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Nursery and Seed Catalogs: Mrs. Francis King: A Review of The American Seed Catalogue (1916)

The collection, one of the largest in the Americas, provides a remarkable resource for detailed images and information on the history of American commercial printing, business, marketing, consumption, technology, food culture, and design.

Mrs. Francis King: A Review of the American Seed Catalogue (1916)

Mrs. Francis King (Louisa Yeomans) 1863-1948 was once the most widely read horticultural columnist and author in America. Her columns appeared in prominent newspapers and magazines and were read by millions during the period between the two world wars. The era was characterized by a flourishing garden culture that aimed to beautify America one garden at a time and where every garden means a home. The Beautify America Movement was led by wealthy civic minded individuals, like  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who established magnificient gardens on their own property which served to not only embellish their elegant mansions but also inspired millions of middle class Americans to build their own beautiful gardens.  Mrs. King's own garden in Alma, Michigan was a superb example of the extraordinary residential landscapes constructed by leading exponents of the Beautify America movement.

Mrs. King was, for a quarter of a century, the most prominent chronicler, advocate and arbiter in the popular press of this gardening movement. In 1922, Mrs. King was described by House and Garden magazine as the  "fairy godmother of gardening." She wrote or contributed to eighteen books, all of which are in the Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden. Interestingly, copies of Mrs. King's books came to the Mertz Library from the collection of Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) a pioneering woman garden photographer. Ms. Johnston's career is the subject of an exhibition at the Mertz Library entitled "Gardens for a Beautiful America: The Women Who Photographed Them."


House & Garden magazine called Mrs. King "the fairy godmother of gardening" (1922) copyright expired

One of King's books "Pages from A Garden Note-Book" (1921), published by Charles Scribner's Sons, [copyright expired, public domain] contains a chapter written in 1916 which surveyed the American seed catalogue. The chapter entitled "A Review of the American Seed Catalogue" provides the reader with a succinct, humorous but always dignified guided tour of the personalities, nurseries, plants, and aspirations of the American seed industry during a golden age of public and private gardens. The chapter is a unique window into the world of early 20th century American seed catalogs crafted by the era's most celebrated writer of garden themes. Now for the first time the images and text of the nursery and seed catalogs cited and described by Mrs. King a century ago are linked with her prose [copyright expired, public domain] to inspire a new generation of American gardeners to reimagine that golden era "when the whole land is awake to the great occupation of gardening."


Every garden means a home from "The Garden Magazine" Volume 22, Number 1 (August 1915)


by Mrs. Francis King [copyright expired]

* Written in 1916: a few personal reflections.

HERE come the annual catalogues,” writes the editor of that good little Boston weekly called “Horticulture.” “The long fall labors of the seedsman have come to fruition, and here are his children, arriving by every post delivery. Each one, even the most unpretentious, represents effort to surpass in one direction or another, and in the voluminous total we don’t believe there is one page deliberately inserted to deceive. If the public were only half as intelligent and attentive in their use of the seedsman’s wares as the seeds­man is anxious to excel in the quality provided, we shouldn’t hear so much about unsatisfactory results. The best remedy ever applied for ‘poor seed’ is horticultural education.”


Horticulture Magazine. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library from the collection of the Mertz Library [1922 copyright expired]

From its ethical standpoint the foregoing is my own platform with regard to the American seed lists. Who could enjoy that in which he could not believe? As for me, it would be a bitter Jan­uary indeed which did not produce the too gay cover of Vaughan’s list, the sober livery of Dreer’s, never better-looking than in 1916, the semi-deco­ration of Farquhar’s.

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But, to take an original view of the question, my seed lists, as they lie in piles upon my table, how ugly they look! If I were not aware of the fact that competing seeds­men are not always the best of friends, I should suggest that a color-consultation be held in the summer of the men of each firm who make the issuing of the catalogue their peculiar business. Think what shelves of harmonious color we should then have as the year began; each firm to adopt a uniform binding, harmonious with his rival’s, and not to depart from it with successive years!

