In 1886, the US Government Commissioned 7,500 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Download Them in High Resolution

T.S. Eliot asks in the open­ing stan­zas of his Cho­rus­es from the Rock, “where is the knowl­edge we have lost in infor­ma­tion?” The pas­sage has been called a point­ed ques­tion for our time, in which we seem to have lost the abil­i­ty to learn, to make mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions and con­tex­tu­al­ize events. They fly by us at super­hu­man speeds; cred­i­ble sources are buried between spu­ri­ous links. Truth and false­hood blur beyond dis­tinc­tion.

But there is anoth­er fea­ture of the 21st cen­tu­ry too-often unre­marked upon, one only made pos­si­ble by the rapid spread of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy. Vast dig­i­tal archives of pri­ma­ry sources open up to ordi­nary users, archives once only avail­able to his­to­ri­ans, promis­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty, at least, of a far more egal­i­tar­i­an spread of both infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge.

Those archives include the USDA Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion, “over 7,500 paint­ings, draw­ings, and wax mod­els com­mis­sioned by the USDA between 1886 and 1942,” notes Chloe Ole­witz at Morsel. The word “pomol­o­gy,” “the sci­ence and prac­tice of grow­ing fruit,” first appeared in 1818, and the degree to which peo­ple depend­ed on fruit trees and fruit stores made it a dis­tinc­tive­ly pop­u­lar sci­ence, as was so much agri­cul­ture at the time.

But pomol­o­gy was grow­ing from a domes­tic sci­ence into an indus­tri­al one, adopt­ed by “farm­ers across the Unit­ed States,” writes Ole­witz, who “worked with the USDA to set up orchards to serve emerg­ing mar­kets” as “the country’s most pro­lif­ic fruit-pro­duc­ing regions began to take shape.” Cen­tral to the gov­ern­ment agency’s grow­ing pomo­log­i­cal agen­da was the record­ing of all the var­i­ous types of fruit being cul­ti­vat­ed, hybridized, inspect­ed, and sold from both inside the U.S. and all over the world.

Pri­or to and even long after pho­tog­ra­phy could do the job, that meant employ­ing the tal­ents of around 65 Amer­i­can artists to “doc­u­ment the thou­sands and thou­sands of vari­eties of heir­loom and exper­i­men­tal fruit cul­ti­vars sprout­ing up nation­wide.” The USDA made the full col­lec­tion pub­lic after Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion activist Park­er Hig­gins sub­mit­ted a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request in 2015.

Hig­gins saw the project as an exam­ple of “the way free speech issues inter­sect with ques­tions of copy­right and pub­lic domain,” as he put it. His­tor­i­cal gov­ern­ment-issued fruit water­col­ors might not seem like the obvi­ous place to start, but they’re as good a place as any. He stum­bled on the col­lec­tion while either ran­dom­ly col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion or acquir­ing knowl­edge, depend­ing on how you look at it, “chal­leng­ing him­self to dis­cov­er one new cool pub­lic domain thing every day for a month.”

It turned out that access to the USDA images was lim­it­ed, “with high res­o­lu­tion ver­sions hid­den behind a large­ly untouched pay­wall.” After invest­ing $300,000, they had made $600 in fees in five years, a los­ing propo­si­tion that would bet­ter serve the pub­lic, the schol­ar­ly com­mu­ni­ty, and those work­ing in-between if it became freely avail­able.

You can explore the entire­ty of this tan­ta­liz­ing col­lec­tion of fruit water­col­ors, rang­ing in qual­i­ty from the work­man­like to the near sub­lime, and from unsung artists like James Mar­i­on Shull, who sketched the Cuban pineap­ple above, Ellen Isham Schutt, who brings us the Aegle marme­los, com­mon­ly called “bael” in India, fur­ther up, and Deb­o­rah Griscom Pass­more, whose 1899 Malus domes­ti­cus, at the top, describes a U.S. pomo­log­i­cal arche­type.

It’s easy to see how Hig­gins could become engrossed in this col­lec­tion. Its util­i­tar­i­an pur­pose belies its sim­ple beau­ty, and with 3,800 images of apples alone, one could get lost tak­ing in the visu­al nuances—according to some very pro­lif­ic nat­u­ral­ist artists—of just one fruit alone. Hig­gins, of course, cre­at­ed a Twit­ter bot to send out ran­dom images from the archive, an inter­est­ing dis­trac­tion and also, for peo­ple inclined to seek it out, a lure to the full USDA Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion.

