A rather fluffy post on seed packets for this week: it’s grading time! This combination of gardening + paper, two of my favorite things, is irresistable to me at all times, but I have also noticed a trend over the last decade or so. I was thinking about my 2007 wedding the other day, as our anniversary coming up at the end of the month. The reception was held outside under a fairytale tent at the House of the Seven Gables, and so there was not much decoration, just some beautiful simple arrangements to complement the colonial revival garden. With that theme in mind, I made my own seed packets with custom labels for favors, as it was next to impossible to find decorative packets at the time. Now there are many sources for packets with striking graphics, with or without seeds! I seldom sow seeds, but whenever I have, I’ve always purchased the most decorative packets I could find: Renee’s Garden Seeds and Monticello were my go-to purveyors, and the Hudson Valley Seed Company, which has always had the most creative packets. These are still great sources, but there seem to be many more now; this particular post was inspired by some gorgeous packets designed for the Italian seed company Piccolo by the London-based studio Here Design. These packets look like little Penguin books, another obsession of mine! Once I saw them, I knew I was not up to date in the dynamic development of seed packets, so I dug in and looked for more.
Hudson Valley Seed Co. and Monticello seed packets; Piccolo packets by Here Design, London; Floret’s Flower Farm Seeds by illustrator Nina Sajeske, with design by Nicole A. Yang; Row 7 vegetable seeds; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; Lesley Goren’s packets for Artemesia Nursery in California; Anellabees Pollinator Seed Blends at Terrain; Kew Gardens seed packets, which are beautiful but unfortunately not available in the US.
Going back a bit: because of course I’ve got to delve into the history of the seed packet, which seems to be an eighteenth-century innovation here in the United States. It is tied to, and illustrative of, the emergence and development of a commercial retail market for gardening supplies. Usually the D. Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784 in Philadelphia by brothers David and Cuthbert Landreth and still very much in business, is given credit for the first seed packets, but a few years ago some packets were found in the eaves of the eighteenth-century Woodlands Mansion just up the river from the famous Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (clearly a horticultural nexus): whether they were for storage or sale is unclear. There were several seed shops in Salem in the mid and later 18th century, like Mr. Bartlett’s below, but I have no idea how they sold their seeds: perhaps people just came in and grabbed a handful? In any case, moving forward into the nineteenth century, there is no doubt that the entrepreneurial Shaker colonies were pioneers in the mail-order seed trade, to which many plain “papers,” or packets testify.
Essex Gazette 27 April 1773; Shaker, Landreth & Woodlands seed packets.
May 13th, 2022 at 7:01 am
Oh! I love this topic! I’ve been researching seed storage lately, as I purchased a very primitive seed box (early 1800s). I found an article about the discovery of handmade seed packets in coarse paper that had been labeled. But from what I’ve been able to find, seeds early on were kept in sectioned chests and boxes…and perhaps sold in sectioned bins for the customer to pull from.
Those packets are gorgeous, especially those from the RBG.
Your wedding sounds lovely and unique.
May 13th, 2022 at 9:03 am
Yes I’ve seen some of those boxes in various collections and at the Shaker museums—good for you! Yes, I’m going to keep digging too.
May 13th, 2022 at 9:24 am
And I’d never given a thought to the history of seed packets. Thank you!
May 15th, 2022 at 3:50 pm
It’s often said that Shakers invented seed packets. Good to know you can cite examples to debunk that. Have you ever looked at “From Shaker Lands and Shaker Hands” by M. Stephen Miller? he’s been a collector of Shaker ephemera for decades, and there are substantial chapters with color photos of seed packets and patent medicines.