For the business which concerns us here a com­parison, a critical examination of the seed lists of our country, division into rough groups seems to be convenient. First, catalogues of general im­portance, such as those of Dreer, Farquhar, Vaughan, the Palisades Nurseries, and so on. I will ask you to remember that the order in which I shall take these means nothing — they will be mentioned in a quite haphazard manner within their respective group arrangements. Let us take the plunge with the respective names of Dreer and Farquhar.

Moderation in expression character­izes these two lists; a plant is desirable, very de­sirable, of pleasing color. Few superlatives are here to be met; as a result, the reader’s confidence is gained, and when an extra good thing comes in for high praise he promptly responds to the sug­gestion. Farquhar is entitled to all praise for his courage in introducing the new Chinese and Jap­anese shrubs and plants. The glorious Lilium myriophyllum, or, as it is now called, Lilium regale, was brought out by this firm a few years since; most of the new barberries, cotoneasters, and other shrubs lately introduced into commerce have been first described and offered upon these pages.

In Dreer’s catalogue for 1916, on the page oppo­site the excellent color print of Gladiolus Baron Hulot and Gladiolus Sulphur King, when these are called blue and gold, not only is the phrase pur­ple and gold more beautiful as to words but it is accurate and the other is not. A kind of faint­hearted retrieving of accuracy in color description is noted in the words concerning Baron Hulot, a “rich royal violet blue.” All who have grown this small and charming flower know it for a rich violet or purple — the word blue cannot occur to any one who sees it even for the first time. Though I say, as I have often said before, that when the compiler of so restrained, complete, and serious a list as Dreer’s speaks in color terms so misleading, amateur gardeners, as organizations and as indi­viduals, need to urge upon all such firms the adoption of one of the two standard charts, and that at once, before such painful things are re­peated. Taken as a whole, Dreer’s is a fine cata­logue, certainly one of our best. Mr. W. C. Egan’s cultural directions are always valuable. So are Mrs. Ely’s, and the range in variety of seeds and plants is remarkable. To roses, dahlias, and hardy phloxes large spaces are allotted. Far too much space is given to illustrations. I think here of a lively correspondent of mine who, de­ploring the frequency of poor illustrations in one of our gardening journals, wrote: “I am too old to be amused by pictures, and I know how to grow tomatoes in a tomato-can.”

Since my eye first fell upon the list issued by the Palisades Nurseries, of Sparkill, N. Y., I have been less satisfied with the others upon my shelf. This list speaks to the intelligent gardener. It seems possessed of a certain accuracy, its color descrip­tions are among the best to be found, its explanations of the meaning of botanical terms or names are as illuminating as they are unusual; in fact, it is one of the only two of our catalogues approach­ing the scientific. And for the constantly grow­ing company of advanced amateurs catalogues on the order of the great English lists, such as Barr’s, which are books of reference too, must soon be forthcoming. For these gardeners no pictures are essential. They are already acquainted with form, color, and habit of their plant-subjects. They know from experience all they need to know concerning their soil and climate. New varieties are the thing, new varieties of known species, or, indeed, new species themselves. In the list of the Palisades Nurseries we find forty varieties of hardy asters and twenty-five of dianthus.

Knight & Struck’s list has many good features; a bit too much quotation, perhaps. It is a wordy list, and to the initiated may seem rather to overdo the matter of enthusiasm. Yet the fact that a color chart has practically been adopted by this firm, the first American instance of the kind, places this list far above all others in this one direction. Mrs. S. A. Brown’s short paper on color at the beginning of the book is a document of real value. [Brown's paper refers to a book "Color and Nomenclature" by Robert Ridgeway, available here.] For myself, I could be as happy if T. E. Brown’s well-worn “A Garden is a Lovesome Thing” had  been omitted from these pages.


