Saturday, April 22, 2017

1850 to 1910 - An Old Seedsman's Perspective

I learned some interesting new things from this memoir of the seed trade. Brill is an entertaining writer who switches from high-falutin' purple prose to pissed off old man in the same sentence.  


I live an hour from here.  It looks much the same today! 

Here is the house shown above.  These Comstock, Ferre & Co. images are here because the writer, Francis Brill , references the company and their catalog of one year earlier, 1849.

I've added links after names that go to info in this blog on those people, as well as links that go other places.

Below from American Florist, 1910

Past, Present and Prospective

of the Seed Trade in America. 


Some five years ago, when nearing the time of life allotted to the human race, I began to realize that after an experience of half a century in the seed business that I knew but very little thereof as compared with the younger generations in the trade, and the thought suggested itself that the little I did know of  "The Past, Present and Future of the Seed Business of America" might interest the members of our association and perchance some non-members.   To the officers then in, control of the association I offered my services, but was informed that the program for 1905 had already been made-up.   The next year I again sought the honor in ample time for the convention of 1906 only to be informed that another person had been asked to prepare a paper on the “Early History of the Seed Business". 
A few months ago in correspondence with President Robinson the matter was referred to and through his courtesy it was arranged for me to prepare a brief paper on “The Past. Present and Prospective of the Seed Trade of America", which I now present to you. 

1875ish - Broadway and Eighteenth street

As to the past, my memory goes back fully 60 years, when, as a boy, I knew personally several of the pioneer seedsmen of America, among them Grant Thorburn, Sr., his sons George C. and William, and later on the sons of George C., the well known firm of James M. Thorburn & Co. [(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)];  

Thomas Bridgeman, and later his son Alfred for whom I clerked in the early fifties at the old seed store, Broadway and Eighteenth street, which locality was in those days considered “away up town," and was, in fact, in close proximity to many small market gardens where today stand great hotels and theaters, grand residences and lofty skyscrapers—monuments to the wonderful advance of civilization and progress in the new world, and the rapid and substantial growth of the city of New York practically, within three quarters of a century.  

Alexander Smith, Thomas Dunlap, and Young & Elliott, all of New York; 

Robert Buist, Sr. [(1)], later Robert Buist, Jr., David Landreth and Pascal Morris & Co., (by whom I was employed as clerk in 1857) all of Philadelphia; 

John Stair of Cleveland, founder of the present house of Kendel, and James Vick of Rochester, N. Y. [(1) (2) (3) (4)].

I remember well when, in 1847, Peter Henderson and his brother James came to Jersey City and bought out my uncle's establishment, market gardening and two or three small greenhouses on rented land immediately adjoining my father's patch on the Van Vorst property. 

They were young men without much capital but plenty of grit. James died early, and the business was continued by Peter, who later on was associated with one Fleming in the seed trade in Nassau street, New York, and later was the head of the well known firm of Peter Henderson & Co. 

I am writing from memory and may have overlooked some of the solid “old-timers", but they will not feel slighted, for undoubtedly they have passed away, and in company with those above named who have gone before, are now enjoying the reward promised to all who sell honest seeds, in that beautiful land “Where moth nor rust doth not corrupt nor thieves break through or steal," nor over zealous congressmen and state legislator meddle with the seedsman's business. 

In this connection I desire to say that seedsmen who deal in vegetable and flower seeds, and handle only stocks of undoubted purity need have no fear of any laws hatched out by members of congress or members of state legislatures, which are absurd, uncalled for, and unnecessary.


To get rid of dishonest dealers who sell “any old thing" that can be bought for “any old price" give them rope enough and they will hang themselves. I do not handle grass seeds but it seems to me it must be very difficult to detect foul seeds in most varieties thereof and undoubtedly some of the laws enacted or proposed are very unjust. In my boyhood days, and even up to 30 years ago, prices were higher and profits much greater than now; seedsmen turn their money practically but once a year and in former days seeds were sold at the seedsman’s legitimate profit and not as now as too often the case, on the grocer’s or dry goods merchant's margins, or along other lines where capital is turned monthly, or weekly, and why have conditions changed? Simply because some of our craft, not satisfied to do a legitimate competitive business have adopted a system of cut-throat opposition. 

I was able to procure several old time catalogues to help me out, but have been disappointed— some claiming that such had not been preserved, and a few failed to respond although in each case I complied with the usual custom demanded. 

My thanks are due and hereby tendered to F. W. Bruggerhof of J. M. Thorburn & Co., for a copy of the catalogue of G. Thorburn & Son, 1827, 4x7 inches, 96 pages, in large part a treatise on the cultivation of seeds and flowers.    

Also “Catalogue of Seeds." James M. Thorburn & Co.. 1847  and a bound volume of their catalogues from 1864 to 1877.      

S. F. Willard has also kindly loaned me a “Wholesale Price Sheet" of seeds for sale by Comstock, Ferre & Co.. 1849.

It is interesting to compare these with the catalogues and price lists of the present day. 

