Scanning Around With Gene: How Does Your Garden Grow?

I’ve never been all that much of a gardener, though I’ve spent my fair share of time toiling in the dirt. I can explain the difference between a perennial and an annual, and I know my petunias from my pansies.

Of all the gardening activities, the most gratifying by far is growing something from seed. The idea of a full-grown plant, let alone something like a watermelon, coming from a tiny seed is a wonder of nature I’ll never quite get over. A little soil and some water and next thing you know you’ve got a giant squash on your hands, or a towering tree.

So today I thought I’d look at turn-of-the-century — the 19th one — seed catalogs, courtesy of the Smithsonian collection. The collection is extensive and well cataloged, and it’s a great example of the printing technology and type design of the time. Click on any image for a larger version.

I was not exposed to much gardening at my childhood home — there the landscape consisted mostly of different juniper plants and a couple of fruit trees that were already there when we moved in.

But for some reason at about age 8 or 9 I decided to start a small vegetable garden in a side yard. I planted radishes, lettuce, and carrots as I recall.

I carefully tended my garden for a while but as with many childhood projects, I lost interest pretty quickly, although I do remember getting at least one carrot and a couple of radishes.

Seed packets and seed catalogs have always been known for their design and ornamentation, though these days you’re more likely to see photographs of the plant than illustrations.

I particularly like the type on these designs — all primarily hand lettered, many with ornate swashes, intertwined letters and swooping baselines — very typical of the times.

Many of the illustrations are hand-engraved in tremendous detail, — the work of master craftsmen working with fine tools. I suspect that to get the bright colors many of these catalogs use up to 8 to 10 different inks, which was also common at the time.

Gardening has always been a popular pastime, obviously so back in the late 1800s when most of these catalogs were published. And although many contemporary seed and plant catalogs are well designed, they don’t, in my opinion, even come close to the rich look of these beauties.

Posted on: March 30, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

4 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: How Does Your Garden Grow?

  1. What great stuff! The type is fun to look at – not always so easy to read. I’m way more impressed with the illustrations. While the flowers and plants are very well done the one cover that most caught my eye was Joseph Breck & Sons from 1897? If I wasn’t looking at the date I would have thought 1969!

  2. The range of colors used on these covers is stunning, and a wonderful example of the skill and craftsmanship available back in the day.

    Pansies and petunias certainly were popular subjects for seed catalog illustrations, I’m guessing because they were less time-consuming than roses or carnations.

    All in all, another beeyootiful example of the printer’s art served up by Gene for our edification and enjoyment.

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  3. Very beautiful! And, as always, nice personal story too. Thanks Gene!

  4. I really look forward to reading more of these great post from you in the near future ! Thanks for sharing !
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