Spring fever was as common 150 years ago as it is now, and for many winter-weary souls, the illustrated seed catalogs that began appearing in that era are still the closest thing to a cure.
Among the many fine examples of early seed catalogs in our collections, my personal favorites were produced by James Vick, a Rochester seedsman who began his career in the printing trade in New York City. Vick was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1818, and in 1833, he and his parents moved to New York City, where he set type for, among other publications, the Knickerbocker Magazine. The family moved to Rochester in 1837, and Vick continued to work there as a printer in local newspaper offices.
Vick also developed a passionate interest in flowers and in his leisure time, cultivated a garden. His interest in horticulture led to his becoming writer and editor — and eventually owner and publisher — of the Genesee Farmer. In 1853 and 1854 Vick also took over publication of The Horticulturist, started in the late 1840’s by America first landscape designer, A.J. Downing. By the mid-1850’s, Vick sold these horticultural publications and began focusing all his energies on starting his own seed business. The Vick Seed Company, established in 1860, sent seeds to customers through mail order and by 1862, employed 150 people and was receiving 3000 letters a day.
Vick’s Floral Guide and Catalog, first produced in 1862, proved to be the perfect outlet for his expertise as a printer, writer, publisher and gardener. Filled with charming wood-cut engravings and vivid color plates (by some accounts, Vick was the first to use color illustrations in a U.S. seed catalog), the Floral Guide quickly became the most popular seed catalog of its day. “Vicks Floral Guide came like the first breath of spring, with promise of future bloom,” raves a typical magazine review. “Vicks catalog, like his seeds and plants, is first class. It is finely illustrated, on good paper, and with two beautiful colored plates.”
It wasn’t only the pictures that set Vick’s seed catalogs apart: he was also a first-rate writer who entertained his readers with advice and anecdotes touching on every aspect of gardening and beyond. A consummate salesman, Vick enticed his readers with tantalizing descriptions of the plants he sold: “The Chinese Paeonies are so valuable on account of their large size, beautiful coloring and delightful fragrance, and so entirely hardy and vigorous, that I am anxious all my customers should have at least a White and Pink variety.” But Vick’s enthusiasm for gardening was more than merely commercial. His stated desire to “create a taste for the beautiful in gardening, and a true love of flowers among the people,” found expression in many fanciful passages, like the following: “Man may be refined and happy without a garden; he may even have a home of taste, I suppose, without a tree, or shrub, or flower; yet, when the Creator wished to prepare a proper home for man, pure in all his tastes and made in His own image, He planted a garden and placed this noblest specimen of creative power in it to dress and keep it.”
Indeed, Vick soon discovered that publishing the Floral Guide twice a year “did not seem to give us facilities for saying all the we wished,” and began publishing quarterly in 1873, eventually expanding in 1878 to a monthly magazine that flourished for over three decades. Each issue had at least 32 pages and included several feature articles on gardening topics, followed by special sections for “Correspondence” (letters from readers), “Foreign Notes” (information about foreign plants and gardens and quotes from foreign periodicals), “Pleasant Gossip” (containing anecdotes and comments from both editor and readers on gardening issues), and “Our Young People” (aimed at children) — all, of course, profusely and beautifully illustrated. Widely advertised and distributed, the magazine was very popular and helped make Vick’s a household name.
James Vick died of pneumonia at age 63 on May 16, 1882, just four years after he began his monthly magazine, but his sons carried on his magazine and seed business, which prospered into the early 1900’s before being sold to the Burpee Seed Company. “If we may judge by the letters of his correspondents,” reads the obituary that appeared in the June, 1882 Monthly Magazine, “those who knew him only by his publications felt the magic of his poetic temperament and goodness of heart, and came to regard him as a friend and faithful counselor rather than as a tradesman.”