If there’s anything more American than apple pie, it’s probably the Sears Roebuck catalog. The Sears catalog—or at least its primal predecessor—first appeared in 1888, when Richard Sears (ex-railroad employee) started a mail-order business, selling watches. In 1893, Sears teamed up with Alvah Roebuck, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first official Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog hit mailboxes in 1893. By the turn of the century, Sears and Roebuck were selling everything from sewing machines to pianos, saddles, buggies, bicycles, typewriters, gramophones, chickens, and sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Beginning in 1908, you could order an entire house from Sears, ranging in style from the Ivanhoe, an upscale multi-story mansion with French doors and stained-glass windows, to the Goldenrod, a three-room cottage for summer vacationers. The Goldenrod had no bathroom, but luckily the Sears catalog also offered prefab privies.
During World Wars I and II, Sears catalogs were sent to homesick soldiers stationed overseas. FDR once famously said that the best way to fight communism was to inundate the Russians with capitalism, in the form of Sears catalogs. Gloria Swanson, Susan Hayward, Lauren Bacall, Roy Rogers, Ted Williams, and supermodel Cheryl Teigs all appeared in the pages of Sears; Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote copy for it; and Norman Rockwell designed its covers.
The first Sears Christmas catalog—soon to be known as the Wish Book—was published in 1933, offering the public such seasonal goodies as Miss Pigtails dolls, Lionel electric trains, Mickey Mouse watches, fruitcakes, chocolates, and live canaries. From that year on, generations of kids pored over the Sears Wish Book each November, making improbable wish lists for Santa Claus. In its heyday, the Wish Book was 600+ pages long, most of it in color. FDR was right: communism, faced with all those Shirley Temple dolls, spring-loaded rocking horses, cowboy outfits, tin firetrucks, and tricycles, would have crumbled. We could have skipped the whole Cold War.
The Sears Christmas Wish Book is still around, but it’s no longer the magical publication that it used to be. We’ve moved on: We’ve now got television, the internet, Amazon. But wish books still survive.
We call them seed catalogs.
Ours arrive via rural carrier in the dead of winter, when—here in Vermont—the sky is gray, the light level is low, dispositions are grim, and the garden is three feet under. To the snowed-in and cabin-fever-afflicted, seed catalogs are a temptation on a scale that last occurred in Eden, when the snake sidled up to Eve and pointed out how really yummy that forbidden apple looked. The seed catalog people, by the time they pop their publications in the mail, are perfectly aware that none of us has had a garden-ripe tomato in months. They know we’re easy marks in January.
The leap to professional seed selling—a landmark in American horticultural history—is generally attributed to David Landreth, who immigrated with his family to North America from Northumberland, England, in 1780, thus missing most of the excitement of the Revolutionary War. After a false start in Canada (too cold), he relocated to Philadelphia, where he founded the first American commercial seed company in 1784. Landreth sold seeds to George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson. He introduced the zinnia, the white potato, and the tomato to the American garden; and he propagated and sold the botanical finds of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, among them the golden currant, the snowberry bush, the osage orange, and assorted new varieties of corn and beans.
Landreth’s and other early seed houses promoted their wares through wholly utilitarian, black-and-white, single-spaced seed lists, which left the end result up to the customers’ imaginations. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, seed catalogs were wooing the susceptible public with pictures.
W. Atlee Burpee (Luther Burbank was a cousin) went into business in 1876, at the age of eighteen, selling ducks, pigs, and chickens. Three years later, he’d segued into vegetable seeds, promoting them by means of the gorgeously illustrated Farm Annual, whose covers featured curly-headed cherubs, ribbons, and lushly colored platters of peppers, lettuce, cabbages, melons, and eggplants. By 1915, he was mailing out a million catalogs a year and raking in 10,000 orders a day, proof that you can sell anything with a cherub.
Or more likely the colored covers may have given him an edge since, as psychologists point out, color reels us in. Marketing studies show that 60% of us fall for color advertisements, as opposed to a mere 29% for black-and-white. Today, with all those glossy photographs of fat red tomatoes, green beans, yellow squash, orange pumpkins, and purple peppers featured in the seed catalogs—well, the result is inevitable. You know what gardeners do in winter: We read those catalogs. We’re like all those addled kids with the 1933 Sears Wish Book, who asked Santa for skates, a bicycle, a doll buggy, and a Ferris wheel. In less time than it takes to tell, we’ve got improbable lists and are wondering if we could cram in a couple more raised beds over in back of the tractor shed.
The thing about seed catalogs, though, is that—unlike the Sears Wish Book, that actually delivered Lionel trains—they don’t really sell gorgeous and lushly colored vegetables. They sell seeds.
The stuff that arrives from our seed-catalog orders frankly doesn’t look like anything much. Most seeds, visually, are dull, which is why savvy seed catalogs don’t show pictures of them and why garden supply stores don’t put them out in sidewalk displays. They know better. They put out the flashier stuff, like wheelbarrows.
I don’t mean that there aren’t cool seeds. The seed of the coco de mer or sea coconut, for example—product of a palm tree native to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean—is the size of a beach ball, weighs up to sixty pounds, and looks a bit like a human bottom. It’s one wow of a seed. We, however, don’t grow sea coconuts. We grow lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots—and you know what carrot seeds look like. The periods at the ends of sentences are more exciting.
The thing about seeds, though, is that all these nondescript little lumps of next to nothing turn into plants. When you think about it, “Great oaks from little acorns grow” isn’t a hackneyed platitude; it’s astonishing. All those folktales in which people grow vegetables of astounding size are testaments to our belief in the awesome potential of seeds. Seeds have been knocking our socks off since the Stone Age.
So when it comes to wish books these days, I’m dreaming of something bigger than Mr. Sears and Roebucks’ wares. Skates, sleds, and Lionel trains are all very well, but the seeds to make next summer’s garden—now, that’s something worth wishing for. ❖
This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #108.