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How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?

May 5, 2020 Archive Insight

Do you raise vegetables to feed yourself? If the answer is “Yes,” you are not alone. The National Gardening Survey reported that 77 percent of American households gardened in 2018, and the number of young gardeners (ages 18 to 34) increased exponentially from previous years. Why? Concern about food sources, an interest in healthy eating, and a DIY approach to problem solving motivate most to take up the trowel.

The process of raising vegetables to feed yourself carries with it a sense of urgency that many of us with kitchen cabinets full of canned goods cannot fathom. Farm families planted, cultivated, harvested, processed and consumed their own garden produce into the 20th century. This was hard but required work to satisfy their needs.

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Two members of the Lancaster Unit of Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association digging potatoes, 1918. THF 288960

Seed Sources
Gardeners need seeds. Before the mid-19th century, home gardeners saved their own seeds for the next year’s crop. If a disaster destroyed the next year’s seeds, home gardeners had to purchase seeds.

Commercial seed sales began as early as 1790 in the community of Shakers at Watervliet, New York. The Mt. Lebanon, New York, Shaker community established the Shaker Seed Company in 1794. The Watervliet Shakers first sold pre-packaged seeds in 1835, but the Mt. Lebanon community dominated the garden seed business until 1891. They marketed prepackaged seeds in boxes like this directly to store owners who sold to customers.

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Shakers Genuine Garden Seeds Box, 1861-1895. THF 173513

Satisfying the demand for garden seeds became big business. Entrepreneurs established seed farms and warehouses in cities where laborers cultivated, cleaned, stored and packaged seeds. The D.M. Ferry & Co. provides a good example.

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D.M. Ferry & Company Headquarters and Warehouse, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1880. THF76854

Entrepreneurs invested earnings into this lucrative industry.

Hiram Sibley, who made a fortune in telegraphy, and spent 16 years as president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, claimed to have the largest seed farm in the world, and an international production and distribution system based in Rochester, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. Though the company name changed, the techniques of prepackaging seeds developed by the Shakers at Watervliet and direct marketing of filled boxes to store owners remained an industry standard.

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Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888.
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Planting gardens requires prepackaged seeds (unless you save your own!). These little packets tell big stories about ingenuity and resourcefulness. We acquired this 1880s Sibley & Co. seed box from the Barnes Store in Rock Stream, NY in 1929.

The original Sibley seed papers and packets are on view in a replica Hiram Sibley & Co seed box in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village, which our members and guests will be able to enjoy once again when we reopen. Until then, take a virtual trip to the store by way of Mo Rocca and Innovation Nation.

Looking for gardening inspiration? Historic seed and flower packets can provide plenty! Survey the hundreds of seed packets dated 1880s to the present in our digital collections and create your own virtual garden.

The variety might astound you, from the mangelwurzel (raised for livestock feed) to the Early Acme Tomato and the Giant Rocca Onion.

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Beet Long Red Mangelwurtzel” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF181520

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Tomato Early Acme” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF278980

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Hiram Sibley & Co. “Onion Giant Rocca” Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888. THF279020

Families in cities often did not have land to cultivate, so they relied on the public markets and green grocers as the source of their vegetables.

Canned goods changed the relationships between gardeners and their responsibility for meeting their own food needs. Affordable and available canned goods made it easy for most to hang up their garden trowels. As a result, raising vegetables became a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity for most Americans by the 1930s.

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Can Label, “Butterfly Brand Stringless Beans,” circa 1880. THF293949

Times of crisis increase both personal interest and public investment in home-grown vegetables, as the national Victory Garden movements of the 20th century confirm.

Victory Gardens

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Man Inspecting Tomato Plant in Victory Garden, June 1944. THF273191

Victory Gardens, a patriotic act during World War I and World War II, provide important examples of food resourcefulness and ingenuity.

You can find your own inspiration from Victory Garden items in our collections – from 1918 posters to Ford Motor Company gardens during the 1930s, and home-front mobilization during World War II here.

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Woman's National Farm and Garden Association at Dedham Square Truck Market, 1918. THF288964

But the “fruits” of the garden didn’t just stay at home. Entrepreneurial-minded Americans took their goods to market, like these members of the National Women's Farm & Garden Association and their "pop-up" curbside market in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1918.

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Clara Ford with a Model of the Roadside Market She Designed, circa 1930. THF117982

Clara Ford, at one time a president of the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association (WNF&GA), also believed in the importance of eating local. Read more about her involvement with roadside markets here.

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

food, agriculture, gardening, #THFCuratorChat, by Debra A. Reid

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