,000 acres of fields scattered across 18 states. Ferry offered its customers an astounding 1,159 different varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It was the world’s largest grower and distributor of home garden seeds. The archives of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company are at the Univeristy of California, Davis and the inventory of the collection and finding aid is here.
Dexter Mason Ferry, Sr. (1833-1907) pioneered many seed industry best practices that propelled his company to preeminence. Among his innovations were selling seeds in small packages, labeled and illustrated. He also was the first to sell the seed packages in commission racks in the seed dealers showroom, reaching 160,000 retail outlets by 1890. Ferry sold his seeds based on which varieties would do well in a particular region or climate and his seeds were fresh. He discarded any seeds that remained unsold at the end of the year. These practices helped to ensure germination and made Ferry the most successful seed merchant in America.
Ferry Seed Company packages were printed with classical quotations from antiquity and homilies that educated the buyer about the virtues of growing vegetables. No seed merchant offered his customers more attractive packaging than did D.M. Ferry and his devotion to visual imagery promoted sales and easily distinguished his seeds from the competition. The elder Ferry died in 1907 passing the leadership mantel of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company to his son Dexter Mason Ferry, Jr. (1873-1959). The younger Ferry continued and expanded upon his father's legacy both in terms of expanding company sales and commissioning new artists to add colorful works of horticultural art to the firm's gallery of commercial images.
D.M. Ferry, Jr. was not only the president of the D.M. Ferry Seed Company but he also took an active role in Detroit civic life and Michigan politics, serving two terms in the Michigan legislature. A graduate of Columbia University, class of 1898, his appreciation of the arts led him to serve as president and long time member of the board of directors of the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, helping to bring that museum to great prominence among America's cultural heritage institutions. In 1950, Ferry commissioned modernist architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), a member of the original Bauhaus and a protege of Walter Gropius, to design the D.M. Ferry cooperative dormitory on the campus of Vassar College.
It was perhaps almost inevitable that given Ferry's distinguished patronage of the arts and his company's tradition of printing colorful botanical images in its advertising and catalogs that he would seek out the nation's most respected and popular illustrator, Maxfield Parrish, to create posters and catalog illustrations for the D.M. Ferry Seed Company.
Maxfield Parrish, (1870-1966) holds a special place of distinction in the pantheon of American illustrators. His career spanned the "Golden Age of American illustration" (1870-1950) and like two other giants of American illustration, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Howard Pyle (1853-1911), his formal education included study at important Philadelphia area art schools. Parrish attended Drexel and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pyle taught at Drexel in Philadelphia and Wyeth was a pupil at Pyle's School of Art in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The papers of Maxfield Parrish are located at the Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire. The inventory and finding aid for the Parrish papers can be viewed here.
Fortuitously for Parrish, Philadelphia was also the home of the Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post and the firm which first recognized his genius and commissioned some of Parrish's earliest and most popular illustrations.
His enormous artistic output included many illustrations for children’s books. Often his images depicted beloved garden themed nursery rhymes. Parrish’s pictures combined jewel-like colors, with an innovative mastery of the then new technology of color printing resulting in artistic works that found an unsurpassed popularity with the American public.
Well before being commissioned by the D. M. Ferry Seed Company, Maxfield Parrish had established a reputation as an unparalleled illustrator of garden themes. His “Steadfast Gardener” image, originally commissioned in 1906 by Collier’s Weekly magazine, enjoys widespread popularity today, showing up on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. Another very popular Parrish horticultural image is his whimsical depiction of the knave wheeling vegetables. The knave image first appeared in the book Knave of Hearts written by Louise Saunders, originally published in 1925 by Charles Schribner & Sons. The book is still in print and it continues to enchant readers around the globe.
In 1916 Maxfield Parrish collaborated with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) in the production of Dream Garden, a large glass mosaic measuring 15 by 49 feet using over 100,000 pieces of favrile glass. The mural was installed in the lobby of the Curtis Building, home of the publisher of Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, and remains to this day an important cultural heritage site in downtown Philadelphia.
Perhaps Maxfield Parrish's most critically acclaimed contribution to horticultural imagery were his pictures for Edith Wharton’s magnificent book Italian Villas and Their Gardens published in 1904 by the Century Co. Wharton’s text and Parrish’s illustrations have influenced numerous landscape architects and the pictures cemented Parrish’s reputation as early 20th century America’s leading illustrator of beautiful gardens. A first edition of the book Italian Villas and Their Gardens is in the collection of the Mertz Library, the cataloging record of the book may be viewed here.
Sometime between 1910 and 1920 Maxfield Parrish was commissioned by the D.M. Ferry Seed Company to create colorful images for their gallery of commercial art. The Parrish images were subsequently used by Ferry as advertisements as well as seed catalog covers, at least one of which is available, in the collection of the Mertz Library at [YF.E798]. The Parrish illustrated catalog has been digitized and added to Mertz Digital. The Parrish image in Mertz Digital depicts the familiar children’s nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater”, and was printed on the front and back covers of the 1919 Ferry catalog.
