Seed Merchants of Philadelphia

March 29, 2012

Last month, a reader asked if the Landreth Seed Company was the earliest garden seed company in Philadelphia. He also wanted to know if Landreth sold hot pepper seeds in those early years.

What triggered the query was this advertisement published in 1792 in Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser, one of dozens of Philadelphia newspapers published at that time.

Garden historian Barbara Wells Sarudy writes about the origins of such seed dealers and nursery owners like David Landreth on her blog Early American Gardens as well as in her book Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake 1700-1805.

David Landreth

David Landreth

She writes: “The method of selling seeds and plants changed dramatically in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South after the Revolutionary War. The growth of urban economies gave rise to new commercial gardening ventures, nurseries and seed stores, operated by professional gardeners who initially imported and then grew their own seed and plant stock.”

David Landreth was one of dozens of seed men in America in the early 1800s. But seeds and all varieties of plants and trees were grown, traded or sold by a number of garden suppliers long before Landreth. The most famous of those collectors and suppliers were Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William Bartram from their Kingsessing farm. Another early gardener was James Alexander, who sold vegetable and herb seeds imported from London in Philadelphia in 1751. But the most successful seed merchant of all was a Welsh woman, Hannah Davis Dubre of Northern Liberties, who kept the business going and expanded it after her husband’s death in 1768. To accommodate customers who didn’t want to trudge out to her remote plantation, she introduced the idea of relying on agents in town to sell and supply to retail and wholesale customers, including international traders.

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 182...

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 1823) was an American naturalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Shakers too built a substantial business selling seeds in the 18th Century, and were the creators of a most important innovation in seed trading, the seed packet!

Seed merchants often supplied wealthy landowners like William Hamilton of the Woodlands, whose mansion still stands in West Philadelphia, and Robert Morris, who owned a large estate on the Schuylkill, today’s historic Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. Both men had huge gardens and greenhouses. The breadth and exoticism of their botanic collections rivaled those in Europe. They also supplied seeds and plants from their working estates to agents like Landreth and others.

However, it’s Irish immigrant Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia, trained by Landreth, who is credited with printing the first seed catalog in 1804 and making it widely available to the public. Just two years later, in 1806, he would publish the first-ever book on gardening in the US. The America Gardener’s Calendar is still a very useful guide to planting, caring for and harvesting one’s garden and can be read in its entirety online.

M’Mahon, also spelled McMahon, says in the preface of his book that “he is constantly supplied, at his Seed Warehouse in Philadelphia, with a general assortment of Garden Seeds, suitable for cultivation, in the United States, and in the West Indies; Grass seeds of every important and valuable kind; an immense variety of Tree, Shrub and Flower seeds and roots, procured from various parts of the world, with which the enterprize of American commerce has any connection, as well as from the different State and Territories of the Union….”

He adds that he supplies “at the most moderate terms every convenience for gardening, from spades and shovels to bulb glasses and glass suitable for hot-bed lights and other forcing department.”

So, did Landreth or others also sell hot peppers in those early years? They most certainly did!

Cayenne pepper was a popular spice and was often brought into Philadelphia ports from the Caribbean and is even noted in a merchant shippers ad from a 1723 edition of the American Weekly Mercury newspaper.

M’Mahon’s 1806 catalog notes three classic Central and South American hot pepper varieties  – capsicum baccatum, a South American sweet hot that resembles a Bishops Crown; capsicum frutescens, a small chile like the Bird Pepper, and capsicum sinesen, probably an early Habanero variety.

Landreth and other seed merchants would soon follow with their own catalogs.

Additional Reference:
The 225th Anniversary Commemorative Newsletter Series, “A History of American Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers, From the Landreth Perspective 1784-1950,” Volume 5, Issue 2, February 2009.
Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project
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2 Responses to “Seed Merchants of Philadelphia”

  1. vickimaloney Says:

    Fascinating stuff. I loved the story of the Bartrams in The Brother Gardeners, and now I want to read those other books you mention!

  2. Jovida Hill Says:

    Anita,
    As always, your posts are interesting and informative. Keep em’ coming.


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