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Bonus online article: What 21st-century PR pros learn from 19th-century catalog writers

September 10, 2013

Late 19th-century catalogs like Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward inspired a nation to purchase standardized goods, eventually even a house.

However, catalogs were more than just a list of products for sale. They became an important link to establish a relationship with the company’s customers scattered around the country, mostly on farms.

The seed and nursery merchants worked hard to publish catalogs that would connect them to their customers and sell their products. At the same time, they endorsed a particular style of garden — an English design — and so they wrote about and illustrated the English garden.

In his catalog of 1887, seedsman Roland H. Shumway wrote: “From the beginning of the new year, until after spring planting, my industrious employees work 16 hours, and myself and family [for] 18 or more hours a day. Are we not surely knights at labor? How can we do more? Do we not deserve the patronage of every planter in America?”

Merchants like Shumway worked hard to create a successful business, seeking to establish relationships with their customers. This was public relations before we defined it as such. But when selling seeds and plants, the 19th-century garden catalogs also sold the English garden to American homeowners.

Relating to the here and now

When a PR professional writes a press release or a blog post, he or she endorses certain cultural values in order for readers to relate to the material. In that way, PR writing chooses certain cultural values over others.

When we read what PR professionals write in order to publicize something, we learn what is current in the culture. Every PR professional knows that if you are promoting a product, then you need to associate that product or service with what is happening in the news. In one sense, people don’t care about your product or service. People care about what is current and what is news at the moment. The writer should link the product or service to that news.

Though the seed and company owners knew other styles of the garden, when it came to selling their products in the company catalog, they chose to feature both in essays and illustrations the romantic English garden, especially the lawn.

New York’s Peter Henderson Seed Company titled its 1886 catalog “Everything for the Garden.” The cover illustration included the lawn, curved walkways, carpet beds of flowers, flowering shrubs, vines to cover the porch railing and trees to border the property — all elements of the English garden style of that period.

Creating an icon

At a time when American consumers bought Quaker Oats, not just oatmeal, and Ivory Soap, not just hand soap, they also wanted an English garden. The seed and nursery companies knew that they had to illustrate the ideal garden in order to sell their products. The English garden became an icon, appearing in books and magazines as well as the garden catalogs.

In the 1885 issue of its company magazine, the Currie Brothers Seed Company in Milwaukee wrote, “There is at present a very rapidly growing sentiment in favor of the single in preference to the double dahlias now so long in cultivation. For the past few years, they have been exceedingly popular in England, and continue to rise in the estimation of horticulturalists there.”

Currie Brothers watched the trends in gardening in England because they were important to the American gardener who wanted to have an up-to-date garden. The point here was not simply the irresistible dahlia, but it was the role the English garden played for Currie’s customers. The seed company wrote about the dahlia, but in the context of the importance of the English garden as a model for American gardeners.

By buying seeds and plants from the catalog, every American homeowner could envision that same beautiful lawn and garden. The endorsement in the garden catalogs shipped across the country meant that the seed and plant companies were normalizing the cultural value of a certain form of garden. So it wasn’t surprising that in the 19th century the same kind of garden, the romantic English garden, appeared from California to Maine.

Learning from the past

So what can 21st-century PR practitioners learn from 19th-century catalog writers? Before you write your next release for a client, product, service or organization, ask yourself these questions:

• How will I tie this product/service into something that is topical and current?
• What are social media users and mass media outlets currently saying about this kind of product or service?
• What cultural icon [person, place, thing, experience, word] can help bring a reader or a listener to my product or service?

Your response to these questions will help frame your release in a way that the reader will tap into the message more quickly. You have given your the readers cultural cues that already make sense to them.

Thomas J. Mickey, APR
Thomas J. Mickey, APR, is professor emeritus at Bridgewater State University and is a former board member of the Boston PRSA Chapter. This column is based on his new book “America’s Romance with the English Garden” (Ohio U Press).


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