Abstract: A Hybrid Economy: Seed Sellers in Nineteenth-Century America

Marina Moskowitz


The seed trade of the nineteenth century occupied a grey area between agricultural and industrial economies and cultures. The seed trade, the spaces in which it was situated, and the markets it cultivated along with its commodities, all bridge the binary oppositions that historians sometimes trace in the nineteenth-century economy: agriculture/industry, rural/urban, and even manual/technical. The trade held this hybrid status in part, obviously, because of the nature of the commodity itself: seeds had to be sown, tended, and left to "go to seed," which in this context was a phrase of productivity rather than its opposite. But the seed trade was also based to a large degree on a series of networks that straddled agrarian and industrial settings. Because it was, in the words of one seed company, a "physical impossibility" for one firm to grow all the seeds sold in any given year, networks of small farmers, who grew specifically for seed, arose across the country. Networks were also crucial in the realm of marketing and sales. Over time, as individual business expanded beyond geographic localities—and the seed trade was a pioneer in mail-order distribution—there was an increasing reliance on print as the mechanism on which networks were based. This paper will examine the ways in which the seed trade relied upon networks of both producers and consumers, and how it was related to both agricultural and industrial pursuits.