Early Seed Companies in Toronto: Catalogues and Other Bits of History
For many decades, families across Ontario looked forward to getting seed catalogues in the mail so that they could start to plan their gardens. Flower and vegetable gardening were popular, and sometimes even essential over, the course of Toronto's history.
You can access full seed catalogues and other ephemera (items not meant to last a long time) in our Digital Archive. This collection of all TPL's digitized items includes items from many early Toronto seed companies. Several of these items are highlighted below.
Gardening in early 20th-century Ontario
In 1906, local societies gathered under the newly formed Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) with the enactment of the Horticultural Societies Act. Their mission: keep Ontario beautiful. This phrase later became the association’s motto and was paraphrased on Ontario license plates in the form of "Ontario Keep it Beautiful."
To help with war efforts during the First World War, horticultural societies urged members to produce food. Vacant Lot gardening was also initiated during this period. Empty lots within cities were transformed into Victory Gardens. A Toronto Star article titled "Grow Your Own Stuff" (1918) urged Torontonians to grow their own produce. This was to allow farmers to produce more grains and other products for overseas.
This pamphlet, "A Vegetable Garden for Every Home", by the Ontario Department of Agriculture outlines how to plant a vegetable garden so that citizens could "consider thoroughly whether or not they can assist the Empire as well as themselves."
Although food production was a chief concern during wartime, several garden society members spoke about the important role of gardening to heal war-related stresses for both civilians and returned soldiers. Gardening was not just about fostering morality and good citizenship. It could provide respite for those facing hardships, like war.
When the war ended, horticultural society memberships skyrocketed. People turned to gardening to heal after years of sacrifice and struggle.
Wm. Rennie Co.
William Rennie started the Rennie Seed Company in 1870. It operated in Toronto for 91 years near Adelaide and Jarvis streets. Oat, barley and wheat seeds were brought to Canada from Scotland. The company also imported flower bulbs from Holland.
Many of the seeds sold by the company came from plants grown on Rennie’s five-acre farm on the east side of Grenadier Pond, Toronto. He also had his homestead there. Learn more about William Rennie.
This picture is so cute I may order a reproduction of this for myself sometime (service not available at time of writing).
This one has both mastodon pansies and dwarf beans!
I was interested in this catalogue because many of the flowers in it that we used to think of as "old lady-ish" were hugely popular in the late 1920s and 1930s. This includes roses, hollyhocks, foxglove, delphiniums, carnations and columbines. Today, they've made a comeback with gardeners who appreciate heritage varieties of plants.
Steeles Briggs Seed Co.
John S. Steele, Richard Clarke Steele and Sylvester E. Briggs founded the Steele Briggs Seed company in 1873. This Toronto company paid particular attention to developing seeds suitable for the colder, Canadian climate.
In 1913 the Steele Briggs Company built a new warehouse, which still stands today as the Clarence Square building at 49 Spadina Avenue. It had its own private railway siding so that seeds could easily be shipped all over Canada.
Under the name Steele-Briggs Seed Company, the company bought the William Rennie seed company in 1961.
This one fascinates me because, even twenty years into the 21st century, customers still have the craving for huge potted indoor palms and ferns that the Victorians loved.
This guide includes a description of "The Canadian Tomato". According to the guide, it is "perfectly smooth from beginning to end of season. No variety is more uniform in shape, all the tomatoes on a cluster ripen at once and are all about the same size. Its color is a beautiful, deep glossy scarlet, and very attractive. Flesh is thick and solid with comparatively few seeds. The flavor is all that can be desired."
George Keith & Sons
George Keith and Sons Ltd., noted seedsmen and gardening suppliers, started operating as a family business in 1886 at 124 King Street East, Toronto (now St. James Park). At the time it was one of a handful of seed companies in Toronto.
George later opened a branch office in Thornhill and both operated until 1969, when the business was sold to Stokes Seeds. More information about the company can be found in an obituary of Bob Keith.
At the time of writing, our digitized items by George Keith & Sons consists of only one catalogue.
More on gardening from TPL
What are you planning with your garden this year? Do you grow vegetables and other foods? Share in the comments below!