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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Seed Money: The Economics of Horticulture in Nineteenth-Century America

The nineteenth-century American garden was a place of commerce and culture. The market for horticultural goods, most notably seeds, was diverse in geographic and socioeconomic terms, as consumers planted for sustenance, economic livelihood, ornament, and leisure. The increasingly commercial exchange of seeds during the nineteenth century sat at the threshold between agrarian and industrial ways of life. As one of the earliest markets to reach a national scale, consumers used seeds to improve not only the individual plots of land they tended, but also the larger national landscape. Through their purchases consumers bolstered both their individual domestic economies and the broader political economy of the United States.  

This project ran from January 2005 to March 2007

image illustrating findings

click to view the findings summary sheet for this project>>

Marina Moskowitz award holder

Dr. Marina Moskowitz
Department of History/
Centre for American Studies
University of Glasgow
1 University Gardens
Glasgow G12 8QQ

+44 (0)141-330-2962

Publications include

Moskowitz M., ‘Broadcasting Seeds on the American Landscape’, in Brown E., Gudis C., and Moskowitz M. (eds.), Cultures of Commerce: Representations and American Business Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Moskowitz M., ‘The Limits of Globalization? The Horticultural Trades in Postbellum America’, in Nuetzenadel A. and Trentmann F. (eds.), Food and Globalization: Consumption, Markets and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, forthcoming, 2008).


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


Prior to the nineteenth century, whatever planting was done by Americans (first colonists and then citizens) started with seeds that were saved from previous plantings, traded informally both on the North American continent and across the Atlantic, or received as small gifts. By the end of the nineteenth century, over 800 companies had been formed to supply growers of all sorts with seeds. What changed? How did an object that farmers and gardeners could well 'produce' themselves from year to year by letting a few plants reach maturity become a commodity? The aim of Seed Money is to address these questions through an exploration of the seed trade in the United States from its early years immediately following the American Revolution to its flourishing at the end of the nineteenth century.

The seed trade provides a window into consumption in the transitional period between agrarian and industrial economies and cultures. By expanding traditional agricultural production while introducing distribution methods of the industrial era, firms shifted seeds from the realm of informal trade and gift exchange into a commercial realm. The breeding, hybridising, packaging, and publicising (in both verbal and visual form) of seeds were as important, if not more so, than their 'production' (or harvesting) in building a profitable business. Where consumers cannot judge a product's value with the naked eye, these issues of branding become all the more important. Thus, studying this trade challenges notions of the rise of the manufactured commodity by reconsidering at what point value is added to raw materials.

The American consumer market for seeds was vast, in both geographic and socio-economic terms. While the demographic shift from rural to urban areas began in the nineteenth century, that shift did not imply a decline in planting, but rather, a greater variety of consumers. Seed companies catered indiscriminately to those who planted for sustenance, economic pursuit, or leisure. In the seed sector negotiations between consumer and purveyor played out in a variety of forms, including testimonial letters, farming and gardening manuals, and trade and popular periodicals. Through this print culture, consumers and producers shared botanical, horticultural, climactic, and other knowledge, and local networks of planters were transformed into national markets.

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The study will be organised following the ‘life of the seed,’ through the course of production, distribution, consumption, and waste. Each section will address a major theme of nineteenth-century culture, and how that theme was materialised in American landscapes or representations of them. Each of these themes draws on both agrarian and industrial elements. The core sections will unfold in the following sequence:

Growing Seeds: Science
The ‘production’ of seeds is in fact a process of planting and gathering in itself. The ‘science’ of the seed industry, and horticulture in general, includes growing methods to collect seed; the breeding of hybrid strains and varieties; and the classification of these ‘products.’

Packaging Seeds: Art
Representation, both verbal and visual, was a crucial element of seed distribution. Illustrations in catalogues and other ephemera were drawn from a variety of influences, such as botanical prints, and in turn had artistic influence, for example as images of what the landscape could look like when planted with the advertised seeds.

Distributing Seeds: The Market
Because they were easily transported and not easily evaluated by the consumer’s eye, seeds were not dependent on local, and personal, sales methods. Seeds were among the first commodities to be traded at the vast distances characteristic of the American national marketplace, and so give one view of the breadth of nineteenth-century consumption practices.

Sowing Seeds: Nature
Seeds were sown to create a variety of landscapes: farms, gardens, lawns, parks, and even interior landscapes such as conservatories. What all of these venues shared was their contrast to the burgeoning industry of the era. The ‘natural’ outlets of these landscapes were the result of the interplay between farmers, gardeners, and the firms from which they bought plant material. Together the consumers and producers defined the American landscape in the nineteenth century.

Discarding Seeds: Culture
Does the phrase ‘going to seed’ indicate wastefulness or productivity? For the seed industry to be successful, it must convince its initial consumers not to harvest seeds from their own gardens, but rather to buy seeds from the companies each year. This very small-scale form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ or ‘planned obsolescence’ sits directly at the intersection of the agricultural process of planting cycles and the industrial means of altering and influencing those cycles.

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  • How and why did seeds shift from objects of informal trade and gift exchange to commodities?
  • What types of knowledge contributed to the buying and selling of seeds? How was this knowledge disseminated and by whom?
  • What was the shape of the consumer market for seeds in the United States in the nineteenth century?
  • Is there a special relationship between the rise of print and visual culture and the publicity of the seed industry?
  • How was the seed trade situated between agrarian and industrial economies and cultures? What can it tell us about the boundary zone between economic systems?

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Seed Money is rooted in both business and cultural history, but also draws upon the teachings of geography, visual culture, and history of technology. Research will cover all aspects of the market in seeds from initial producers (or planters), through a variety of distribution channels, to consumers who might plant seeds for sustenance, economic pursuit, or a leisure activity. The seed trade was one of the earliest businesses to transcend local markets and create national communities of consumers in the United States. Thus, the project will describe both specific local contexts and broader national patterns of seed consumption.

Seed Money will be based on intensive archival research of the broad variety of source materials that remain from the nineteenth century, including manuscript and print collections, seed catalogues; correspondence between seed firms and growers, artists who depicted their products, and consumers; farming and gardening manuals or almanacs; trade and popular periodicals in agriculture and horticulture; the private writings of consumers of seeds; and seed company sales records.

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The Seed Money project is designed to translate the familiarity of the seed trade in contemporary life into an awareness of the historical processes of commodification, marketing, and informed purchase. The project will result in a scholarly monograph, as well as interim seminars and presentations aimed at a variety of audiences including academics, public historians, gardenerns, the horticulture trade, and policy officials. This historical project has relevance for contemporary issues as diverse as genetic modification and the incorporation of advertising into public spaces.



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