By Anne Gilbert

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, May, 2005

Cover of Burpee's Seeds Catalog, c. 1888 Photo Credit: Anne Gilbert

Tis the season for garden catalogs to arrive in mailboxes. For the last few years many purveyors of seed catalogs, such as Ferry’s have been reproducing old tins as collectibles, and with good reason. The early catalog drawings are considered works of art and the  seed boxes and tin containers are being snapped up by collectors and interior decorators.

Pages from 19th century garden catalogs were not only handrawn, but often hand colored.

Equally colorful were the fruit labels on wooden crates and on seed boxes. Framed and hung on a kitchen wall they are the perfect decorative art accessory.

For the serious collectors of old garden catalogs, such a destruction of a total catalog is sacrilege. As they see it, it’s like cutting up a rare book and framing the pictures. As one collector told me, “it’s also destroying garden history in the United States.” To many gardener-collectors, often the written pages are as fascinating as the art. Many reflect the regions in which they originate. For instance, the farm country publications used rustic, “homey” words to describe the plants. The city-produced catalogs rely on more “hard-sell”.

Among the earliest seed companies were Burpees Seeds(1876) and D. M.. Ferry (1880s). For their hundred year anniversary in 1976, Burpee issued Centennial place mats, featuring color reproductions from historic, lithographed catalog pages. Now, these are considered very collectible, and are hard to find.

Among the rarest and most valuable spin-off s for collectors would be books written by (and sometimes illustrated) early 19the century rare plant explorers guides. Often they contained hand colored illustrations detailing the discovery in exotic or jungle areas of unusual plants. Who can forget the mission of the ship Bounty to bring back breadfruit trees! When a complete folio shows up they'd fetch thousands of dollars at auctions.

Keep your eyes open for horticultural manuals as well as books and periodicals. H. C.. Hanson’s “The Floris and Horticultural Journal” was published in the mid 19th century, Philadelphia, in both bound volumes and single copies.

CLUES: Not everybody appreciates garden art and literature. There’s always a good chance of finding old almanacs printed in German and English.

Country auctions are another source. Since not every gardener is a collector you might even find a Breck’s of Boston Catalog, circa 1820s.

Unfortunately, many of the small wooden boxes that show up at mall shows have been stripped of the colorful seed advertisements that were once inside the lids. However, garage sales can turn up handsome boxes with lid art intact.

Fruit crate labels, once easy to but on old crates have been reproduced since the 1970s. Authentic oldies have values of from $25 to $100 depending on age, rarity and condition.

A good source for books and labels can also be dealers who specialize in advertising and store collectibles. Another collecting spin-off would be advertising trade cards. For these, check out old scrapbooks, still found at flea markets and garage sales.

Still waiting to be discovered and a real discovery would be the Burpee catalog, 1877, with its fifty six pages intact. Only ten thousand copies were printed.

Those have survived would be rarities worth several hundred dollars.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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