Cucumber, watermelon, parsley, radish, and pea. Hundreds of seed packets sat in the basement of the House Office Building, waiting to be distributed free to constituents by Representatives. Congressional seed distribution took root in 1839 to improve domestic agriculture and propagate rare plants. But it didn’t grow organically.
In 1838, the Committee on Agriculture lamented that “scarcely a dollar has been appropriated, either directly or indirectly, to advance the interests of agriculture,” and recommended that the government better support farming, a main industry of the country. The Committee proposed forming an agricultural depository to collect seeds and plants in the Patent Office. The Commissioner of Patents would distribute the seeds and plants to the public, to improve and experiment with the country’s crops.
Collecting, cataloging, and distributing seeds sounded feasible to Commissioner of Patents H.L. Ellsworth—at first. He told House Speaker, and later President, James K. Polk, that the work would require about two or three staff members. But Ellsworth underestimated how the program would flourish.
The Patent Office administered the program until the Department of Agriculture took it over by the 1880s, and the seeds were sent out to the public compliments of a Representative or Senator. The seeds were contracted from a nursery, such as the Henry Philipps Seed and Implement Company. Each Member received thousands of packets yearly, regardless of the makeup of his or her district, and mailed a selection of five different seed packets to each resident. Free to Congress and free to constituents, the seed packets ended up as Members’ “favorite campaigning material,” wrote the Baltimore Sun.
By the turn of the 20th century, the reach and cost of the program had blossomed. In fiscal year 1902, Congress appropriated $270,000 for seed distribution. That year, Members distributed 37,299,816 packets of vegetable seed and 1,000,568 packets of flower seed. Crops included common varieties, as well as the exotic-sounding early red valentine bean, Country Gentlemen corn, long dark blood beet, rattlesnake watermelon, and prickly spinach.
Although free seeds would seem to most benefit farmers, they questioned the quality and usefulness of the crops they received. Mislabeled radish packets would grow onions and carrot packets would sprout parsley. Planters with hundreds of acres often did not care to experiment with unusual, or just plain mediocre, crops. Yet Members worried that constituents had grown to expect the supply, and so they kept distributing packets amid complaints of graft—and not the arboreal kind. The New York Times called it “farmyard vaudeville.”
In addition, seed distribution only made sense for constituents in agricultural districts, rather than the blooming apartment-dwelling, urban population. A contributor to the New-York Tribune jokingly explained the quandary: His seed packets had not yet arrived, so he felt neglected by his Representative. Nonetheless, he lived on the seventh floor of a New York apartment, and had no land to plant crops anyway. Occasionally, seed stock, which should have been given away freely, turned up for sale in secondhand shops. “Of course I don’t imagine any member of Congress would do this; they were simply held up and robbed,” Secretary of Agriculture Julius Sterling Morton jested during a congressional hearing about seed abuses in 1896.
Industrialization also affected the usefulness of congressional seed distribution. Fewer farmers and more urban residents meant that seedlings appealed to a smaller percentage of the population in 1920 than in 1840. (As an alternative, Oklahoma Representative Dick Morgan pledged to send his packets to children to encourage schoolhouse gardens.) These shifting populations changed the dynamics of constituent services. Members diversified their services and began distributing booklets such as "Our Flag," and even "Slip Covers for Furniture," to meet the desires of their increasingly cosmopolitan constituents.
Some Members, including Morris Sheppard of Texas, and news reporters attempted to sow seed reform. The Washington Post editorialized that congressional seed distribution “is simply using $240,000 a year to aid members in their campaign work, and is no more justified than would be a like appropriation for the distribution of socks or shoes or tooth brushes.” Congress ultimately agreed that the seeds were too much graft and too little growth, and ended the program in 1923. A poem published in the Post mourned the discontinuation of congressional seed distribution in verse:
"I meant to till the little plot
Behind the house this year,
And make of it a garden spot
’Ere summertime was here.
But neither beans nor cabbage will
Supply my kitchen needs,
For Congress failed to pass the bill
Providing for free seeds."
Sources: “Agriculture and Useful Arts,” H. Rep. No. 655, 25th Congress, 2nd Session; “Congressional Seed Distribution, 1901-2,” H. Doc. 240, 57th Congress, 2nd Session; Washington Post, February 28, 1906 and April 9, 1923; New-York Tribune, June 4, 1922; and the New York Times, June 14, 1923.Follow @USHouseHistory