My Garden, by T.E. Brown. Knight & Struck catalogue (1916) [Mertz Library] copyright expired

Peter Henderson’s book, with its quaintly gay cover, is as welcome a visitor as any of its com­peers. Who does not smile as he looks with each new year upon the pleasant old gentleman in spec­tacles, ever wheeling his barrow full of vegetables ? The reliability of Henderson’s seeds has been for years a household word. The frequency of exag­geration of its language is a lapse one forgives for old times’ sake; but its pages bristle with such words as “gorgeous, magnificent, showy, indis­pensable, superb,” and the appeal of these terms to the seasoned gardener has become somewhat limited.


Advertisement for The "Henderson Lawn Grass Seed" from Peter Henderson & Co. Garden Magazine (1905) copyright expired Source: BHL

Burpee’s Annual for 1916 brings with it, to every one who knew of Mr. Burpee, a sense of almost per­sonal loss in his death in the autumn of 1915. Two fine young sons are now at the head of this great business, which is known first for its remarkable system of trials of seeds, and next for its many introductions of distinct varieties of flowers and vegetables, varieties which have proved their worth. The list has the look of another age, an older period of taste in America, the bright, inevi­table sweet pea upon its cover. The pictures of half-page cabbages and whole-page lima beans, of half-page petunias and of whole-page antirrhinums may cause a smile upon the countenance of the unbeliever; but true it is that “Burpee’s seeds grow,” and the terse descriptions of flower or of vegetable are all that is needed to induce one to buy.                

Bobbink & Atkins issue a dignified, correct, and handsome list; this house also issues a separate catalogue of seeds for rock gardens. Thorburn has an excellent reputation as a seedsman in the East, at least; this firm is of great age, but its book has ever seemed to me to be really too conserva­tive, to show a certain rigidity of manner. Some day I shall expect to see upon its plain and attrac­tive cover Sir Walter’s lines:

“This rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I.”

Vaughan’s is a list of greatest interest to us in the Middle West. Each year it improves in type alas, not in its outward dress, where impossible pansies of hideously large dimensions flaunt them­selves this season. But inwardly it is satisfying, and usually offers many delightful new flowers from all over the world. 

Vaughan's Seeds 1899   Vaughan's Seeds 1909

Michell’s (of Philadelphia) catalogue, barring a fearsome page of roses in color, is a very excellent and complete one; it illustrates good tools and baskets with a fulness hardly to be met with in other lists, and is in that respect rather a favorite of mine.

To the old and fine firm of John Lewis Childs we owe Gladiolus Childsii — one of the finest types in cultivation. This house also introduced Rudbeckia Golden Glow — a flower now despised by the initiated, but which, I venture to say, has brought more pleasure into squalid city surround­ings than any heretofore known. Elliott, of Pittsburg, sends out lists which are always worth having — excellent selections of plants and shrubs are always on his pages. The cultural directions for delphiniums in Elliott’s list are such as one cannot afford to miss. [A detailed Mertz Library guide to the Elliott Nursery Company is available here

A colloquial of colloquials in seed-list lore is Henry Field, of Shenandoah, Iowa. There is no list so amusing as this, although in places it reminds us of Bees’ list published at Liverpool, in which I always think I see an Irish hand! Read in Henry Field, page 55, “Woman’s Rights in the Garden,” and have as hearty a laugh as you have had for long. Yet, underneath the humor of it, notice the truth about the old garden tools on the farm, and on that subject, not confined to Shenandoah, Iowa, of a woman’s having to ask her husband for every cent she spends. There is a fundamental whole­someness about this catalogue which shows a sound man back of it. I commend it to those who may not realize the range of our seed publications, and what can be done by the Middle West in the way of breezy writing.

Among the rather handsomer books of this year one might mention that of Weeber & Don, of New York. Here the cover bears a most attractive garden picture in color, bordered by a delicate de­sign in greenish gray; the inner leaves show many fine vegetables and flowers, with good descriptions evidently not overdrawn. Julius Roehrs, the great specialist in orchids, publishes a very adequate- looking list, with a selection of names of perennials suitable for the rock-garden, which will be specially welcomed by those who recall the lovely garden of this type shown by this company at the Grand Central Palace last year (1915).

