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
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).
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.
OUTLINE OF PROJECT
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
Packaging Seeds: Art
Distributing Seeds: The Market
Sowing Seeds: Nature
Discarding Seeds: Culture
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.
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.