Albany's First Garden Center Part 2

W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator
In part 1, I introduced William Thorburn, the owner of a seed and agricultural supply store in Albany that opened for business in 1831. For more than thirty years, until 1868, Thorburn's Seed and Agricultural Depository supplied customers with a variety of goods, from seeds and flower bulbs, to garden tools and the latest how-to books on gardening. The Albany Institute holds a rare surviving printed sheet from around 1840 that shows what Thorburn carried in his store. Here, in part 2, we’ll take a closer look at that printed sheet and a selection of goods Thorburn offered.
At the very top, printed in the largest typeface, Thorburn emphasized that his printed sheet was a “price catalogue of seeds” since selling seeds was his main business. But just underneath he made sure readers also knew he carried more than seeds alone. Customers could also find bulbous flower roots, greenhouse plants, gardening books, and garden tools at his store.

Vegetable Seeds

In the far left column, Thorburn began his list with vegetable seeds. The present-day gardener will recognize the categories of vegetables, such as beets, broccoli, melons, and pumpkins, but some of the varieties may be unidentifiable today, like Sir John Sinclair’s beet. Some of Thorburn’s seed varieties carry vague names, which further complicate identification, like his “early May cabbage” or the “large yellow cantaloupe.” Nonetheless, some varieties remain familiar to today’s home gardener, such as the “small Gherkin” cucumber, which Thorburn specifically notes is “fine for pickling,” and the "acorn squash," also known at the time as a "California squash."
The seed list contains vegetables intended to be eaten fresh, like lettuce, spinach, celery, and cress, but many of Thorburn’s seeds are for vegetables that could easily be stored or preserved. In 1840, food preservation relied on age-old methods like drying, pickling, preserving in a sugary syrup, or storing in a cool cellar. Canning was still relatively new and was used mainly to preserve meats for military provisions. So it’s not surprising that many of Thorburn’s seeds are vegetables that could withstand the preservation methods available. His list of beans, for example, is one of the lengthiest, as shelled beans can last for months, even years, when dried.
Thorburn sold beans that came from European stock, like his “English Dwarfs” and the “French Soisson,” however some of his beans originated in America. His “Early Mohawk” was a dwarf, or bush cultivar of the indigenous bean Phaseolus vulgaris , which the Iroquois had cultivated long before the arrival of Europeans.
Early Mohawk beans (image Great Lakes Staple Seeds)
Thorburn also offered a long list of cabbage seeds, thirty-two in total, which included his “Tree, or thousand headed” cabbage (almost certainly Brussel sprouts} as well as kohl rabi.
Like beans and other root vegetables, Thorburn likely offered a long list of cabbages because they stored well, either in cool root cellars or pickled. He may have offered such a large selection of cabbage seeds for another reason, to supply a growing demand from increasing numbers of German immigrants who were settling in Albany and other areas of the country in increasing numbers following the revolutions that swept across Europe and especially the German states in the 1830s. Cabbage was a much-favored vegetable in German cooking.
Thorburn also provided basic sowing instructions for all his vegetable seeds, and for cabbages he noted that seeds could be sown at different times of year for either early or late harvests.
While scanning through the vegetable seeds we find only one listing for tomato, also called the “love apple.” Even though tomatoes were introduced into American gardens during the eighteenth century, their popularity was slow to catch hold, as indicated by the single choice on Thorburn's sheet. By the end of the century, seed catalogues regularly listed a dozen or more cultivars.

Farming Seeds

A small section of Thorburn’s sheet is dedicated to farming seeds. These included seeds for hay crops, such as clover, Timothy grass, and sweet scented vernal grass. They also included seeds for non-agricultural purposes. Dyer’s madder supplied a red dye and hemp was grown for the production of rope and sailcloth.
Fuller’s teasels may be one of the stranger plant seeds on the list, but in the 1840s, many textile mills used teasels for the production of woolen cloth, mainly in teasel gigs, machines used for fulling or raising the nap of wool fabric to make it fluffier.
Teasel (image Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Teasel gig for fulling woolen cloth (image
Detail of teasels on a teasel gig (image

Ornamental Flowering Plants

By far, ornamental flower seeds and bulbs fill the greatest part of Thorburn’s printed sheet. His father, Grant Thorburn, was best known as a florist in New York City and it’s not surprising that his son followed suit. As with the vegetables, modern-day gardeners will recognize most of the flower types but will also notice that many varieties are not regularly sold today.
Sweet peas, for example, have tended to fall from favor and most garden centers stock only one choice today, an envelope simply labeled “sweet peas.” Thorburn offers sweet peas by color and begins his selection with “painted Lady.” This highly scented sweet pea deserves greater attention today, not only for its lovely fragrance but also for the bi-colored flowers of bright pink and white.
Painted Lady sweet pea (image
Thorburn sold seven different varieties of pinks, including the stunning “pheasant’s eye” and the cheerful “maiden pink.” The “Chinese Imperial” pinks were likely a double variety of Dianthus chinensis, a plant introduced from China in the eighteenth century and grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Pheasant's Eye pink (image
Maiden Pink (Dianthus deltoides) (image
Chinese Imperial pink (Dianthus Chinensis) (image
Among Thorburn’s flower seeds are some oddities, like the “Cuckold’s horns.” This plant, Martynia annua, was introduced from Sri Lanka and grown for its flowers and its ornamental seedpods, which were said to resemble horns, specifically the horns depicted on satirical images of cuckolded men (men who had adulterous wives). 
Cuckold's Horn flower (Martynia annua) (image courtesy
Cuckold's Horn seedpods (Martynia annua) (image
Seventeenth-century print of "The Contented Cuckold" (image courtesy of British Museum)

Squirting Cucumber

The other strange plant listed among Thorburn’s annuals is the “squirting cucumber,” a plant rarely encountered today in American gardens. The squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, is distantly related to the garden vegetable and its seedpod does resemble a small, prickly cucumber. Its method for dispersing seeds gives the squirting cucumber its name. When the seedpod is ripe, any slight disturbance will cause the seedpod to detach from the plant stalk. At that moment, pressure inside the pod is released forcing liquid and seeds to spray from the detached end. Certainly a conversation plant to enliven any garden party!
Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) (image Encyclopaedia Britannica)

American Seeds for Europe

Before concluding part 2, I want to draw attention to one small section of the printed sheet that could easily be overlooked, the section following his list of biennials and perennials. Thorburn noted that seeds from native American trees, shrubs, and plants “suitable for sending to Europe” would be available during the months of November, December, and January. So often on this list we find non-native plants that have been introduced from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but since the middle of the eighteenth century, Europeans imported many American plants and plant seeds, especially American trees and shrubs that thrived in the European climate. 
Thorburn likely collected seeds locally and made them available for European importers. The stately American White pine was one of the most popular American trees grown in English gardens and plentiful availability in the upper Hudson River valley likely made it one of the seeds available at Thorburn’s.
Eastern White pine (Pinus strobus)
Next time in part 3, the final post for this series, we’ll look at the flower bulbs on Thorburn’s list and finally some of the other items offered at his store.
April 28, 2020