This Austen’s Seeds advertising cover was sent registered with five NSW stamps totaling 5½d (made up of 2½d overseas postage plus a 3d registration fee) with four different examples of the process of registration (red label, four large ‘R’s in an oval, the postmark REGISTERED/ A/ JU 8/ 09/ SYDNEY NSW as well as the blue crayon cross marking. It was sent to Messrs Comstock Ferre & Co., Seed Growers, Wethersfield, Conn, U.S.A. (Figure 1).
The sender traded as either G Austen & Co. or George Austen & Co. between 1898 and 1969. Their premises were originally at 191 Hay Street, Sydney (as on the cover) in the area known as Haymarket, a busy market area at the southern end of the Sydney Central Business District, near the main produce markets (Figure 2).
In 1911 they moved to 195 Hay Street, and in 1929 relocated to 4 Parker Street where they remained until 1969. No information was found as to why the company closed its operations in 1969 (Figure 3).
The company was founded by George Austen, who started as a general merchant. Initially the company sold only seeds and fodder, but it soon diversified into fruit trees, bulbs, garden chemicals and ornamentals, as well as developing their own varieties of many vegetables and even selling chickens!
Comstock, Ferre is the oldest continuously operating seed company in the USA. It was established in 1820 by James Lockwood Belden (1774-1847) as the Wethersfield Seed Company and the original tin sign adorns the buildings to this day. The company has seen several transitions from a local garden supplier to wholesaler and back to a wider retail operation. Old Wethersfield is a charming, historic Connecticut River town founded in 1634, and the area is richly endowed with deep fertile soil from the annual flooding of the river. As a result of this agricultural treasure, Wethersfield became an early seed producing area.
The company was expanded when Franklin Comstock and his son William succeeded Belden as owners and they were later joined by Henry Ferre (1807-1892). William Comstock brought great innovations and growth to the seed industry. He adopted the local Shaker’s idea of packing seeds in ‘paper’ and developed the scroll border still used today on the company’s herb packets. In 1853 the company was incorporated as Comstock, Ferre & Co.
Stephen F. Willard (1851-1924) began work at Comstock, Ferre in 1871 as a traveller for the company throughout New England, and he became one of the founders of the American Seed Trade Association in 1883, and he served as Comstock, Ferre’s president from 1898 to 1924. The business was run by four generations of Willards through most of the 1900’s. Much of the seed is still grown on the company farm Wethersfield.
When Pierre Bennerup (a noted botanist) bought the company in 1991, he collected plants from every continent except Antartica and he cultivated these plants in nearby Berlin, Conn. to test for hardiness, disease and insect resistance and other attributes before putting them on the market. He has continued the company’s interest in heritage seeds, and the company still remains as the nursery which has been in continuous operation in the USA for seed production for the longest time.