Vintage Seed Art: An Interview With Dr. Irwin Richman

Is your mailbox stuffed with plant catalogs? Each spring they arrive, promising luscious vegetables, prize-winning flowers, and trees that could grace the lawn of any botanical garden. But that is nothing new! For more than a hundred years, seed companies have been luring gardeners with their illustrations of perfection.

This collectible package includes a booklet of 20 Vintage Seed Packets stamps and a stamped envelope bearing a First Day of Issue color postmark. Click the image for details.

Dr. Irwin Richman wrote the book—literally—on the art of vintage seed packets and catalogs. Seed Art: The Package Made Me Buy It offers an intriguing glimpse at the history of the art that so entices buyers to dream of ideal gardens. Dr. Richman begins his book with a telling anecdote: “The story is told of a young woman who answered a newspaper advertisement for a commercial artist placed by a prominent seed company. During her interview she was asked about her major qualification for the job. ‘Well,’ she answered, ‘I used to illustrate children’s fairy tales.’ We hope the applicant got the job; she was obviously qualified.”

We know we love the art, but we wondered how Dr. Richman became interested. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you get interested in seed-packet art?

I was about six when I first saw colorful seed packages at Dill’s Hardware Store in Woodbourne, New York, near our summer home. I was overwhelmed. My mother indulged me, and I always ended up buying more beautiful seed packages than I could use. Later, when I discovered seed and nursery catalogs, they became my narcotics, and I was hooked. I never thought of any of it as “seed art”—I just enjoyed it. As an adult I combined my interests, and added a collection of still life graphics and oil paintings to the mix. I coined “seed art” when I decided to write a book on my fascination, not only with imagery but also with gardens.

One of the interesting things about vintage seed packets and catalogs is what valuable resources they are for horticulturalists, historians, and scientists studying heirloom varieties of plants. As Director of the Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Museum, have you found them helpful?

Catalogs especially are a wonderful source for historical research. Many of today’s heirloom varieties were originally introduced by commercial growers. For example, when author Amy Goldman was researching for her book, The Heirloom Tomato, she used catalogs to document when the Brandywine Tomato was first introduced. Graphic designers use old seed packages and catalogs as references, and a lot of interest in my book Seed Art has been from the design community.

The Landis Valley Museum has an extensive collection of vintage seed packets. Were there other museums or libraries that you found helpful in researching your book?

Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum has a collection of seed packages, catalogs, and related materials, but our holdings are modest compared to major repositories, including, first and foremost, the National Agricultural Library, followed by the Hagley Museum and Library, Winterthur Library, University of Delaware, and University of Rochester. The Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society is also a good source.

VintageSeedPackets-Forever-Booklet20-v2I read that you earned a Certificate in Ornamental Plants from Longwood Gardens. Do you garden with heirloom flowers?

My wife, Dr. M. Susan Richman, is our vegetable grower, and she grows heirloom tomatoes, especially, starting with seedlings, which she gets each year at the Landis Valley Heirloom Seed Project fundraiser, The Herb and Garden Faire. (The 2013 event will be held May 10 and 11.) As for flowers, I often favor heirloom varieties. We live in a Gothic Revival style house, which is strongly vertical, and old-fashioned varieties often go best with it. Many newer varieties are developed to be short and compact. I love tall marigolds, sunflowers, cannas, tithonia, and cosmos. Perhaps the favorite heirloom that I grow is a red dahlia that my grandmother grew at our house in Woodbourne. It was lost to me until I found it at a plant sale at Landis Valley. It’s tall and rangy, with moderate-size flowers—we love it.

Do you collect seed art?

I donated my collection of seed packages to the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, but I collect postcards, labels, catalogs, prints, and paintings. I am happiest in sight of nature or a painting, a print, or an illustrated publication.

The were issued on April 5 and are now available online and in Post Offices around the country.