Spring Splendor in Special Collections

Spring has officially begun, and it’s time to start planning out gardens and planting seeds. Seed catalogs, with their plethora of new and unusual varieties to grow and try, have been a typical part of Spring gardening preparations for a very long time. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what past years have had to offer in Special Collections’ old seed catalogs.

The one that caught my eye was less a seed catalog and more a tour de force of vegetables and flowers in lithographic design. The Manual of Everything for the Garden, an annual seed catalog published by Peter Henderson & Company of New York, contains some of the most beautiful vegetable illustrations I have ever seen. Through their illustrated catalog, one could order nearly everything for the garden and yard, including seeds for vegetables, fruits, grasses, grains, and flowers, as well as gardening tools and equipment. Henderson founded the company in 1871, and by his death in 1890 it was one of the most successful seed companies in the United States. His son, Alfred Henderson, took over the business after his father’s death and continued the success- from the 1890s though the 1920s the company mailed out some 750,000 copies of its annual seed catalog each year. Yet despite its popularity, finding an intact Peter Henderson & Co. catalog today is extremely rare. The exceptional quality of their color plates and chromolithography made them highly sought after for the popular Victorian pastimes of scrapbooking and decoupage, resulting in most being cut to pieces.

Virginia Tech Special Collections is lucky enough to have a first edition copy of the 1898 catalog, which has survived completely intact, including two tipped in price lists. Nearly all of its 190 pages are filled with highly detailed chromolithographic prints, illustrating all the botanical splendor that the company’s seeds promise to grow. These beautiful graphics were made by Gray Lithograph Co. of New York, and Stecken Lithographic Co. of Rochester, NY, one of the largest centers of lithography in the country. As the long and dreary winter dragged on, I can only imagine how exciting flipping through these pages in anticipation of Spring would have been.