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The Fruits of America Part 1: The US Department of Agriculture's Pomological Watercolor Collection

Updated: Sep 28, 2023


Corsican lemon by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1899. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection


Introduction: A lucky find


It's always exciting when, just by chance, I come across something that sparks my interest and turns out to be an interesting story. And so it was when, a few weeks ago, a card with a beautiful botanical watercolour of a lemon (depicted above) caught my attention in a local bookshop. I bought it, thinking it was from a book about Renaissance citrus fruit by Italian botanist, Giovanni Battista Ferrari, that I posted about in April last year in my blog The ‘juicy’ tale of the Renaissance citron. It was only when I got home and read the blurb on the back, that I discovered it was nothing to do with Ferrari, but was a watercolour by American artist, Deborah Griscom Passmore (1840-1911).


On googling this artist, I discovered that Passmore's painting of the lemons was just one of more than a thousand detailed watercolours that she produced for the US Department of Agriculture (‘USDA’) at the end of the 19th century, where she led a team of artists – all busily producing watercolours for their Pomological Watercolor Collection.


USDA Special Collections archivist Sara Lee at work. US Department of Agriculture/Sara Lee

I had never heard of this collection and perhaps that's not surprising as it's been referred to as “one of the world’s most unused holdings of late 19th/early 20th century American botanical illustrations". And once I started to research these watercolours, I also discovered that the USDA employed its own plant-collectors, which I will cover in Part 2.


This beautiful collection of watercolours was little known, even in America, until 2015. Parker Higgins, a director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, discovered that USDA, who had digitized the collection back in 2011 to little fanfare, had earned very little in fees for providing high-resolution versions of the images online. So Higgins persuaded them to make these publicly available for free download – and he took to Wikimedia and Twitter to promote the collection.


But why did the US Department of Agriculture want a collection of watercolours of fruit in the first place?


Background


The US Department of Agriculture was originally established in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, one of its main purposes being “…to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants”. By the late 1880's, the cultivation of fruit was becoming big business in the US. American agriculture, in the form of farmers and growers, were greatly expanding the range of fruits and vegetables they were growing on a commercial scale, as well as developing many new cultivars. In addition, USDA itself was also developing new cultivars, as well as bringing in new introductions and specimens discovered by their own plant-collectors. And with an estimated annual revenue of between $200-$300 million dollars, identifying and protecting rights over certain fruits was paramount.


As photography was not yet widely used as a documentary medium, the USDA employed artists to produce technically accurate botanical drawings in colour. Most of these watercolours were produced between 1886 and 1916, a period when farmers in the major fruit-producing regions in the US worked with USDA to establish orchards for their expanding markets.


'Mangosteens (Garcinia Mangostana)'. Watercolour by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1909. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. The collector is noted on the painting as David Fairchild (one of USDA's own plant-collectors), who obtained it from the Botanical Gardens in Trinidad


As Yale historian, Daniel Kevles, points out (See References below), “rampant appropriation by competitors” (or perhaps more properly 'mis-appropriation'...) was a regular occurrence – with some even resorting to stealing cuttings from rival nurseries. Therefore, a reliable repository to document varieties and store information about provenance, characteristics and names was vital to prevent innovators in the trade being cheated of the rights to their new creations. To this end, in 1886, USDA established the Division of Pomology in order to create a national register of plants and fruit to “document new varieties, publish illustrations, and disseminate research findings to fruit growers and breeders through specialized publications”. [Pomology being the science and practice of growing fruit.]


The illustrations produced, known as USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection, are a unique resource documenting existing fruit and nut cultivars, representing 38 plant families in all. Described as a “priceless but little known legacy for all Americans”, these beautiful drawings and watercolours resulted from USDA scientists’ need to depict, with absolute accuracy, the new varieties that they had developed or gathered during overseas plant-collecting expeditions. This also included existing varieties, as many went under different names in different regions of the US.


'Citrus sinensis'. Watercolour by Mary Daisy Arnold, 1914. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection

Many of the highly detailed watercolours were issued as lithographic illustrations which featured in early Division of Pomology publications, including fruit bulletins, yearbooks, and circulars. These were distributed to farmers, growers and gardeners across America. Many were depictions of findings from plant explorations and botanical research, as well as artistic records of specimens sent in by growers.


The illustrations eventually became looked upon almost as informal trademarks, and the Division quickly became the ‘go-to’ resource for the protection of innovations in fruit. However, it was not until the Plant Patent Act of 1930 that formal protection for the rights of fruit breeders was finally introduced.



USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection


The collection contains 7,584 watercolour paintings, lithographs and line drawings, including 3,807 images of apples. The plant specimens illustrated in the collection originated in 29 countries, and 51 states and territories in the US. It also contains 79 wax models, many of which were produced by Royal Charles Steadman who, in addition to his pomological watercolours, developed a technique for modelling fruit from wax and plaster which he patented in the 1930’s.


For Sara Lee, one of the collections' archivists, the wax models are just as fascinating as the watercolours. Often made to accompany a particular fruit depicted in a watercolour, a model would weigh the same as the original specimen and the modeller also included any blemishes. Such blemishes, or effects of disease or post-harvest storage, were also included in the watercolours as it was just as important to show these to growers and farmers. [It occurs to me that it'll be interesting to compare these wax models with Harvard's glass models, see Note.]


Royal Charles Steadman, a botanical artist for the USDA, painting wax models of fruit in 1935. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


'Watercolour of the St. Lawrence Apple' fungal example by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1909. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection

Just over half of the watercolours show apple cultivars – a great many of which are no longer in cultivation. The remainder cover common types of fruits and nuts, to lesser-known fruits and species newly introduced to the US, or those not yet grown there. A typical watercolour depicts the whole fruit (sometimes with its leaves) together with a half-view showing flesh and seeds, and some fruit in a diseased state.

