1963 Pioneer Seed Catalog

(I enjoy history, especially that of the seed industry. Every once in a while I will scan a catalog and offer up a .PDF version for your enjoyment.)

Here is the 1963 seed catalog of Pioneer Hybrids. It was mailed to growers in a plastic mailing bag with an overall size of 6.5 inches by 9 inches. There’s a cover letter from Garst & Thomas (distributors of Pioneer seed back then) dated 1962 but the catalog actually has descriptions of products for 1963. This is due to the fact that seed is typically sold in the fall after harvest of the current year but picked up and planted the following spring.

Along with the catalog and cover letter is an information card and a plastic bag that measures 14 inches tall by 20 inches wide. The bag has a colorful farm scene printed on it and was meant to store stuff in it or even be used for freezing foods. I’ve had several folks share with me that their mom often filled this bag with baked goods and sent it off to college with them. But being a prized possession, they were instructed not to return home without it!

Of course, the catalog is important. The bag was a customer give-away that was very practical for home use but the catalog had the information growers wanted. It highlights the current hybrids that are proven as well as new hybrids that a grower might want to try on a few of his acres. You’ll find “good rules” for growing corn and sorghum on the inside back cover. Notice point 9 where the use of DDT granules is recommended for control of corn borers! (For folks not familiar, DDT was banned decades ago as a known carcinogen.)

Finally, the pages that most likely were studied more than any other in the catalog are pages 9 and 12. These are the charts that show all of the hybrids for sale in the region and various characteristics. This is where growers can see the relative maturities and whether the hybrids have the agronomic characteristics they need for their farm. Still today, these charts prompt growers to call their sales representative and ask about hybrids they’re not planting.

For an historical perspective, download the scanned items and catalog and make a side-by-side comparison with modern catalogs (younger growers will enjoy this exercise). I find it interesting to see how descriptive language has changed for the physical makeup of hybrids and agronomic characteristics. For example, “stiffness of stalks” in 1963 is now “stalk strength” in 2020. And “length of shank” is not used anymore, at least not by Pioneer.

A parting thought – like hybrids over the years, communication styles have certainly changed. In 1963, who would have thought anyone would be “blogging” about their Pioneer catalog in 2020?

I want you to do well. ~ph

P.S. Having worked in the seed business for a little over 20 years, I’ve observed seed companies transition from printed catalogs to digital catalogs and then actually do both in an attempt to reach as many people as possible on different platforms. The current thinking is that the younger generation of agricultural producers strictly use their “smart devices” (i.e., smart phones and tablets) to gather information. However, owing to the fact that a high percentage of a producers are over the age of 55, there’s still a need for printed material as this generation is mostly not interested in smart devices and navigating the internet.

It’s Just a Pencil

“It’s just a pencil,” they say.  “They,” are the ones who have no interest in understanding the history and development of not only a writing utensil but the advertisements placed thereon. For some folks, the pencil is a tool, precisely shaped and containing “lead” that is the exact hardness, or softness, for the task at hand.  They are willing to pay good money for quality and they’ll use every inch of it.  For others, it’s simply a writing instrument that can be bought in bulk and frankly couldn’t care less if it broke or was lost for eternity in the couch cushions.  For the purveyors of mechanical pencils, the smoothness of the action and an abundant supply of stick lead are the priorities.  But in today’s world of smart devices, writing instruments are falling out of favor as “notes” can now be recorded using apps or voice recognition. 

Tombow pencils featuring “high-density” graphite. 3H is the author’s preferred lead hardness for everyday writing.

Pencils were important to me early in life.  In second grade, I had an affinity for picking pencils up off the floor and putting them in my desk.  No, I didn’t bother asking my classmates if they belonged to them.  If it was on the floor, it was mine.  You might imagine a collection of pencils that filled nearly half of my desk.  My teacher noticed.  She promptly let everyone go through my desk to repossess their lost pencils.  I was devastated.  Only a handful of pencils remained in my desk.  I was sure my mother sent me to school with more than that but the argument was lost on the teacher.  Mrs. Stone was her name.  And I still have a strong dislike for her.

I’ve often wondered how modern pencils reached their exact shape and composition.  I took drafting and art in high school and quickly learned that the thickness of a drawn line matters and how the downward pressure you applied made a difference on the lifespan of the point.  This became very evident while learning shorthand.  Yes, I was the only guy in my high school class who took shorthand.  And, yes, I was faster than the girls and I took it at a rate of 110 words per minute.  PRIDE!  The thing I learned was that writing efficiency increased when you applied just enough pressure to lay the lead down thus allowing you to move the across the page quicker and easier.  (When applied to a pen, light writing pressure prevents the strokes from pushing through the paper and making it all harder to read.)

I also learned that pencils don’t really contain lead.  They may have back in the day but now they contain graphite.  If you’ve noticed over time, advertising and our day-to-day conversations have lost the word “lead” (rightfully so) and either omit it or use “graphite” in its place.  Of course, some pencils don’t contain either but those are not real pencils in the eyes of the purist; they’re something else.  Oh, the erasers might have been made of real rubber back in the day, but no more.  Now they’re made of synthetic material that doesn’t smear the graphite and last a lot longer.  Given society’s attitude toward all things disposable, you rarely find a pencil anymore with the eraser worn down to the metal ferule and replaced with a push-on pencil topper eraser.

4H is the author’s preferred hardness for marking lines on wood. Hi-polymer topper eraser by Pentel.

Advertising on pencils has also evolved.  Some of the most memorable and effective marketing was employed by Ritepoint back in the 1950s and 60s.  Ritepoint was an advertising firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, but they were notable for the way they incorporated display tops on mechanical pencils and pens.  The photo below shows several gems featuring various agricultural crops.  The clear plastic tops contained actual seeds or commodities (such as sugar on the far right) but they also used castings that simulated containers or sacks.  An example is fourth from the left which is a sack of Pioneer Hi-Bred corn seed.  You can also find ones that look like oil cans (for various petroleum companies), soft drink cans and bottles, hot dogs and concrete blocks floating in a liquid-filled top and various other items.  So cool!  Their mechanisms were relatively simple and the inside of the barrel contained a place to store sticks of lead and an eraser, both accessible by pulling the top section off. 

A collection of Ritepoint display top pencils and pens. L to R: corn, soybean, popcorn, Pioneer Hi-Bred seed sack, wheat, vegetable seed, alfalfa and sugar.

You will rarely find writing utensils designed like this today.  In my world of agribusiness, marketing strategies mostly budget for pens of various designs and colors.   They are cheaply made owing to the disposable attitude mentioned earlier as well as the marketing objective to get as many as possible in the hands of consumers.  (Why spend a lot of money on an item that will get tossed into the trash or lost in a short period of time?)  Most advertising on today’s pens is a simple print stamp that wears off easily.  Of course, you’ll only find that out if you keep it around for longer than a few weeks. 

“What about advertising on today’s pencils,” you ask?  I honestly have no idea.  Hardly anybody gives them away anymore.  Apparently, they’re made only for elementary kids who can’t be trusted with ink or keeping their hands to themselves.

I want you to do well. ~PH