At what point does an explo­ration of these images tip from infor­ma­tion into knowl­edge? It’s hard to say, but it’s unlike­ly we would pur­sue either one if that pur­suit didn’t also include its share of plea­sure. Enter the USDA’s Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion here to new and down­load over 7,500 high-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal images like those above.

via Morsel.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Archive Dig­i­tizes 80,000 His­toric Water­col­or Paint­ings, the Medi­um Through Which We Doc­u­ment­ed the World Before Pho­tog­ra­phy

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (15)
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  • Kim says:

    I’ve put some of them into book form for my wife. It’s avail­able here.‑kim-ebert/pomological-watercolor-paintings/paperback/product-23975681.html

  • Veda says:

    That was quite cre­ative to put free infor­ma­tion into book form. In the spir­it of gen­eros­i­ty as these free image are, why don’t you put them into and ebook and share for free, rather than mak­ing mon­ey off the backs of artist wutg whom you do not have copy­right.

  • Toney D Higgins says:

    Thank you for bring­ing to light what the tax­pay­ers “paid for” and allow­ing all to enjoy!

  • Kim says:

    Hi Veda,

    First off, it is free for any­one to use as long as you attribute the source. “Use of the images in the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion is not restrict­ed, but a state­ment of attri­bu­tion is required.” I imag­ine this is done because we the tax pay­ers have already paid the artists.

    Putting togeth­er the book was­n’t a free prospect. It took quite a bit of effort to down­load, arrange, clean up the images and find a dis­trib­u­tor. Anoth­er good exam­ple of this work is this won­der­ful book of South­ern Apples, although, it looks like there is some addi­tion­al con­tent about apples there than what I pro­vide in my book.–1

    I real­ly just put the book togeth­er for my wife, so I doubt with the hours I’ve put into this project I’ve actu­al­ly made any mon­ey.

    If you would like your own PDF ver­sion, send me an email at, and maybe a tip, and I’ll send you a copy.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  • Shawn says:

    Wow! Nice work. I don’t don’t have time to roll through all those paint­ings look­ing for just the right ones but you did that for us.

    Since gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments like these images are essen­tial­ly copy­right free, com­pi­la­tion was a great idea. Kudos.

    Some­day, one of the com­plain­ers might take the time you did, down­load the entire col­lec­tion, and turn it into a free ebook. But I’ve done ebooks and they are NOT easy. And a pic­ture book of 7500 image size? Near­ly impos­si­ble. I once had to print a mere 650 page pho­to book and at fifty cents a page… well, I’m pret­ty sure you’ve already done the math.

    Excel­lent work! I hope sales are enough to pay you back for your time, ener­gy, and ded­i­ca­tion.

  • Sayed Qassem says:

    Peace! favor ?? can i also pls obtain a copy of the said PDF file of water­col­or col­lec­tion . thank you so much GOD BLESS !!

  • Layla says:

    Thank you for post­ing the direct link!

  • ACA says:

    None of the hyper­links work! All lead to an error mes­sage say­ing “Bad Gate­way 507”. :((((

  • Heather Vilardo says:

    Absolute­ly beau­ti­ful! Thank you for shar­ing!

  • Lucas says:

    The title is mis­lead­ing, this def­i­nite­ly does not cov­er all world­wide known fruits in 1886. This state­ment also only appears in the title, I have not found any such state­ment on the USDA home­page. It would be good if the author either links the source of that claim, or makes the title more fac­tu­al­ly cor­rect.

  • Janet Dickinson says:

    Does this include any paint­ings by Jen­nie McDow­ell Lange. She was my great aunt and paint­ed fruits and vegetables.I have a few of her paint­ings. Thank you.

  • Anthony V Fasolo Jr. says:

    What is fun­ny is that Ama­zon and Google Books does this sort of thing all of the time. Tak­ing pub­lic domain books, repub­lish­ing them in a pret­ti­er cov­er, etc., and mak­ing prof­its from them, yet I don’t see any­one com­plain­ing about that. I find it ridicu­lous in this coun­try how peo­ple so read­i­ly look the oth­er way when a cor­po­ra­tion finds clever ways to rape the pub­lic; screw with peo­ples sense of pri­or­i­ties with sophis­ti­cat­ed mar­ket­ing; and play the “friend” who has your back, when all they care about is psy­phon­ing dol­lars from your pock­et. I nev­er thought I would live to see the day when peo­ple would defend a com­pa­ny as if it was some­thing worth defend­ing. Defend some­thing worth defend­ing… not a damn cor­po­ra­tion.

  • Bruce Arthurs says:

    The links in this 2019 arti­cle are dead.

    But you can still view the col­lec­tion at the URL. (delete the spaces after “https:”; Open Cul­ture’s set­up thinks it’s spam if it’s a full link):

    https: //

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