When you buy seeds in that familiar packet, that paper envelope might just seem an ordinary part of any gardener’s life.
The seed packet however has a history.
At one time Shaker communities needed to sell seeds to survive. That became their first business that continued for a good part of the nineteenth century. They invented the packet as a way to market their garden seeds.
By 1790 the Shakers who lived in New Lebanon, New York started a seed business, selling in bulk to local farmers.
The inspiration for packaging the seeds would forever be attributed to this New York community of Shakers.
M. Stephen Miller writes in his new book From Shaker Lands, and Shaker Hands, “Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the New Lebanon Shakers did something that forever changed the way seeds were sold. Although the details are again rather sketchy, it is certain that the community began to package seeds in, initially, small paper envelopes for retail sale.”
The Shakers there conducted a business of selling seeds for nearly a century.
In the nineteenth century as commercial seed companies developed, first on the East coast, each of them used the same packet idea as the marketing tool for their seeds.
The Shakers also published a catalog or broadsheet that listed the seeds for sale.
Miller writes: “The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the phenomenal and interrelated growth of the advertising and printing industries, and the Shakers were very much a part of this.”
The Shakers also constructed special boxes to display the seeds in general stores. They used advertising including chromolithographs in striking colors to sell their seeds.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, due to many reasons including a decline in Shaker membership and the growth of the commercial seed business, the Shaker seed business lost some of its steam.
Selling seeds was among the first of the businesses in which Shakers invested time and energy. To them we owe the invention of the seed packet, now so familiar to American gardeners everywhere.