It’s hard to imagine today that the urban streets of Lower Manhattan might once have had a connection with horticulture. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries some of the streets off Broadway were home to a network of highly successful seed companies. Their vividly coloured spring catalogues must have been a welcome sight for their customers in the bitter months of a New York winter. (This list of companies is by no means comprehensive, as each search seems to reveal new ones, and the seed companies themselves moved premises from time to time).
At Chambers Street were the Burnett Brothers Seedsmen, selling seeds, bulbs and plants, and Weeber & Don, seed merchants and growers. Further down in Barclay Street, J.M. Thornburn & Co, founded in 1802 sold seeds and bulbs, and seedsmen Stumpp & Walter specialised in flower and vegetable seed. At Dey Street were William Elliot & Sons Seedsmen and F.E.M. Allister, and at Cortlandt Street was Peter Henderson and Co.
All these companies sold seeds for domestic use and supplied wholesale grains and vegetable seeds to farmers. Most sold grass seed for lawns and sports uses, garden tools, machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. Henderson’s catalogues give some idea of the scale of this particular business. The illustrations below from 1905 show the five storey retail premises in Cortlandt Street plus the seed processing, packing and storage warehouses in Jersey City. Also shown are acres of greenhouses in Arlington Avenue in Jersey City, then a centre for market gardening.
Peter Henderson wrote articles about gardening for magazines and published his first book explaining how to run a market gardening business Gardening for Profit in 1866. Gardening for Pleasure (1875) was aimed at the amateur gardener and explains how to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. Henderson’s catalogues represented a significant part of the company’s marketing strategy, with 750,000 printed every January in the 1880s.
The company remained in family hands until the mid 1940s, but failed to move with the times. An article in Life Magazine described employees in the Cortlandt Street store using the same scales to weigh out seeds that had been used in the 19th century, and ladies filling flower seed packets ‘using little ivory measuring spoons of different sizes for different-sized seeds.’ Henderson merged with Stumpp & Walter in 1951, but by 1953 the company had closed.
As well as the flowers and luscious looking vegetables, William Elliott’s catalogue of 1897 reveals an advertisement for Hitchings & Co, suppliers of glasshouses and heating systems for these structures. In the late 19th century Hitchings & Co was based in Mercer Street. The New York Botanical Garden records that this company was established in 1844, beginning as a specialist in the manufacture of ventilation and heating systems for greenhouses, and that it began making greenhouse structures in 1888.
Interesting looking baskets and watering cans in the Burnett Brothers catalogue for 1918.
These seed businesses might have disappeared from lower Manhattan’s streets, but a quick internet search shows the horticultural tradition lives on in shops like The Sill in Hester Street selling house plants. It seems that city dwellers have always craved some green in their lives.