New-York Historical Society

Vegetables are people too!

At least they are in these delightful trade cards from Rice’s Seed Company.

 Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

Talk about genetic engineering! How would you like to find one of these growing in your garden?

 Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

These amusing anthropomorphic illustrations were produced in the mid-1880’s, a time when – in contrast to today’s Monsanto-dominated seed industry — the number of American seed companies was growing rapidly.   Spurred by increasing competition, and aided by the newly-developed technologies of chromolithography (a technique for cheaply mass-producing color images) and steam-powered presses, these 19th century seed merchants produced a colorful array of mail-order catalogues, trade cards, seed packets, box labels, and other advertising novelties to promote their wares.

While the Jerome B. Rice Company put a face on their vegetables, other seed companies sought to distinguish their products by giving them names, often containing superlatives such as “Mammoth,” “Giant,” or “Perfection.”

 

Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

The advertising copy on the back of these Rice trade cards – “Rice’s Seeds are the Best because they are Northern Grown” – attests to stiff competition among the many regional companies, including increasing numbers in the West, where the climate was ideal for growing seeds and selling plants over a longer season.

Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

The Rice Company’s whimsical “vegetable people” ads appear to be aimed primarily at home gardeners, rather than commercial growers.  Until the late 19th century, most farmers saved seed from their own crops, or obtained it from neighbors or the government (from the 1850’s until 1924, the U.S. government distributed free packets of seeds to farmers).  Not until seed certification programs were introduced in the early 20th century, and assured the quality of these commercially sold seeds, did large numbers of farmers begin to purchase seed instead of producing it themselves or obtaining it locally from their neighbors.

Jerome B. Rice & Company is no longer in business – but, its “longfellow cucumber” seeds, first introduced in 1927, are still available, thanks to the “growing” vogue for heirloom vegetables.

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