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Papergreat: Farm Life

The Seedy Side of Vintage Farm Ephemera

Chris OttoI came across this empty 1908 kohlrabi seed packet at one of our many antique stores here in central Pennsylvania and was smitten enough with its age and design to make the minor purchase.

Vintage Kohlrabi Seed Packet

(One of the "benefits" of having an interest in books and ephemera as opposed to antique furniture, artwork or toys is that you can usually browse for hours and still escape with your wallet essentially intact. Of course, that might still leave you having to explain why you paid actual money for a 100-year-old brochure or receipt. But at least it's less actual money than if you had purchased, say, an 18th century pine blanket chest. )

The five-cent seed packet was sold by De Giorgi Bros of Council Bluffs, Iowa. And the envelope itself was designed by Stecher Lithographic Company of Rochester, New York.

According to "Nineteenth-Century Rochester Fruit and Flower Plates" by Karl Sanford Kabelac, "In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Rochester, New York, was a leading American nursery center. Auxiliary to the nursery businesses, there developed allied enterprises, one of which was the production of colored fruit and flower prints designed to aid nurserymen and their travelling salesmen sell plants."

Stecher was one of the bigger Rochester companies involved in this enterprise. Again according to Kabelac, Stecher employed about 100 people for its lithographic business in 1888.

Meanwhile, it's a bit harder to find good information about De Giorgi Bros. An excitingly titled 1928 volume, "The Vegetables of New York," makes about a dozen references to De Giorgi. There is a description of the September Morn variety of sweet corn:

"This large, many-rowed variety originated with V.H. Neilsen of Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the result of a cross involving Country Gentleman and Stowell's Evergreen. After 5 years of selection to obtain a stock with straight rows that still retained the depth of kernel characteristic of Country Gentlemen, the variety was transferred to the Di Giorgi Brothers of the same city who introduced it about 1917 and have since continued to list it."

Some advertising literature from the general time period lists Early White Vienna as the most desirable variety of kohlrabi that was available. According to Wikipedia, the most common varieties of kohlrabi nowadays are White Vienna, Purple Vienna, Grand Duke, Gigante, Purple Danube and White Danube. So it appears that this variety once produced by De Giorgi has persisted.

(Kohlrabi, by the way, translates roughly to "cabbage turnip," which is an apt description of this root vegetable.)

Here's a look at the back of the seed envelope...

Back Side of Vintage Kohlrabi Seed Packet 

The interesting thing is that the seed instructions are printed in both English and Czechoslovakian. Czech immigrants flooded the Midwest and Upper Midwest during the 19th century and became part of the farming backbone of our nation. And so it was only natural the many products and services were offered with Czech translations. It also made the detailed color illustrations in catalogs and on packaging crucial for those who couldn't read English but knew what they needed. And that is part of what gave rise to the lithography business in the 19th century. 

Share your thoughts about any part of this post -- farm ephemera, De Giorgi Bros or Czech-American farming heritage -- in the comments section below. There's so much more that could be expanded upon, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and stories.

A 1924 Guide to Perfect Poultry

Chris OttoHi, my name’s Chris. And, because I have agreed to blog for Capper’s Farmer and don’t wish to give you any misconceptions about me, let me start by stating what I am NOT.

I am NOT a farmer.

My 13-year-old daughter, however, wishes to own a farm some day. She would like for it to be filled with goats, cows, chickens, pigs and other farm animals. She would like for the farmhouse itself to be a great big castle. And she would like for me to live on the property and take care of all the animals and farm/castle chores for her. So I have that to look forward to. 

I am NOT a gardener.

My wonderful wife, Joan, is our resident green thumb. She grows tomatoes, peppers, radishes and other good stuff in the garden along the side of our suburban home. My contribution to the gardening is that I created an unwanted pumpkin-and-gourd patch that first sprouted from our mulch pile last summer and took over the yard like something from The Day of the Triffids. But at least we’re all set for Halloween.

So, I’m not the fella with the pitchfork from American Gothic. I’m just a guy who works at a newspaper and has a side interest in books, ephemera and history. Tied in with that, I’m a Pennsylvania boy who has a great interest in and appreciation for farming history and culture.

