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Garden Catalogs Reflect the Times

Catalogs sell products, but also the company’s values for that period of time.

Seed and nursery catalogs might offer seeds, bulbs, vines, shrubs, trees, and even house plants.

They also incorporate the company’s ideas about their business at that particular time.

Cultural historian Thomas Schlereth once wrote, “All written literature–folk, or class–is simultaneously a commodity, a physical art object, a cultural window.”  In that group he placed mail-order catalogs of the nineteenth century.  He said the following about them: “Mail-order catalogs, whether analyzed individually, researched sequentially, or studied comparatively, afford scholars many approaches for an interdisciplinary study of the past.”

Ross catalog of 1910
Ross catalog of 1910

In the 1910 garden catalog [left] from Ross Brothers in Worcester, Massachusetts we see the catalog cover with a woman cutting the lawn. The company might have appeared modern – encouraging women to do what they want, even cutting the lawn, at a time when women wanted more freedom in both the home and in civic life.

Whether or not the company sold more lawn mowers because of this cover we don’t know but we can see the company recognized a new role for women in society.

That the freedom for women meant they, rather than men, cut the grass might seem trivial but that difference is how Ross chose to express it on the catalog cover.

Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes, “Printed materials [including the catalog] held a special significance in nineteenth-century United States. Books, periodicals, and printed art represented both progress and the potential for future progress.”

So perhaps Ross simply reflected the changing role of women.

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