The U.S. Department of Agriculture's first economic botanist, Percy Leroy Ricker, began collecting catalogs in 1904. Ricker's enthusiastic interest included many trips to secondhand bookstores and the attics of nursery companies in search of horticulturally related catalogs. The collection consists of over 200,000 American and foreign catalogs. The earliest catalogs date from the late 1700s, but the collection is strongest from the 1890s to the present.
Researchers use the collection to document the introduction of specific types of seeds into the United States; the prices of plants during a particular time period; and the early methods of cleaning, preserving, and shipping seeds. Other topics of study include the history of gardening tools, trends in American landscape design, and the introduction of chemical agents for insect and weed control. There are catalogs from the following countries: Africa, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Canary Islands, Ceylon, Chile, China, England, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, India, Italy, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Russia, Scotland, South America, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. For more information on the Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, please e-mail Special Collections.