So call me the Farming History Guy. Or the Farming Nostalgia Guy. But don’t expect me to be the guy who explains the difference between a thresher and a swather.

I would like to think, though, that all of the farming-themed books and ephemera that I come across and plan to share here in the coming weeks and months are preparing me -- perhaps through a type of osmosis -- for that day when my daughter wins Powerball and expects me to run our new family farm.

For example, the first item I want share is a neat old book about poultry that I came across a few years ago and have kept handy ever since. (We also sell used books as a fairly unprofitable side business, so I “come across” innumerable old and odd books in the never ending search for quality inventory.)

The book is called The American Standard of Perfection, and it was published in 1924 by the American Poultry Association. Here’s the cover.

The American Standard of Perfection
The front cover of the 1924 edition of “The American Standard of Perfection.”

Actually, I only gave you the partial title. Back in the day, books often had much longer titles. According to this book’s first page, the complete title is (deep breath) The American Standard of Perfection, Illustrated, A Complete Description of All Recognized Varieties of Fowls, As Revised by The American Poultry Association at Its Forty-Seventh Annual Meeting at Knoxville, Tenn., Nineteen Hundred Twenty-Two.


Meanwhile, this particular volume is stamped on the inside front cover with the former (original?) owner’s name:

stamp for Emanuel F. Ness
This stamp for Emanuel F. Ness of Dallastown, Pennsylvania, appears on the inside front cover.

Dallastown is a borough in York County, Pennsylvania, not far from where I live. I believe, thanks to a little amateur genealogy work, that I have tracked down a solid candidate for who Emanuel F. Ness was -- and it’s a bit of a sad story.

Emanuel was born in 1878. In 1910, he married Minnie Floyd. In 1911, their infant son, Marvin, died. And in 1912, Minnie herself died at about age 23.

Assuming that he acquired The American Standard of Perfection the same year it was published, Emanuel was about 46 years old when he put his stamp inside the book.

And what was the 427-page book used for? Just what it says. It provides the official breed standards for all North American poultry. The classifications and descriptions of physical appearance, coloring and other attributes are used as a measuring stick for, among other things, the competitive judging of chickens, ducks, turkeys and other poultry.

The first edition of the book was published in 1874, and the most recent edition, still published by the American Poultry Association, came out in 2010.

The introduction to the 1924 volume states: “For more than seventy years prior to the appearance of the first American Standard, poultrymen had been trying to make such blends of European and Asiatic races of fowls as have produced the Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte and Rhode Island Red; yet had failed to produce a breed that could gain wide or lasting popularity. Nor, in all that time had any old, established breed been so improved that it could win and hold the favor of those who kept poultry for eggs and meat.”

So, as I probably don’t need to tell you, this is an Important Book. Every serious poultry farmer certainly had a copy.

It’s filled with finely detailed illustrations of poultry, ranging from the Silver-Penciled Wyandotte Female to the Bourbon Red Turkey Male to the slightly silly looking Black-Breasted Red Game Bantam Male.

Other illustrations, such as this one, key in on elements of poultry anatomy:

chicken illustration
This illustration, dated 1922, shows what one type of chicken looks like under all those feathers.

A typical entry describes the following characteristics of a given bird: standard weights, comb, ear lobes, beak, head, eyes, neck, wings, back, tail, “body and fluff,” breast, legs, toes and “under-color of all sections.” In 1924, a beak might be described as being “of good length, stout, well-curved.”

And ear lobes, of all things, get this level of descriptive detail in the entry for the female Minorca: “Large, almost-shaped, smooth, thin, free from folds and wrinkles, fitting closely to head.” And that’s the most I’ve ever written or thought about ear lobes.

I think my favorite thing about this book, though -- and the reason I’ve held onto it even though I’ve never had a Poultry Farming Moment in my life -- is the wonderfully detailed illustrations. To finish, I’ll leave you with two of them:

Silver-Penciled Wyandotte Male
The 1924 book's illustration of the regal-looking Silver-Penciled Wyandotte Male.

Silver-Spangled Hamburg Male
The 1924 book's illustration of the Silver-Spangled Hamburg Male

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