From the Archives of Tomato History

Contemporary seed catalogs sell with colorful, eye-catching photography, capturing bold blueberries, emerald broccoli crowns, vibrant orange peppers, and tomatoes in a rainbow of red, gold, and purple.

It wasn’t always this way, however.

In an 1893 Cox Seed & Plant Co. catalog, for example, seed descriptions curve around a detailed, black-and-white cutaway illustration of the Livingston’s Perfection tomato.

“This is one of the best Tomatoes in cultivation,” promises the adjacent copy, describing a type dubbed “The Trophy.” An entry for the Acme proclaims, “This Tomato is one of the earliest and handsomest varieties.” “The old, standard sort; large, smooth, solid, and very productive,” reads the description of the Large Smooth Round Red.

“Those catalog copywriters were really good salespeople,” says Bill Musser, librarian for the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). The Iowa-based organization protects genetic diversity by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds.

SSE’s Robert Becker Memorial Library, named for the late Cornell University professor and vegetable specialist Robert Becker, is tucked in the attic of an Amish-built post-and-beam structure on the organization’s 890-acre farm. There, Musser oversees a 6,000-volume collection that explores topics related to gardening, agriculture, and biodiversity. That includes a special collection featuring more than 800 pre-1950 seed catalogs used by SSE preservation staffers and outside scholars.

“Often, seeds were introduced in an older catalog before disappearing from the trades,” Musser says. “When Seed Savers procures those varieties, staff members come here to verify a seed’s date of introduction and locate other associated names.”

While the vintage seed catalogs prove valuable for academics, they hold artistic significance, as well. “These catalogs are loaded with fine botanical art. Some feature metal engravings that were amazingly executed by hand and then printed,” says Musser. “The detailed representation of individual varieties serves as important documentation for researchers, which makes the old illustrations very valuable. But they’re also just beautiful.”

In addition to showcasing historically popular tomato varieties, the library’s volumes offer detailed growing advice. The Library of Agriculture’s 1912 Horticulture and Truck Farming Vol. IV outlines guidelines for sowing seeds, transplanting young tomatoes, building plant frames, and cultivating for weed control and moisture preservation. It dives into soil types, regional growing seasons, and farming expenses too.

One chart estimates the cost to grow canning tomatoes at $28 per acre: $2 for plants, $8 for manure and fertilizer, $8 for land preparation, and $10 for picking and carting. “At the prices received at the cannery, ranging from $5 to $7.50 per ton, according to the locality, the crop is a fairly good one,” writes tomato chapter author L.C. Corbett.

Corbett’s writing also explores the tomato’s historical context. A member of the nightshade family, it was grown ornamentally “until after the strong impression that the tomato was poisonous was broken down.”

“The dreaded tomato . . .” Musser says with a laugh. “Some of these old volumes were sales tools, but they were educational as well.”