Leading Ladies in the World of Seeds: Part One

A Garden Stories celebration for Women’s History Month

A Feminine Touch in the Gardening Industry

Recent reports indicate that the number of women-owned businesses have increased by 54% in the last fifteen years. But while we may be seeing a rise in the number and cultural acceptance of women-owned businesses today, this was not always the case. In fact, up through the nineteenth century, women-owned businesses were largely limited to taverns and alehouses, millinery and retail shops, and hotels and brothels, and were operated amidst the prevailing opinion that business was an unsuitable venture for the “gentle sex.”

By the late 1800s, however, women were beginning to make a decided mark on a growing American industry: gardening.

Unlike other businesses such as banking or manufacturing, the flower and seed industry, with a strong connection to the home, was considered a more suitable occupation for women in the nineteenth century. Miss Ella V. Baines, who started her floral business in Springfield, OH, in 1896 and offered roses, plants, bulbs, and seeds for sale via her catalogs, asserted:

“When I started in the floral business two years ago, I confess it was with fear and trembling. It was a new field in the commercial world for woman to enter. Every one said ” don’t; ” but I did, and I am happy to say that my business success has been assured from the very start. I reasoned in this way: that this business is one eminently suited to a woman in every respect, and of all occupations it is the most pleasant and refining. Wherever there is a home in which happiness reigns, flowers are grown…For this reason floriculture appeals to the hearts of women the world over.”

Furthermore, as Miss Baines’ remarks suggest, women were a predominant customer base for the amateur gardening industry, meaning that a feminine touch and advertising tailored by women, for women, offered a distinct business advantage.

Perhaps the best example of the woman-owned business advantage in the flower seed industry at the turn of the twentieth century was the self-proclaimed “Pioneer Seedswoman of America,” Carrie H. Lippincott, and the “Three Minneapolis Seedswomen.”

Three Minneapolis Seedswomen

Carrie H. Lippincott was born in Burlington, NJ, in September 1863. After the death of her father, Carrie, her sister and her sister’s husband, Henry B. Kent, and their widowed mother, moved to Minneapolis. In 1886, at the suggestion of her brother-in-law, Sam Y. Haines, and with a need to increase the family income, Carrie started a business offering a variety of flower seeds for sale. Initially run from the family home, success soon compelled Miss Lippincott to move the business into the two-story brick store next to their house. It was the first seed company in the U.S. to be founded and managed by a woman.

The business blossomed, and in 1891, the Lippincott Flower Seed House entered the mail order gardening world by producing its first catalog – an impressive 5×7 inch lithographed delight offering seeds for sale via post. By 1896, the business claimed to have received more than 150,000 orders, and the catalog for the year reportedly enjoyed a 200,000 print run and was offered, free of charge, to anyone interested. The 1896 catalog also made the bold claim that the Lippincott company was the largest exclusively flower seed house in the world. In 1898, a quarter of a million copies of the year’s catalog were shipped, translating to 1 in 60 households in the U.S. receiving a copy.

The Lippincott catalogs are a study in marketing genius. Revolutionary for their time, they reflected a “feminine touch” that appealed to women and directly contributed to Carrie’s success. Her catalog art featured colorful, idealized women and children amidst exotic or elaborate floral displays, resembling chromolithographed greeting cards of the day rather than the typical manilla paper, black-ink printed catalogs of many competitors. The catalog introductions were also personal and conversational, providing updates on the life events of the Lippincott family. Following this theme, Carrie branded her early catalogs as annual “Greetings.” Carrie knew her audience. As the reputed first seed seller to target women buyers, the Lippincott catalogs were artistically tailored to feminine tastes.

The Lippincott business was pioneering in other ways. It employed a staff of twenty-five female clerks and engaged housewives to grow seed stock on their farms and backyard gardens. In 1894, Carrie’s became the first business to list the number of seeds contained in each packet, allowing buyers to better plan their garden layouts each year. Her contemporaries took notice of her originality, with an 1896 article in Printer’s Ink asserting, “She is the original pioneer seedswoman – a real woman, arranging all the details of a large business herself.”

Miss Lippincott’s fans were not the only ones to take notice of her success; her Minneapolis competitors also took note of the advantages of marketing a seed company as a woman-owned business catering to other women, and followed suit.

In 1895, the catalog “Flower Seeds” appeared under the name of Jessie R. Prior, Seedswoman. Jessie’s husband was listed as the owner of the seed business for five years before a seed catalog featuring Jessie’s name appeared.

The next year, in 1896, the E. Nagel and Co. flower seed business in Minneapolis announced that it had transferred ownership to Miss Emma V. White, who became known as the “Northstar Seedswoman.” The company subsequently produced catalogs strikingly similar in format to that of the Lippincott phenomena. Miss White was a boarder at the home of Alanson W. Latham, Secretary of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, whom she married in 1922.

The association of these women with prominent men in the seed industry led many to question whether the new women-owned companies were in fact only fronted by women but run by men. Carrie Lippincott believed this to be true, writing:

“…a number of seedsmen (shall I call them men ?) have assumed women’s names in order to sell seeds. It is a peculiar thing in this day and age, that a man should want to masquerade in woman’s clothing.”

Miss White responded to the accusation, proclaiming, “I am a real live woman and I give personal attention to my business.” In an 1896 catalog, Emma even asserted (as a jab at Miss Lippincott?):

“While it is true that the buyers of flower seeds are almost always women, yet I ask your patronage NOT BECAUSE I AM A WOMAN, but solely because by my methods I merit it.”

Miss Prior’s company remained silent on the gender accusations.

Were the White and Prior companies truly owned and operated by women, or were they, as Miss Lippincott believed, the brainchildren of men hoping to mimic Carrie’s success? Research suggests that the latter was more likely true with Miss Prior’s business than with Miss White’s, but whatever the truth, the fact that being a woman in the flower seed industry was recognized as an asset represents a remarkable shift in prevailing 19th century attitudes about women in business.

Explore other remarkable Leading Ladies of the Seed Industry represented in BHL 

Leading Ladies in the World of Seeds Resources

More Garden Stories Fun

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.