For instance, to take a few leaders, Comstock, Ferre & Co., wholesale: 
  • Beet, per pound, including mangels and sugar, 50c; and Bassano (now scarcely known), 75c; 
  • cabbage, mostly imported varieties, $1.25 to $1.50; 
  • carrot, 75c to $1; 
  • cucumber, 75c; 
  • lettuce, $1.25 to $2; 
  • melon. about 75c: 
  • onion. 75c to $1; pepper. $2.50; 
  • radish, 50c; 
  • spinach, 40c to 50c; 
  • squash. 50c; 
  • tomato, $1.50; 
  • turnip, 50c to 60c. 

In the catalogue of G. Thorburn & Son, 1827, there are enumerated a line of seeds, some names of varieties still familiar, while others, having served their day and generation, are no longer in vogue; for instance, the list of cabbage seeds, mainly imported, comprises more than 20 varieties, 15 of which cannot now be found in any American seed catalogue. 
The various articles are not priced as now, but are prefaced by characters such as the (*), (),  (), (§), etc.. and letters (a), (b), (c) and (d), which refer to “A Key to the Prices of Esculent Vegetable Seeds" on the fly leaf at the front of the book.  No pictures, no paint, in those days. Prices were 12 1⁄2, 25 1⁄2, 37 1⁄2 and 50 cents and $1 per ounce, and 12 1⁄2,  25, 37 1⁄2 and 50 cents per quart, nothing said about packets, pecks or bushels. 

The subsidiary coins of those days and up to 1857 were largely the Spanish sixpence, 6 1⁄4 cents and shilling, 12 1⁄2 cents, which accounts for the fractions. By an act of congress passed in 1857, the value of these foreign coins was fixed at 5, 10, 20 and 40 cents, which soon drove them out of the country.

Flower seeds were sold at six cents per paper, 100 papers for $5.  In the 1847 catalogue of James M. Thorburn & Co., we find prices quoted: 
  • Beans, per quart, dwarf or bush, 25 cents; pole varieties. 25, 37c and 50 cents;
  • Indian corn, seven varieties. including but one of sweet or sugar, 25 cents per quart, six cents per ear; 
  • peas, 14 varieties at 25 cents, 12 varieties at 50 cents per quart, and seven new varieties at 25 cents per packet. 
Very few of the names of the varieties are now familiar. 
  • Beet - seven varieties, including Swiss chard, mangel, and two of sugar beet, 12 1⁄2 cents;
  • yellow turnip and Bassano, classed as new, 25 cents per ounce; 
  • cabbage -  26 varieties including kohl rabi and savoy, two-thirds of which are now unlisted. 25 cents per ounce; 
  • carrot -  two varieties for table use, 12 1⁄2 cents per ounce, two varieties for cattle, 75 cents per pound; 
  • celery- -25 cents; 
  • cucumbers - Early Frame and Early White Spine. 12 1⁄2  cents; Long Green Southgate, Long Green and Long White Turkey, 50 cents per ounce; 
  • lettuce - 12 varieties, six at 25 cents and six at 50 cents per ounce; 
  • egg plant -  $1 per ounce; 
  • melon -  25 cents; 
  • onion -  25 and 50 cents; 
  • parsley and parsnip - 12 1⁄2 cents; 
  • pepper -  four varieties, 50 cents; 
  • Sweet Spanish and Sweet Mountain. $1 per ounce; 
  • radish, 12 varieties, 12% cents; 
  • spinach. 12% cents; 
  • squash. 12%. 25 and 50 cents per ounce; 
  • tomato. Large Red, Large Yellow, Cherry and Pear, only four varieties, probably enough for those days, as I have heard my father say he could well remember when there was not a half peck of tomatoes sold in New York city.  He was born there in 1800. and as a market gardener dated back to 1828 at Jersey City, N. J. 
  • Of turnips - 16 varieties, including two rutabagas, are listed at 12 1⁄2 cents per ounce; 
  • flower seeds. 6% cents, some at 12% cents. and a very few at 25 cents per packet. 
There are too many kinds to enumerate.,but I must note by way of comparison the universal favorite. sweet peas, of which hardly a dozen varieties, including everything under the head of “Lathyrus” are mentioned, while today there are varieties and sub-varieties, types and strains, running into the hundreds.


I have a daughter married to a member of an extensive seed growing firm in California. A few years ago in writing home she said, "The soil of this section does not admit of our having such magnificent lawns as are common in the east, but we have 140 acres of sweet peas in our backyard."  The next year 360 acres were grown; last year 500 acres, and still a greater acreage soon to be harvested in 1910. This is only on one ranch and probably not one-fifth of the annual output of sweet peas in the wonderful state of California, where thousands upon thousands, yea, hundreds of thousands of acres are cultivated in seeds of every description from beans and all sorts of vegetables, to the very finest of flowers.