For Henry Dawson’s list, that of the Eastern Nurseries, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, one can­not but feel the greatest admiration. This is a list without frills, in fact, almost without illustrations; it is a learned list botanically, as befits one compiled by the son of Mr. Jackson Dawson, and made in the shadow of the Arnold Arboretum; and, because of its accuracy and range, it should rank very high with amateurs and professionals in this country.


Everything for the Hardy Garden. Eastern Nurseries offered clients a "Beautiful America" landscape.

Let us now turn to a number of lists dealing with the great matter of trees and shrubs. In this group Moon, Hicks, and Ellwanger and Barry stand out pre-eminent. Moon’s book, always beautiful in dress, with a pretty play upon the name in its decoration, is the best of this type. Rather serious in language, it is not over-embel­lished by pictures. Hicks, of Long Island, well known for his fine specimen trees, sends us a list very choppy-looking within, in arrangement of illustrations and diagrams, but in reality crowded with planting suggestions based on principles. This is a valuable book. Ellwanger and Barry used to be a name to conjure with; their present publication I find distinctly commonplace. Al­bert A. Manda issues a good pamphlet, called “The Ornamentation of Grounds” — excellent reading from many points of view. Mr. Manda sends out no less than nine catalogues of his vari­ous wares. To return for an instant to Moon, of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, just mentioned; I am reminded here of a capital brochure pub­lished by them some years since, called “What to Plant and Where to Plant It.” Volumes of free information in landscape-gardening are now pouring from the presses of the land; one almost wonders whether the profession of landscape archi­tecture may not be in danger — no, it is my belief that the more intelligence developed upon this great subject the more the general public will feel the need of expert professional advice and assis­tance.

At Arlington Heights, near Chicago, Klehm’s Nurseries publish an attractive list, remarkable for the number of varieties of given species offered, such as syringa, spirea, and philadelphus, for ex­ample, and for what was the astonishing compara­tive cheapness of its most excellent stock. This house should be given credit for the remarkable grafted elms it is now selling — in use, I under­stand, in the Boston Park system — very desirable for symmetry, immunity from pests, and gen­erally handsome appearance.

The Andorra Nurseries, at Chestnut Hill, near Philadelphia, publish an attractive booklet, en­titled “Distinctive Trees and Plants,” bearing on its cover a decorative drawing of the flower of the tulip-tree. This, however, is not the principal list issued by this firm. The book of evergreen trees of Hill, of Dundee, Illinois, gaudy and cheap- looking, is nevertheless good of its kind.

By far the finest of such catalogues, and one which has but now come to my notice, is that of the California Nursery Company, of Niles, Cali­fornia. This is, of course, of local interest first, but as an educational force it is of general interest too. Its pictures and text are equally delightful; it embraces many unfamiliar subjects, from the bougainvillea to the Smyrna fig, from the cypress to the prune, and it should serve as a kind of hor­ticultural Baedeker to the California traveller. Carl Purdy’s list of native California plants sent out from Ukiah is another of these local lists of great interest. Theodore Payne, of Los Angeles, sends forth a very valuable booklet on “Wild Flowers of California.”

Two unusual catalogues, and those of a nature to be of special interest to the owner or maker of a formal garden, are of trained fruit-trees. It is true that we have yet to learn the ravishing beauty of fruit-trees for the spring garden, exactly as it is true that we (whose spring is really one vast orchard in bloom) have yet to learn the general use of flowering apples, crabs, and cherries on our grounds and in our gardens. I commend especially to those who can afford them the idea of espaliers of the pear, the apple, the plum, as objects through which a rare quality of decorative beauty may be had. One of the lists is that of Otto Lochman, of Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Julius Roehrs is a dealer in such trees also, and these are mentioned as having a distinct bearing upon advanced horti­culture in this country.