Parrish also created other garden themed nursery rhyme pictures for Ferry. These other images include “Mary, Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow…”, “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” When viewed as a series, these vintage Ferry Seed Co. illustrations provide gardeners with a delightful montage of horticultural nursery rhymes.
Among the artists commissioned by D.M. Ferry Seed Co. was W. Herbert "Buck" Dunton, (1878-1936). Dunton was a celebrated illustrator of the American West, whose works reflect the dramatic colors and magnificent vistas of Taos, New Mexico. Dunton's art preserves a perspective of the American frontier that dominated the literature, arts and popular culture of the United States during the early and mid 20th century.
Dunton was one of the original members of the Taos Society of Artists; he studied at the Art Students League in New York and exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. Around 1910, the Ferry Seed Co. commissioned Dunton to create a poster entitled: “Settlers and Seeds.” The posters encouraged gardeners to associate the Ferry Seed Company with the sensational episodes of frontier adventure popularized in the western dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Dunton's works are still avidly collected by enthusiasts, galleries and museums, including the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas. The W. Herbert "Buck" Dunton archives are held by the University of Texas, Briscoe Center for American History Manuscripts, and a link to an inventory of the papers and a finding aid may be viewed by clicking here.
The D.M. Ferry Seed Company merged with the California based seed company C. C. Morse Company in 1930 to become the Ferry-Morse Seed Company. By 1930, Ferry was producing the majority of its seed in California. Ferry-Morse relocated to Kentucky in 1959. In 1981, the Ferry-Morse Seed Company was acquired by France’s Groupe Limagrain. In 2005, Groupe Limagrain sold Ferry-Morse to Jiffy International.
The D.M Ferry Seed Company's patronage of fabulous botanical illustrations is evident throughout the pages of its annual catalogs. The color illustrations reproduced below exemplify a distinctive style of botanical art which Americans to this day associate with vintage nursery and seed catalogs. The New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library collection of nursery and seed catalogs is unsurpassed and now thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, public domain images (pre 1923) from the Mertz Library collection, have been digitzed and made accessible on the internet.
Click on the images below for larger versions.
D.M. Ferry Seed Company
Images from Mertz Digital
Around the same time (ca. 1910-1915) that D.M. Ferry commissioned him to create commercial images for its catalogs and posters, William Herbert "Buck" Dunton found that his art had become profoundly influenced by the landscape and flora of Taos, New Mexico. Dunton's surroudings in Taos are easily recognized in his distinctive color palette, style and subject matter. A few years after the arrival of Dunton and the other members of the Taos Society of Artists the great American photographer Ansel Adams would also discover Taos. Adams preserved his impressions of Taos in his classic photographic book Taos, Pueblo (1930) with writer Mary Hunter Austin. Taos, Pueblo was Adams first book of photographs and is considered among the rarest and most critically acclaimed publications in the history of American photography. Only 108 copies of the original book were printed, each copy includes twelve actual photographs by Adams. A copy of this great rare book is in the New York Public Library and the cataloging record may be viewed here. The Taos, pueblo is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States with some structures built one thousand years ago still occupied. Today, Taos, New Mexico continues to be a source of inspiration to many artists and photographers as shown by these Creative Commons photographs.
photographer: edmondo gnerre
photographer : edmondo gnerre
photographer : laszlo ilyes
photographer : YoTut
photographer : robert wilson
All images Creative Commons
Around 1915 W. Herbert Dunton came to Taos and joined with Joseph Henry Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips to form the Taos Society of Artists. The six founding members were known as the "Taos Six". E. Irving Couse was the Society's first president. These artists found the Native Americans, who inhabited the landscape in and around Taos, compelling subjects for their artistic compositions. In Taos, Dunton and his colleagues established a distinctive American style of painting featuring a vibrant palette of colors, their paintings were immediately popular and remain highly sought after by museums and galleries. The rare vintage film below shows Taos Society artists at work painting scenes and portraits of the Native American population.
Books illustrated by Maxfield Parrish have delighted children and adults for generations. His application of lapus lazuli in a form unique to his palette gave the art world a new color referred to as "Parrish Blue." The photographic quality, color saturation and finely executed details characteristic of his pictures ensured an unsurpassed popularity and made him the most recognized American artist illustrator of his era. A book illustrated by Maxfield Parrish was no longer the property of its writer/author but rather became a Parrish book.
The National Museum of American Illustration holds the largest and most comprehensive collection of Maxfield Parrish original artwork in the world. The museum is located in Newport, Rhode Island on a magnificent Gilded Age estate named Vernon Court designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings.
The Stark Museum of Art, Orange Texas holds perhaps the largest collection of works by Taos Society artists in the world. The Taos Society of Artists included Joseph Henry Sharp, E.L. Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, E.I. Couse, W.H. Dunton, E. Martin Hennings, Oscar Berninghaus, Victor Higgins, Walter Ufer and Kenneth Adams. A representive collection of W. Herbert "Buck" Dunton paintings are described by the Stark Museum's curatorial staff at the link below.