Nineteenth-century Garden Catalogs Made People Wild

The chapter eleven title in Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature reads “Made Wild by Pompous Catalogs.” The title originated in the nineteenth century.

In 1850 the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) said, “Be not made wild by pompous catalogs from florists and seedsmen”.

He was protesting the proliferation of posters, seed boxes, trade cards, and catalogs with lavish illustrations.

What made the catalogs such a source of temptation?

More recently Susan Jordan is quoted in a Jenkins Group Real Estate blog post.  She said, “Spend a few quiet winter nights with these not-so-quiet catalogs, and you begin to see that, just beneath its placid surface, the garden is buzzing with social and political controversy.”

She implies here that advertising like a catalog sells social values and ideas as well as goods and services.

Cover of the 1859 catalog from the Robert Buist Company in Philadelphia. [Courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.]

 Still I do not know what Beecher was complaining about in 1850.

Certainly the bright colors of chromolithography popular in the last third of the century were not there.  In fact,  James Vick’s catalog cover of 1873 became an early example of a catalog that used the new chromolithography.

Above is a 1859 catalog from the Robert Buist Seed Company in Philadelphia.

Notice the simple black and white engraving.

We see nothing seductive in the illustration, but we did not live in 1859.

The catalogs, even in the nineteenth century,  sold seeds and plants, but also class and social status.

Perhaps that is what Beecher was addressing. His intention was to preserve moral values in a society experiencing threats of one sort or another on the home or the family.

The garden catalog today continues to be a statement about the culture, not just a listing of seeds and plants.

Advertising embodies cultural myths to sell a product that in some way will improve the consumer’s life.  The merchant must therefore tell a story in the advertising.

Sometimes the stories told in image and word make us wild.

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