Under catalogues of thirty pages or over, de­voted to special plants, come those concerned with peonies, irises, and phloxes. The Peterson Nur­sery Company, of Chicago, issues a small list of irises of sixteen pages, which is absolutely the most beautiful sent out in the country, illustrating irises Monsignor, Purple King, Koenig Darius, and Lohengrin, which are really captivating in beauty.

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Peterson Nursery catalogs of irises are really captivating in beauty (Mertz Library)

Shoup, of Dayton, Ohio, has a restricted but very handsome list of irises. Peonies begin to receive special attention, as shown by lists devoted to these delightful flowers. D. W. C. Ruff, of Bald Eagle, Lake Minnesota, issues a capital list, plain in form but full of peony knowledge, especially of all the great French varieties. Good & Reese, of Springfield, Ohio, are large dealers in this flower. But the most elaborate and complete book of the peony alone is, I think, that of the Mohican Peony Gardens, at Sinking Springs, Pennsylvania. This is truly a delightful handbook of the peony, with half-tones as illustrations and careful descriptions of each variety listed. Another excellent list in black-and-white is the peony list T. C. Thurlow’s Sons send out, a dignified and excellent catalogue; and I happen to be old-fashioned enough to think that some of this dignity arises from the fact that the firm does no business on Sunday, going even to the point of excluding visitors from their grounds on that day. There is something specially frank and honest about the Thurlow list, as there is about those others of Lovett, of Little Silver, New Jersey, and of our friend, Frederick H. Horsford, of Charlotte, Vermont — and in thus speak­ing I would not intend any unpleasant inferences —  no, not at all.


In 1916 Good & Reese had peonies for everybody [Mertz Library]

To go back for an instant — every one knows F. H. Horsford, of Vermont; his modest and com­pact catalogue is a welcome visitor each January. Lovett, of Little Silver, New Jersey, sends out a very interesting list of fruits and flowers, and a group of good growers at Painesville, Ohio, also issue lists of about this size and character — Storrs & Harrison (whose book is, indeed, larger than the others), Ralph Huntington, and Martin Kohankie, an adventurer in plants. No less than three excellent small catalogues are sent out this year by as many women — Mrs. Strunsky, of Engle­wood, New Jersey; Mrs. Wolcott, of Jackson, Michigan, and Mrs. McFate, of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania. In the charming list of Frank M. Thomas, West Chester, Pennsylvania, an amateur whose first catalogue is out this season, “A Classi­fication of Color Terms,” I find a remarkable piece of writing.* [Mr. Thomas fell in France during the war. His business is carried on as a memorial to him under the name of the Twin Larches Nurseries by a relative and a friend. It is his due that this should be made known. —L. Y. K.]

Farr’s, of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, is the larg­est of such lists as we are now considering, and this is a catalogue of great value. It is so evidently the result of much research, reading and experiment, its list of varieties in irises and peonies are so exhaustive and seem to be classified to such per­fection, that I have come to turn to it as to a book of reference on these flowers. Its color- plates, too, are of uncommon excellence. [A detailed Mertz Library guide to the Farr Nursery is available here

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"Farr's color plates are of uncommon excellence"  - Mrs. King.  These two plates show peony flowers in various colors [Mertz Library]

Roses are next on our group of catalogues of special flowers. And who could do without that fine book of Walsh’s, of Woods Hole, Massachu­setts, without the endless variety offered here, the accuracy in description, above all that excep­tionally good page of cultural instructions for the growing of the rose? Totty, of Madison, New Jersey, sends us a good-looking list of roses, the blot upon which this year is the name of a new ever-blooming polyanthus rose — Baby Doll!

