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  • Writer's pictureSweet Pea Specialists

Female Pioneers of the American Seed Business

This is an excerpt from "Old seed catalogs combined science, marketing, printing arts" by David Christenson. A study of old catalogs also reveals a phenomenon of local entrepreneurship: the "Three Seedswomen" of Minneapolis.In 1891, Minneapolitan Carrie Lippincott mailed her first catalog in what was to become, literally and figuratively, a groundbreaking business, based at 319 Sixth St. So. Lippincott is reputed to be the first seed seller to target women buyers, the first to specialize in flower seeds, and by her own proclamation, the "Pioneer Seedswoman of America."

Working with her mother and sister, she created a thriving trade based on hard work, hands-on gardening experience, and a shrewd sense of marketing. Her 5-inch by 7-inch catalogs were colorful sales tools with a personal touch. In her chatty introductions, where she updated her customers on the doings of her family, she referred to the catalogs as annual "Greetings." Their lithographed covers, picturing idealized children surrounded by colorful flowers, did in fact look more like greeting cards than typical catalogs of that time.

That personal touch apparently appealed to customers. In 1911, she wrote in her catalog, "I wish it were possible for me to write a personal letter to all who have written me such pleasant and encouraging letters this past year. But that is impossible for I have received hundreds of them, and I thank you all for my mother, my sister and myself…"

Success bred competition. Miss Emma V. White, also of Minneapolis, took up the mail-order seed trade in 1896, imitating Lippincott's catalog format but adding a few innovations of her own. Her 1900 catalog's cover had an illustration in obvious imitation of Palmer Cox's popular "Brownies" characters; later mailings had beautiful wrap-around cover illustrations in that rich color found only in printing at its pre-WWI peak.

Then there was Jessie R. Prior, who inspired a bit of controversy in her day. Starting in 1895, she built a flower-seed business that occupied an entire block of Third Avenue South in Minneapolis by 1905. She claimed to have the only seed testing grounds in the West, located on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. By 1907, the Jessie R. Prior Flower Co. had disappeared from city listings, but not before drawing some fire from its competition.

Lippincott began publishing her picture in her catalog beginning in 1899, explaining that "a number of seedsmen (shall I call them men?) have assumed women's names in order to sell seeds." White countered a few years later with the protest, "I am a real live woman and I give personal attention to my business."Prior's available catalogs are silent on the gender issue, and her business was listed under her husband's ownership for its first five years of operation, so she's considered the most likely target of this accusation. But it's also true that few of her catalogs are available in the library's collection, and there really was a Jessie H. Prior who lived in Minneapolis until her death in 1960, according to city records.

In any case, imagine an industry in which, a century ago, a male businessman could do better by pretending to be a woman. Quite a turnaround. And these mail-order dealers did an impressive volume of business. In one of her introductions, Lippincott announced that she had shipped a quarter-million copies of her 1898 catalog. Based on census data of the period, that means about one in every 60 households in the nation was on Lippincott's mailing list.

The catalogs of the "Three Seedswomen" were showcases for their publishers' personal style. The farm-oriented catalogs were equally showy, though, sporting big 8x10 color illustrations of featured fruits and vegetables on their covers and in interior illustrations.

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