The collection was produced by 65 different artists commissioned by USDA for this purpose. A third were women. Working as a government illustrator was one of the few artist’s jobs open to women at a time when they were only just beginning to access formal training at American art schools. However, the vast majority of the collection was produced by just 9 of the artists, 6 of whom were women.


Watercolour of the Berry variety of peaches ('Prunus persica') by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1905. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection


A Fruit Laboratory Card File for a variety of apple called 'Salome', recorded in1902

As well as the watercolours, between 1901 and the 1940’s, the USDA also used a card index system – Fruit Laboratory Card Files, as shown here. These cards were used to record information on fruit varieties such as origin, history, characteristics, growers, and nursery catalogues, as well as hand-transcribed excerpts from original literature. The example shown, dating from 1902, records information on a variety of apple called Salome, introduced in the 1850’s.


USDA's Artists


The USDA's top 3 artists were Deborah Griscom Passmore, Amanda Almira Newton (1860-1943) and Mary Daisy Arnold (1873-1955), who each painted over 1,000 watercolours. Between them, they were responsible for over half the collection. Passmore worked for the USDA for some 19 years, mostly focusing on fruits, although she was also a skilled painter of flowers and cacti. One botanist at the time said of her work that he didn't know plants “could be painted with such perfection”.


Champion quince (Cydonia oblonga). Watercolor by Amanda A. Newton, 1909. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection

Amanda Newton worked for the USDA until 1928 and was the first to make wax models. In 1904, some of them were displayed at an exhibition to demonstrate how environmental conditions, cultivation practices, and storage conditions affected fruits.


Mary Arnold worked for the USDA between 1904 and 1940. Little is known about her, apart from her remaining watercolours and some lantern slides that she mounted and coloured.


Amongst the other prolific artists were Royal Charles Steadman (over 850 watercolours), J. Marion Shull (over 750, and who later became a noted plant breeder), Ellen Isham Schutt (over 700), and Bertha Heiges (over 600). Some of the artists feature in the photograph below.


‘A Group of employees of the Division of Horticultural and Pomological Investigation’, photographed in July 1914. From the book ‘An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts: The US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection’, published in 2021

Below, Watercolour of pecans (‘Carya illinoinensis’) c.1904-14 by Ellen Isham Schutt. Varieties shown include Taylor, Kennedy, Hodge, Bolton, and Carman. US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection


An illustrated example: The Pecan


The Division of Pomology not only used watercolours in their reports, but also photographs and drawings. As an example, I'm using one of their reports from 1896 on the pecan nut – mostly as I'm particularly fond of that favourite American dish, pecan pie! The pecan's native region is the southern American states, and it's thought the first pecan pie recipes date back to around the 1880's.


'Hicoria pecan', Plate 1 from the 'Special Report of U.S. Department of Agriculture Division of Pomology, Nut Culture in the United States', 1896


The 'Special Report' of October 1896 full title being Nut Culture in the United States embracing Native and Introduced Species, included an investigation of the fledging pecan nut industry. It took evidence from growers across the US by means of a questionnaire sent out some 5 years earlier. Despite the fact that most pecan trees were still wild growing in forests, the Department of Agriculture was of the view that the pecan was probably destined to become "the leading nut of the American market".


Introduction to the 'Special Report of U.S. Department of Agriculture Division of Pomology, Nut Culture in the United States', 1896

It was important, therefore, to encourage growers to change the wild pecan forests (by careful management) into pecan “orchards” to allow for a more profitable commercial crop. The extensive report also looked at various other species of nuts on the US market, but concluded, regarding the pecan, that “a trustworthy opinion of the results of these efforts can hardly be formed yet”.


Despite this set back, and with true American grit, the report also commented that if the pecan's culture "is pushed with the usual skill and energy of American enterprise", that it would not be many years before the pecan would become an abundant nut in US markets, as well as an important export.


Plate 3 'Wild Pecan Tree, Top Budded', photograph – and, right, Plate 8 'Pecan', drawing showing variations in the form of wild pecans, named varieties, and disease. Both from the 'Special Report of U.S. Department of Agriculture Division of Pomology, Nut Culture in the United States', 1896


Conclusion


The botanical illustrations at the Division of Pomology were, in their day, akin to a 'database' of the fruits of America. Once unofficially used to identify varieties of fruit and support growers’ claims of creation and ownership, some of these paintings are now the only evidence of lost cultivars, such as hundreds of forgotten varieties of apples. This collection of wonderful watercolours has not, however, outlived its usefulness, as some taxonomists still refer to the paintings to unravel the story of fruit in the past.

Today, this collection is becoming better known in the US since a book based on the watercolour collection was published in 2021 titled An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts: The US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection.


You don't need the book though. As one author writes, this collection is "at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection to enjoy" – for a link to the online collection see Notes. Or you could follow Parker Higgins' 'bot', which still randomly tweets images from the collection: old fruit pictures (@pomological@botsin.space)





Notes:


Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705


Link to The US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection


In relation to the wax fruit models, see my blog "Flowers that Never Fade": The Blaschka Glass Flowers at Harvard


References:


Daniel Kevles, quoted in Why the USDA hired artists to paint thousands of fruits, from Gastro Obscura by Rohini Chaki, March 2019


Before Photography, Watercolorists Documented the Luscious Variety of Fruits and Nuts, Lauren Moya Ford, April 2021


Meet the Women Illustrators of the Pomological Watercolor Collection, Mari Kramer of Cornell University, 2021





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