The Birth of American Seed Companies

Delve into the humble beginnings of the American seed industry during the 18th and 19th centuries.

| Fall 2014

  • David Landreth
    David Landreth originally started his seed business in Canada before moving south.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Farm Industry
    Seed companies grow crops to test the quality of their seeds.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Henderson Seed Ad
    Peter Henderson was not just a seedsman, but also best selling author of many books on gardening and farming. This expertise made his seeds better, maybe even the best like this ad states.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Henderson Seed Warehouse
    Peter Henderson built his seed company from the ground up, beginning his career as a gardener and eventually having warehouses full of his own seeds.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Oscar Will
    Oscar Will is noted for his dedication to breeding new plant varieties in the harsh conditions of North Dakota.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Peter Henderson
    Peter Henderson developed seeds that are still grown today including early snowball cauliflower and Henderson's Bush Lima Bean.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Seed Catalog Cover
    Peter Henderson's seed catalogs were the most detailed in the industry and also started a new era using five-color lithography.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Wills Seed Catalog
    The seeds in Oscar H. Will's catalog have roots in Native American agriculture.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

  • David Landreth
  • Farm Industry
  • Henderson Seed Ad
  • Henderson Seed Warehouse
  • Oscar Will
  • Peter Henderson
  • Seed Catalog Cover
  • Wills Seed Catalog

Few realize that the birth of the modern American seed industry (and therefore, in a sense, of American agriculture as well) was the result of the dedication, hard work and passion of a relative handful of individuals.

David Landreth: The Original American Seedsman

David Landreth founded the earliest American seedhouse in 1784. He was the first in a long line of Landreths who operated the company for generations. The company has since been traded out of the family, but continues in operation to this day.

Landreth was born in 1752 in Northumberland, England, near the Scottish border. He emigrated first to Canada, in 1780, and founded a seed company in Montreal. A few Canadian winters convinced Landreth to seek greener pastures to the south, however, and in 1784 he relocated to Philadelphia, then the pre-eminent city in the newly-formed United States. There, he founded a new company, naming it simply "David Landreth," with its retail location on High Street.

David was joined by his brother, Cuthbert, in 1789, and the brothers established their production facility, The Landreth Nursery and Seed Garden, in "the Neck," a strip of fertile land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, specializing in tree production. The company's moniker was prosaically updated to "David and Cuthbert Landreth" in 1790. Among its other enterprises, the company offered seeds available via mail order, a tremendous novelty at the time, some 50 years before the creation of the Postal Service inaugurated reliable mail service!



The single most outstanding Landreth introduction, without doubt, must be the tomato, the seed of which exotic fruit they made commercially available starting in 1820. But prior to that, in 1811, Landreth had introduced another cornerstone of American agriculture: the white-fleshed potato. (Previously all available potato varieties had contained yellow flesh.) And, in 1826, the company introduced Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach. The variety set a new standard for the hitherto ephemeral vegetable. It is still the most beloved and most widely grown open-pollinated spinach to this day, two centuries later.

The Landreths' work was instrumental in popularizing a number of then-unfamiliar vegetables in the new republic, including eggplant, cauliflower and muskmelon.



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