While it is true that the small but very hand­some list of the E. G. Hill Company, of Richmond, Indiana, is mainly for florists, I have become so enamoured of that glory of a red rose, Hoosier Beauty, that I must mention its originator’s pub­lication here. Its cover is in black-and-white, a picture of Hoosier Beauty. This is said to be a good summer as well as greenhouse rose. I have never seen Chateau de Clos Vougeot, one of the parents of Hoosier Beauty, grown to perfection; but Hoosier Beauty reminds me of it in color and in velvetlike texture, and I cannot believe that any dark rose exists more sumptuous in hue, more elegant in form, than Hoosier Beauty. For the sake of this rose alone the list of Hill is worth while. On the other hand, here is shown a chrys­anthemum called by the lugubriously suggestive name of Early Frost. Why thus gratuitously dampen our gardening spirits? The small cata­logue is in most excellent taste, and may be said to prove this point — that a good list in black and white is far more acceptable than a poor one in color.

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E.G. Hill's rose: Hoosier Beauty, on the cover of the 1915 catalog, and chrysanthemum: Early Frost, from the 1916 catalog

Conard & Jones’s is as colorful a cata­logue as one may find; but the color of the great roses therein set forth seems to me to be particu­larly adequate, and their list is not only an all­ embracing one but reliable. The wonderful new colors and types of cannas evolved by Antoine Wintzer,connected with this firm, are known the world over: alas, that the Department of Agricul­ture in Washington should yearly set forth, to this day, the abominable example of the round beds filled with cannas and edged with geraniums, as shown in this book.

The dahlia is a flower which is not now languish­ing for want of attention. Otis P. Chapman, of Westerly, Rhode Island, issues a restricted list of exceedingly fine varieties; but the apogee of dahlia publications is certainly reached in the book of the Peacock Dahlia Farms, of Berlin, New Jersey, which bears upon its cover the modest legend, "The World’s Best Dahlias.” An excellent representation of the fine flower of John Wanamaker appears upon the cover, a flower well worth pre­senting to the public as, to my own great satis­faction in it, I can testify.

Another dahlia-grower calls himself the Dahlia king! He is Mr. Alexander, of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who, however, nearly makes good his claim to the title on the strength of the great number of varieties shown in his fine catalogue. These are the larger lists concerned with the dahlia. Among the little ones, a tiny thing some three inches square stands out pre-eminent to me as one of the most perfect lists ever issued in America — it is that of Clifford White, of Grosse Isle, Michigan; fronted by a charming photograph of a hybrid cactus dahlia; beautifully printed and bound, it is a bit of a treasure in such things.

David Herbert & Son, of Atco, New Jersey, issue a list of dahlias, very comprehensive and well printed, the cover a plain green of good tone and the collection of flowers offered apparently choice.

When the small blue-bound list of Chester J. Hunt, of Montclair, appeared on the gardening horizon, it was as if a new star had risen. We look, and with reason, to the best English lists as our models of what the seed, bulb, or plant list should be; and this list of tulips and daffodils, in its completeness, its careful descriptive text, its excellent prefatory notes, and its color sense, is head and shoulders above most that we have — much more like an English list. Temperamen­tally it differs from an English list. It is buoyant in language—in fact, almost affectionate in appre­ciation of the beauties it describes.

Lists of gladioli alone are now legion. They are always fluttering through our mails, Cowee’s, of Berlin, New York, perhaps the earliest to have been devoted to this flower alone. It is now in very sumptuous dress and rainbowlike in color.

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The Glory of the Garden: The Modern Gladiolus, catalog from Arthur Cowee

A charming catalogue comes each year from the Tracys, of Wenham, Massachusetts, others from groups of men in Ohio, such as Bidwell and Fobes, the successors of that wonderful Frank Banning, to whom we owe gladiolus America and that other beauty Niagara. Clark W. Brown and Joe Coleman are two notable growers of gladioli in the same State, and send out attractive little books; John Lewis Childs, of course, offers a huge list. But it has remained for this season to introduce to me the remarkable list of the only woman grower of the gladiolus, commercial grower, that I know. This woman is Miss Mary Lois Hawkins. The cover belies the contents, which are of unusual value, especially since fourteen evidently very fine new varieties are here offered for the first time from a private collection. Here is the gladi­olus collector’s opportunity.

