KPN: A Late 19th Century Recipe for Success

This striking image on the cover of one of our pamphlets caught my eye today – “Plant Food:  Its Nature, Composition and Most Profitable Use, Prepared to Aid Practical Farmers,” was published c. 1895 by the North Carolina State Horticultural Society, Experimental Farms, Southern Pines.  This guide contains brief descriptions of fertilizers – Potash, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen, and includes different recipes for different crops, adjusting the levels of each component to optimize the growing of specific vegetable.  The guide also lists some curious sources for finding these nutrients and methods for applying them to your land.

The iconography of the cover follows the style of other turn-of-the-century posters, which tended to draw a direct visual comparison between contemporary technological advancements and classical civilization (a prime example being the Columbian Exposition, which was just two years before this guide was published).  The female figure is wearing a garment reminiscent of Grecian clothing and sprinkling fertilizer from a pottery vessel, which bears the letters K, P, and N (the chemical symbols for the major plant nutrients Potassium, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen) and is rendered the red-figure style of Ancient Greek pottery.  The scene is framed by two trees and root plants along the bottom that sprout up over the frame’s border into the image block, suggesting health, growth, and abundance.

The KPN listed on the figure’s vessel is likely one of the earlier instances of identifying fertlizer packages by the chemical symbols of the components – even today, fertilizer packaging bears the letters and amount of each nutrient.  We have an advertisement postcard for the product Eclipse Guano, made by the Caraleigh Phosphate & Fertilizer Works, dated 1928, which shows a man sitting on a 200 lb. sack of fertilizer and holding another upright in front of him.  The bag lists the chemical ratios of the ingredients as, “Phos. Acid Nitrogen 247 Equiv. to Ammonia Potash (K20) Water Soluable Nitrogen 1/3 Total.”

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