When the US Government Commissioned 7,497 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World (1886)

A pic­ture is worth 1000 words, espe­cial­ly when you are a late-19th or ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry hor­ti­cul­tur­ist eager to pro­tect intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights to new­ly cul­ti­vat­ed vari­eties of fruit.

Or an artis­ti­cal­ly gift­ed woman of the same era, look­ing for a steady, respectable source of income.

In 1886, long before col­or pho­tog­ra­phy was a viable option, the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture engaged approx­i­mate­ly 21, most­ly female illus­tra­tors to cre­ate real­is­tic ren­der­ings of hun­dreds of fruit vari­eties for lith­o­graph­ic repro­duc­tion in USDA arti­cles, reports, and bul­letins.

Accord­ing to the Divi­sion of Pomol­o­gy’s first chief, Hen­ry E. Van Deman, the artists’ man­date was to cap­ture “the nat­ur­al size, shape, and col­or of both the exte­ri­or and inte­ri­or of the fruit, with the leaves and twigs char­ac­ter­is­tic of each.”

If a spec­i­men was going bad, the artist was under strict orders to rep­re­sent the dam­age faith­ful­ly — no pret­ty­ing things up.

As Alice Tan­geri­ni, staff illus­tra­tor and cura­tor for botan­i­cal art in the Smithsonian’s Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry writes, “botan­i­cal illus­tra­tors and their works serve the sci­en­tist, depict(ing) what a botanist describes, act­ing as the proof­read­er for the sci­en­tif­ic descrip­tion:”

Dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, although increas­ing­ly used, can­not make judge­ments about the intri­ca­cies of por­tray­ing the plant parts a sci­en­tist may wish to empha­size and a cam­era can­not recon­struct a life­like botan­i­cal spec­i­men from dried, pressed mate­r­i­al… the thought process medi­at­ing that deci­sion of every aspect of the illus­tra­tion lives in the head of the illus­tra­tor.

 …the illus­tra­tor also has an eye for the aes­thet­ics of botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion, know­ing that a draw­ing must cap­ture the inter­est of the view­er to be a viable form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Atten­tion to accu­ra­cy is impor­tant, but excel­lence of style and tech­nique used is also pri­ma­ry for an illus­tra­tion to endure as a work of art and sci­ence.

Pri­ma­ry con­trib­u­tors Deb­o­rah Griscom Pass­more, Mary Daisy Arnold, Aman­da Almi­ra New­ton and their col­leagues estab­lished norms for botan­i­cal illus­tra­tion with their paint­ings for the USDA’s Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­vid­ing much-need­ed visu­al evi­dence for cul­ti­va­tors wish­ing to estab­lish claims to their vari­etals.

(Fruit breed­ers’ rights were for­mal­ly pro­tect­ed with the estab­lish­ment of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, which decreed that any­one who “invent­ed or dis­cov­ered and asex­u­al­ly repro­duced any dis­tinct and new vari­ety of plant” could receive a patent.)

The collection’s 7,497 water­col­ors of real­is­ti­cal­ly-ren­dered fruits cap­ture both the com­mon­place and the exot­ic in mouth­wa­ter­ing detail.

Both aes­thet­i­cal­ly and as a sci­en­tif­ic data­base, the Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion is the berries — specif­i­cal­ly, Gandy, Chesa­peake, Excel­sior, Man­hat­tan, and Gabara to namecheck but a few types of Fra­garia, aka straw­ber­ries, pre­served there­in.

Oth­er fruits remain less­er known on our shores. The USDA spon­sored glob­al expe­di­tions specif­i­cal­ly to gath­er spec­i­mens such as the ones below.

Queen Vic­to­ria report­ed­ly offered knight­hood to any trav­el­er pre­sent­ing her a man­gos­teen — still a rare treat in the west.  They were banned in the U.S. until 2007 in the inter­est of pro­tect­ing local agri­cul­ture from the threat of stow­away Asian fruit flies.

The thick, square-end­ed Popoulu banana would nev­er be mis­tak­en for a Chiq­ui­ta from the out­side. Accord­ing to The World of Bananas in Hawai’i: Then and Now, its lin­eage dates back tens of thou­sands of years to the Van­u­atu arch­i­pel­ago.

If you cel­e­brate the har­vest fes­ti­val Sukkot, you like­ly encoun­tered an etrog with­in the last month. The noto­ri­ous­ly fid­dly crop has been cul­ti­vat­ed domes­ti­cal­ly since 1980, when a yeshi­va stu­dent in Brook­lyn, seek­ing to keep costs down and ensure that kosher pro­to­cols were main­tained, con­vinced a third-gen­er­a­tion Cal­i­for­nia cit­rus grow­er by the name of Fitzger­ald to give it a go.

Explore and down­load hi-res images from the Pomo­log­i­cal Water­col­or Col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Col­lec­tion of Vin­tage Fruit Crate Labels Offers a Volup­tuous Vision of the Sun­shine State

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

A Stun­ning, Hand-Illus­trat­ed Book of Mush­rooms Drawn by an Over­looked 19th Cen­tu­ry Female Sci­en­tist

Via Aeon

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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