The well-printed booklet of A. E. Kunderd, of Goshen, Indiana, originator of the very striking Mrs. Frank Pendleton, Jr., and of the ruffled hy­brids of the gladiolus, is very interesting of its kind; to the hybridist particularly perhaps, be­cause to none but actual hybridizers of a flower can the extra frill in a daffodil or gladiolus edge be entirely exciting. The new hybrids of Gladiolus primulinus should be pleasant to see, partly be­cause of the charm of the species, in its wonderful colors and peculiar grace, and partly because, in the hands of so patient and successful a worker as Mr. Kunderd is known to be, there will surely be rare productions from them. The great drawback of this list is the presence of many peculiarly dull and even ugly names for new varieties of gladioli. Gold Throat, for example, may be descriptive — but Lily Blotch, Billy Red, and Splendorra!

To sum up: the great lack in the American seed list is the lack of correct color-description. [Mrs. King's thoughts on color in the flower garden is the subject of her essay here] Super­latives in descriptive writing of flowers we pass good-humoredly by, for the very fact that there is not one of us, in the guild of gardening women at least, who does not make use of these our­selves! Impossible to write or speak of beauty in measured terms. We must remember that en­thusiasts write these catalogues. Yet no; on sober second thought, why should not our lists take on more restraint of language and less flambuoyancy of cover and illustration ? So surely as our own plant and seed lists improve, so surely shall our gardens, the gardens of America, reflect this rise toward taste and knowledge in horticul­ture. Mr. E. H. Wilson declares that the lover of plants must and will have a larger voice in the variety that shall be grown in gardens. [The E.H. Wilson papers are on deposit at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, the finding aid to his papers is here] The solu­tion of the present problem will be found in both amateur and dealer becoming more and more pro­gressive. “That the nurserymen and seedsmen want the amateur’s suggestion and criticism I feel certain. At present all is too commercial.” Com­mercial to an extent it must be; co-operative as between dealers and amateurs it must be too, and more now than ever before, when the whole land is awake to the great occupation of gardening.

Andrew Tschinkel

American Seed Catalogues described by Mrs. Francis King

Mrs. Francis King (Louisa Yeomans) surveyed American Seed Catalogues in chapter twelve of her book "Pages from a Garden NoteBook." Although the chapter was written in 1916, the book wasn't published until 1921. King's writing style captured the enthusiasm and perspective of an era known as the "gardens for a beautiful America movement." Some of the botanical art and illustrations from the seed catalogs cited and described by Mrs. King in her book are presented below. Among the many instances of her prestige and influence is the fact that important nurseries often named new cultivars in her honor such as the flame pink colored gladioulus "Mrs. Francis King" by New England grower Cedar Acres gladioli of Wenham, Massachusetts. A page reproduced below from the nursery's 1911 catalog includes a photograph of the King gladioulus. 


The New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library collection of nursery and seed catalogs is unsurpassed and thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, public domain seed catalogs (pre- 1923) from the Mertz Library collection, have been digitized and made accessible on the internet.

"In all the glorious array of colors to be found in the lists of Gladioli the variety "Mrs. Francis King", that  wonderful flame pink, is unsurpassed. For brilliancy of coloring and fine form it has no rivals in decorative effect."  Catalogue of Cedar Acres gladioli (1915) 

Distinctive Trees and Plants. Andorra Nurseries

Dreer's Garden Book 1916

Three of Dreer's Collection of Twelve Best Hybrid Tea Roses

Dreer's Blue and Gold Gladiolus Baron Hulot and Sulphur King

New American Hybrid Tea Rose 'Los Angeles'

Farquhar's Garden Annual 1915

Farquhar's Garden Annual 1914

Palisades Perennials and Rock Garden Plants 1931

Knight and Struck Company May 1916

Everything for the Garden 1909 Peter Henderson & Co.

