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Interest Grows in Early Seed Catalogues

May 14, 1987|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

Question: I collect all sorts of catalogues, including some of the earliest department store catalogues. But I also have a number of seed catalogues and am interested in learning how far back these pieces of Americana go and a little bit about their history.--C.E.

Answer: We hope you're a patient reader, because we've held your question for several months! But patience has its rewards. In this case, it came in the form of an article in Ada Fitzsimmons' Paper Pile Quarterly (Box 337, San Anselmo, Calif. 94960, $10 annually).

She writes in the April issue:

"In the 19th Century, countless Americans spent many a winter evening looking through a varied assortment of seed catalogues. These catalogues and additional garden books offered by many of the seed companies are among the oldest catalogues produced in the United States."

"Advertisements for seed catalogues can be found in the earliest of American magazines and newspapers. Several such magazines, which were common in many American homes, were established in the early 1830s."

"These early ads," she says, "are filled with information. The catalogues not only offered advertisements for seeds and plants and other useful information, but they were also illustrated with some of the finest examples of color plates . . . . These catalogues are of interest also because . . . they are among the earliest examples of advertising art.

"There were hundreds of seed companies doing business in the United States during most of the 19th Century . . . . Some of the companies exist today. One of these is Burpee's (W. Atlee & Co. Seed Growers), which published its first catalogue in 1876."

Apparently, according to Fitzsimmons, the seed companies were ahead of their time in terms of a woman's place in American business.

"Some of the seed companies were headed by women, and they made that fact clear in their national advertising. One of these seedwomen, as they called themselves, was . . . C. H. Lippincott of Minneapolis, Minn., who inserted her picture in some of the ads."

Q: I have in my toy collection some trucks called Smitty Toys. When were they first produced?--A.S.

A: The large cast-metal and aluminum Smitty toy trucks were first marketed in 1945, produced by a firm called Smith-Miller in Santa Monica.

The company apparently paid a great deal of attention to detail, and many of their trucks, such as their 1940s replicas, came complete with running boards, air horns and even steering wheels that worked.

The firm, facing intense competition from long-established companies, managed to keep producing the trucks for about a decade before throwing in the towel. In good condition with all of the parts, many of the surviving models sell between collectors for $20 and up.


Melissa and Mark Hime, who own the Biblioctopus book shop in Idyllwild (P.O. Box 309, Idyllwild, Calif. 92349), produce an interesting book catalogue (53 pages, illustrated, $8)--a potpourri of high-priced rare books and manuscripts interspersed with some oddments, like a set of baseball cards and a rare comic book.

In this, their eighth such catalogue, there is an original 19-page Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript, written in London in 1921 and priced at $75,000. But there's also a 1962 Amazing Fantasy comic book, carrying on the cover the first appearance of the Amazing Spiderman, priced at $700.

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