I used to do a lot of seed swapping, attending (and holding) seed swaps, and doing ad hoc swaps with gardening contacts, many of whom I met online. I used to quite enjoy making homemade seed packets, and did some lovely ones from old botanical illustrations. Understandably this faded into the background over the years that I was without a garden and establishing a new one. I’m also trying to be a lot more restrained in my seed acquisitions, since seeds don’t last forever and I have neither unlimited time nor space in which to grow them. Last year I went to a local seed swap only long enough to give them my excess seeds!
This year I took part in the Secret Seed Swap, for which you can still register until 31st January. The idea is simple, you send a packet of seeds (or more if you’re feeling generous), to a recipient selected for you, about whom you know nothing. But the Secret Seed Swap has a twist in that you’re asked to send your seeds in a handmade, decorative seed packet. When you receive your seeds, they ask you (if possible) to share a picture of the seed envelope you received on Instagram, with the #secretseedswap hashtag.
When I registered, I was almost immediately sent the details of my secret seed swap recipient, which threw me somewhat. I wasn’t expecting that to happen before the end of the registration period, and it left me feeling a bit pressured to be creative. Especially when I saw the wonderful seed packets other people had been working on, and when I received seeds from my secret seed swapper, in an embroidered packet. In the end I went with a simple, hand-printed design, which took some time to put together. I hope my recipient appreciated the effort, if not the minimalism.
So I was intrigued to learn that seed packets were probably invented by the Shakers, who were famous for their simplicity and artisanship. The Shakers were a small religious group that formed in England in the mid-18th century, and fled to America in 1774 to escape persecution. They formed communal villages of celibate members and farmed most of their own food. Their houses were simple but well-built, and they made simple but elegant furniture and tools. Unusually then (and now!) they had a strongly-held belief in the equality of the sexes.
In order to earn money to buy the things they could not make for themselves, each Shaker village developed businesses selling their handmade goods, with a particular focus on quality. In the late 1700s they began growing seed crops, and selling high-quality seeds to gardeners. Their peddlers went out into the local communities; in many rural places this was the only available source of commercial seed, and they were known for their high quality. At the time, almost all other commercially-available seed was imported from Europe, and was only available in and around cities on the East Coast, and was often of dubious reliability.
Seeds were generally sold in bulk, in cloth sacks. The invention of the seed packet is attributed to James and Josiah Holmes of Cumberland Co., Maine. The earliest examples were made from plain brown paper, and were printed with the variety name, the Shaker village they came from and perhaps the gardener’s name. They came in several sizes, referred to by their use: Pound-bag size, bean size, beet size, onion size, cucumber size, cucumber long size, radish size and lettuce size.
By 1810, the Shakers had developed cutting and printing machines to speed up the packing process, and their seed packets were packed into wooden display boxes in stores. At the end of each season, the boxes were collected, cleaned and re-used.
Marketing their seeds to rural communities allowed the Shakers to dominate the US seed market for the first half of the 19th century, but by the 1830s they were facing more competition from commercial seed companies, due to improved transport links and the mail service. A commercial seed company, Comstock-Ferry, introduced brightly coloured seed packets in the 1930s, a marketing tactic that the Shakers resisted until the late 1850s. Their religious beliefs meant that they would not directly compete with commercial businesses. The Civil War also disrupted their sales, and by the 1880s most of the Shaker communities had stopped selling seeds.
“As the nation became more settled, transportation better-established, and the population more sophisticated, Shaker products, as well as their doctrine, became less and less compatible with the times.”
The Shakers themselves may be all but gone, but their seed packets have left an enduring legacy for gardeners all across the world.
Paine, L. (1993). Hands to Work, Hearts to God: The Story of the Shaker Seed Industry. HortTechnology, 3(4), 375-382.