Henderson's Superior Seeds, Plants Bulbs etc. for the Garden, Greenhouse and Farm

The Henderson Collection of New Sweet Peas

J.M. Thorburn and Co. Annual Descriptive Catalogue of Seeds 1895

American Grown Roses Bobbink and Atkins

Hill's Evergreen Book 1914

Lovett's Catalog No. 106 from 1922

Childs' Rare Flowers, Vegetables and Fruits 1901

Michell's Bulbs

Weeber and Don Garden, Farm and Flower Seeds 1907

Roehrs Nursery

Gladiolus childsi, pink, red, blue and white flowers

Rudbeckia Golden Glow and Aster alpina

Moon's Hardy Trees and Plants for Every Place and Purpose 1916

Ellwanger and Barry Mt. Hope Nurseries 1916

1916 Floral Guide. The Conard and Jones Co.

The Conard and Jones Co. climbing roses

Horsford's Nurseries

Vaughan's Seeds 1916

Walsh's Handbook of Roses


Peonies for Pleasure. The Good & Reese Co.

The Glory of the Garden. Arthur Cowee, Meadowvale Farms.

Cedar Acres Gladioli

The World's Best Dahlias. Peacock Dahlia Farms


The Blue Book of Bulbs 1916. Chester Jay Hunt.

Chester Jay Hunt. The Cream of Holland

Cedar Acres Gladioli 1920

Kunderd Gladioli 1921

Conard & Jones Co 1916 Reputation Set of roses

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Gardens for a Beautiful America Eastern Nurseries

The books and articles of Mrs. Francis King, (Louisa Yeomans) documented, inspired and advocated for the "Gardens for a Beautiful America" movement. The movement has been thoroughly researched by historian Sam Watters and is the subject of his most recent book Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935 Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson. (2012).


Mrs. King, in her survey of American seed catalogs, singles out for particular attention and admiration the Eastern Nurseries of Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, and its proprietor Henry Dawson. Henry Dawson was the son of Jackson Dawson, who himself was the first superintendent, of the Arnold Arboretum.  The Dawsons' botanical knowledge was extraordinary, and their influence on American horticulture unsurpassed.  The Eastern Nurseries catalog featured here contains several photographs that illustrate the splendid garden landscapes and foundational plantings that characterized the finest instances of the "Gardens for a Beautiful America" movement. [All images are from the Mertz Digital collection of nursery and seed catalogs]

Everything for the Hardy Garden. Eastern Nurseries

The Flower-Garden


Rock Garden

Books by Louisa Yeomans, "Mrs. Francis King" in the Mertz Library

Advertisements for seed catalogues described by Mrs. Francis King

Here are some images of vintage advertisements for seed catalogues described by Mrs. Francis King.  All images are from pre 1923 issues of the Garden Magazine published by Doubleday and Page (copyright expired) digitized by BHL (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Farr's Irises

Hicks Trees. Isaac Hicks & Son

Peonies from Cherry Hill Nurseries

Peterson's Perfect Peonies. George H. Peterson

We Grow Peonies - Nothing Else. Mohican Peony Gardens.

Heatherhome Seed and Plant Book. Knight & Struck Co.

Michell's Seed Book

Spring Blooming Bulbs. Elliott Nursery Co.

Peter Henderson & Co.

Dreer's 1916 Garden Book

Thorburn's Seeds. J.M. Thorburn & Co.

The Storr's and Harrison Co.

Palisades Popular Perennials. The Palisades Nursery

Burpee's Seeds Grow. W Atlee Burpee & Co

Julius Roehrs Co

Vaughan's 28th Annual Catalog

Gladioli for the Garden. Arthur Cowee

Portraits of American nurserymen described by Mrs. Francis King


 J.K. Alexander


W. Atlee Burpee


Charles H. Totty, President Elect, Society of American Florists


A.E. Kunderd, President Elect, American Gladiolus Society


J.K.M.L. Farquhar of Boston


Bertrand Farr


J. Wilkinson Elliott