By chance I found a copy of my 1860 list - a one-sided sheet, 5 x 9 inches - with prices for market gardeners.
  • Asparagus - 75c;
  • beet - 75c;
  • cabbage - $5 to $6;
  • carrot - $1.25;
  • cucumber - $2;
  • celery - $4;
  • leek - $2.50;
  • lettuce - $4;
  • melon - $1.50 to $2;
  • onion - $1.50 to $2;
  • parsley - $1.00;
  • parsnip - 75c;
  • pumpkin - $1.50
  • raddish, 75 cents to $1; 
  • spinach - 63 cents; 
  • squash, - $1.50; 
  • tomato -  $3 ;
  • turnip - 75 cents per pound; 
  • egg plants and pepper - 50 cents per ounce.

All figures given are by way of comparison with prices ruling at the present day. It is true that conditions have changed, and very materially so within the past 25 or 30 years. Seventy-five years back there were very few regular seedsmen in America. and they depended mainly upon Europe for their supplies. Sixty and even up to 50 years ago market gardeners to a great extent grew seeds for their own sowing and aimed to have plenty, hence frequently they had a surplus which was eagerly sought for by the few seed dealers who were willing to pay good round prices and did not "kick" as is sometimes the case in these days, if a few pounds were sold here and there to neighbors who chanced to be short.  

I well remember 60 years ago how the five market gardeners on the Van Vorst property at Jersey City interchanged seeds— each one growing one or more kinds and selling surplus to seedsmen.  Dr. Tracy of the Department of Agriculture, whom all of you know, writing of "Vegetable Seed Growing as a Business" asserts: “Records of only about 45 firms that were in business in this country as distinctly seed merchants previous to 1862 can be found, while a list of American seedsmen published in 1908 includes the names of over 800 American firms whose sole business is the growing and handling of seeds: with more than 650 other firms making seeds an important part of their business."

Were it not for making my paper too lengthy I would like to quote further from Dr. Tracy whose article is full of information, and as a whole quite to the contrary. I will cite just one instance. My father and my uncle were the first to grow Early Wakefield cabbage in this country, having received it from Europe about 65 or 70 years ago, and it remained in the hands of the five Jersey City market gardeners for a number of years.

 Among those who were eventually attracted to its good qualities was one John Lundergan,

of Watervliet near Albany. N. Y., whose custom it was for several years to come down to my father every fall and buy seeds of various kinds, especially Early Wakefield cabbage.  Upon one occasion my father's crop thereof was almost a total failure, so when Mr. Lundergan came there was no seed of that variety for him. My father had explained to him that his entire crop was but a single pound which he must retain for his own sowing for market and for growing seed in subsequent years.  

After trying all sorts of persuasive argument. Mr. Lundergan drew from his wallet a $50 bill which he offered my father for that one pound of seed, but of no avail. That was a matter of confidence, the cornerstone upon which the seed business more than almost any other must rest for a successful upbuilding.
Mr. Lundergan's Patent

(Mr. Lundergan turned up in a search as an inventor.)


I am writing hurriedly and somewhat disconnectedly. I am very busy, and my health none too good, so you will kindly pardon any imperfections. In regard to the government free seed distribution: If such must exist, why not confine it to seeds of American production, the best of their kind that can be procured, ignoring entirely all commonplace stocks, and importing, if at al, only new and rare things, not yet introduced into this country?  But Uncle Sam will have to get around early to be ahead of the enterprising, hustling seedsmen.

Now, in conclusion, why is it that while almost every other business is protected in some manner, working along in perfect harmony, yet so many of our craft are at swords points, cutting and slashing? I am utterly and unalterably opposed to trusts and combinations organized for the purpose of greed and robbery, but as “self-preservation is the first law of nature," why should not we work together for our mutual benefit?

If I am correctly informed, the Wholesale Seedsmen's League has an understanding among the members as to prices at which seeds shall be sold, not exorbitant, but giving legitimate profits. Why not our association formulate some plan whereby every branch of our business can be honestly protected? Ridiculously low prices are not an incentive to gardeners and farmers to buy large quantities — each one knows for himself just how much seed he must have to produce a certain number of plants or to seed a given acreage, and whether the seeds costs $1 or $10 per pound he buys the necessary quantity—entirely unlike living commodities, for instance, meats.   If beef sells for 10 cents per pound the laborer will buy more beef for his family than he will at 20 cents per pound. The same argument applies in the purchase of wearing apparel and other necessaries of life.

I have given you an idea of prices prevailing half a century and more ago. You know what they are in these days. Of course, Europe with its cheap labor, and California, with its even climate and many other superior advantages. are important factors in making prices with which other sections have to compete; still, I am of the opinion that it is up to our association to take action whereby all may live and let live.

At the age of 74, I can hardly expect to attend many more conventions. My relations with my fellow seedsmen, as a whole. have been pleasant. I thank you for your patience in listening to such a dry and seedy subject. If I never again meet with you in convention, I trust that we may one and all meet in the good seedman's paradise. I shall endeavor to at least be entitled to a rear seat.