Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection

The L. H. Bailey Hortorium, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, maintains an extensive collection of nursery and seed catalogues.  With holdings of over 136,000 pieces, this collection is one of the largest of its kind.  It includes catalogues from foreign countries as well as the United States and Canada.  Started by Liberty Hyde Bailey around 1888, the collection was turned over to his daughter, Ethel Zoe Bailey, in 1911.  She curated the catalogue collection for over 70 years, volunteering her time after retirement.  The collection was named in her honor following her death at the age of 93.

The nursery and seed catalogue collection has been used to provide a variety of horticultural information.  Originally, L. H. Bailey used the collection for his research on cultivated plants.  This research led to such reference works as Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants and Hortus Third.  Now more than 110 years old, the catalogue collection provides a vast amount of historical data. It is useful in garden restoration projects for verifying the existence of certain plant varieties.  For academic research, the collection can sometimes provide dates and places of introduction of particular plant cultivars and species.  Since new catalogues are still being received each year, the collection is also useful in locating current seed or plant source information for both the nursery trade and general public.

Among the vast numbers of nursery and seed firms represented in the catalogue collection are some of the earliest and most prominent horticulturists of the 19th century.  Our oldest pieces are from Bernard M'Mahon (1804), James Bloodgood (ca. 1819), and William Prince (1822).  Highlights of others include catalogues of Peter Henderson, James Vick, John Lewis Childs, W. Atlee Burpee, and Joseph Breck.  For many companies throughout the collection, there are substantial runs of their catalogues.  Such a series can confirm the success of these businessmen, many of whom were also knowledgeable garden writers. 

Flipping the pages of early catalogues provides a glimpse of the changing times in America.  Advances in printing technology changed the appearance and production of the nursery and seed catalogues.  Products and equipment sold through the catalogues offered insight into new inventions.  Changes in transportation provided better company service, while economic booms had businessmen scrambling for the consumer dollar.  Introductions of new and unique plant varieties provided more choices for the gardener and farmer.  Thus the catalogue collection has become a priceless archive of the history of horticulture.

Researchers are encouraged to utilize the resources of the collection.  Questions or requests can be directed to Peter Fraissinet, Coordinator or Dorothy Stiefel ( Contact Peter at (607) 255-0443 or by email at

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