Flowers from Days Gone By

Flowers from Days Gone By

Flowers from Days Gone By

Beginning with the printing of her first seed catalog in 1896, Miss Emma V. White of Minneapolis, Minnesota sold beautiful flower seeds to appreciative gardeners throughout the United States.  Her lovingly illustrated catalogs were works of art in and of themselves, and they clearly conveyed to her customers Miss White’s personal grace and conviction, and her passion for the flowers she sold.  With respect to my current vantage point here in 2024, it seems to me, thanks to Miss Emma V. White’s seed catalogs, that the flowers from days gone by, and those days themselves, were maybe just a little sweeter.

Unbelievable Speed 2023

My friend Kevin Richardson is a remarkable guy.  Besides being the truest friend anyone could ever hope to have, he’s a fascinating, well-read, erudite bibliophile, a passionate lover and collector of the fine and decorative arts, and a fellow possessed of a level of decency, grace, and propriety not seen in humanity’s masses for several generations.  He treats all people – friends and strangers alike – with what can only be described as sincere, old-fashioned decency.  He embraces the decorum of nobler times, internalizes it, and monograms it in singular, Kevin fashion.  He’s a gentleman, and he’s also much more – my friend Kevin Richardson is truly a man out of time.  And nowhere is this fact more clearly manifest than through his Christmas and birthday gift-giving proclivities. 

For my birthday recently, I received from Kevin a gift of two Edwardian Era flower seed catalogs.  The catalogs were printed in 1904 and 1910 respectively, and feature the seed selections of Miss Emma V. White, of No. 18 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, Minn. (and 3010 Aldrich Ave. S., Minneapolis, Minn., for the 1910 catalog).  The front and back covers of both catalogs features stunning Edwardian artwork, and the beautiful, meticulously detailed illustrations featured on every single one of the pages between them, are exhibition-worthy.  The seed selection is extensive, and there can be no question about the quality of the seeds themselves: Miss White would never have provided such glorious attendant illustrations if these beauties weren’t going to grow, and grow extravagantly.  Further, she proudly takes personal responsibility for the quality of her seeds, and the beauty of their ultimate states of fully-developed planthood through the consistent use of such phraseology as “My Three Warrants,” “My List of Choice Flower Seeds,” and “This is my special mixture…”  And each listed individual selection is accompanied by a turn-of-the-century price, which, as you can guess, is astonishing.  But the typesetting across the pages of these little gems not only offers a glimpse of the state of the U.S. economy in the early 1900s, more importantly, it reveals the diligent, earnest, and gracious character of Miss Emma V. White herself, and maybe the nation as a whole at the time, as well.

A little research showed me that Miss White was a true pioneer.  As one of the first three women in the state of Minnesota to own and operate a legitimate plant seed business,¹⁻⁴ she published her first seed catalog in 1896.¹  She played an active role in the administration of the Minnesota Horticultural Society,³ and would ultimately become known as the “Northstar Seedswoman.”²  Although Emma V. White’s pioneering entrepreneurial accomplishments are fairly well documented, and information about them can be found in a number of published resources,¹⁻⁴ I learned of her own love of plants and flowers, her belief in the quality of her products, her commitment to her enterprise and to the satisfaction of her customers, and her personal integrity by reading through her beautifully designed, plaintively written 1904 and 1910 seed catalogs.  Miss Emma V. White’s personal character, as well as the character of her flower seed enterprise and its jewel-like catalogs, were, in large part, reflections of their time.  But I also like to think that the character of turn-of-the-century America, or at least a small but important part of it, was in turn equally influenced by the beauty that Miss White espoused and purveyed.

Flowers from Days Gone By

Below are some fairly representative photos from Kevin’s two wonderful gifts.  I believe they speak for themselves, and that they’ll tell you some important things about Miss Emma V. White, her turn-of-the-century United States of America, and the beauty of flowers from days gone by.

Flowers from Days Gone By
The front cover of Miss Emma V. White's 1904 seed catalog. In true Edwardian style, the artwork is stunning.
Flowers from Days Gone By
The back cover of Miss White's 1904 catalog.
Flowers from Days Gone By
Detail from the front cover of the 1904 catalog.
Flowers from Days Gone By
Detail from the 1904 catalog's back cover. The artwork is amazing.
Flowers from Days Gone By
This image, and the next 14, feature pages from Miss Emma V. White's 1904 seed catalog. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the words and notions reflect a more noble, gracious time in American history.
Flowers from Days Gone By
The front cover of Miss Emma V. White's 1910 seed catalog.
Flowers from Days Gone By
The 1910 catalog's back cover.
Flowers from Days Gone By
Details of the artwork on the 1910 catalog's front cover.
Flowers from Days Gone By
This detail from the 1910 catalog's back cover demonstrates the exceptional quality of the artwork.
Flowers from Days Gone By
Miss Emma V. White took great pride in her enterprise and its products, and treated her patrons honorably. This photo, and the following 15, feature words and illustrations from the interior pages of the 1910 catalog.

Bibliography/For Further Reading

So Long, and Many Thanks

I hope you’ve enjoyed “Flowers from Days Gone By” and its wonderful subject matter.  I have Kevin to thank for providing it.  His lovely gifts – so completely consistent with his own inimitable graciousness – are resonant treasures, reflecting the character and style of a nation and its people at the beginning of the last century.  I felt that both the people and the flowers from days gone by were more than deserving of some recognition.

Of course, my dear readers and subscribers, I also have you to thank.  As always, I’m truly grateful for your kind interest and readership.

Cheers, and Happy Gardening!

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8 thoughts on “Flowers from Days Gone By”

    1. Thank you for reading it, Roxxy, and thank you for your kind compliment. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the piece. The catalogs themselves are works of art, and they’re windows to a remarkable time in U.S. history. Thanks again, Roxxy.

  1. Great article. One woman author, Katharine White (old E.B.s wife) wrote for the New Yorker in 1925. After becoming editor she started a series of 14 garden pieces that appeared over the following 12 years. Her book, Onward and Upward in the Garden was published posthumously by E.B. White, the collection of her famous pieces.
    What an act of love.
    This is a favorite book of mine as she comments on the different flowers and plants that became popular. Why she liked one catalog over another, why color is so important in blossoms (as well as shape). She even commented on the catalog writers and the entries they made in the catalog(s). There’s even a section on how David Burpee lobbied for “American Marigolds For National Flower”. He was the largest general seed company at the time!
    Thank you for all your wonderful articles and photos.

    1. Wow, Lane, what a great commentary! Your information is fascinating. I am familiar with Onward and Upward in the Garden, but had no idea of the association between the two authors. Remarkable. Further, the backstory and the augmenting info you’ve provided here is excellent. Your scholarship is to be commended. Times may change, but evidently the kingdom Plantae’s power to inspire passion and creativity in humanity is eternal and constant. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve contributed here, or for your reading of the piece and your kind compliments. I’m thrilled and honored that you’re finding the content here interesting. Thanks once again, Lane.

  2. Your words are far too kind for an old scoundrel like myself! I am so glad that you appreciate these wonderful old seed catalogues, as I do. They really do take me back to a much simpler and more gracious period of time.

    1. I certainly do appreciate them. They’re appropriate on every level. My words of praise for you, my friend, are also appropriate. Thank you so much, Kevin.

    1. Thank you for reading it, Sam. I was thrilled to receive these two beautiful works of art as gifts. The time and effort involved with producing these gems speaks to the quality of Miss White’s product, and is, I believe, a testament to her integrity and conviction. I absolutely adore these two little horticultural time capsules. Thanks once again, Sam.

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