My Christmas tree is en route to its final destination, the annual bonfire at Dead Horse Beach at Salem Willows, and I am perusing garden catalogues, the focus of every gardener I know in January and February. I love my White Flower Farm catalogue, which seems to arrive precisely on January 2 every year, as well as those from Perennial Pleasures in Vermont and Select Seeds in Connecticut, but even with its beautiful photographs and substantive descriptions of plant culture I have to admit that it cannot compare to its counterparts of a century earlier in terms of pure aesthetics. Late Victorian and early twentieth-century seed catalogues are truly works of art, as illustrated by these covers from Boston and Marblehead nurseries, all from the Smithsonian Institution Library.
My Salem predecessors a century or more ago might have purchased their seeds and plants from these local purveyors, but THEIR predecessors had an extremely prestigious horticulturalist immediately in their midst: Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Manning (1784-1842) maintained a large orchard and nursery in then-pastoral North Salem or North Fields adjacent to his homestead at 33 Dearborn Street (very recently featured on Historic Salem‘s 31st annual Christmas in Salem house tour) which was said to feature over 2000 varieties of fruit trees, half of which were pear cultivars. He was THE pear and fruit-tree expert, a title that was solidified with the publication of his Book of Fruits: Being a Descriptive Catalogue of the Most Valuable Varieties of the Pear, Apple, Peach, Plum and Cherry, for New-England Cultures in 1838, a standard work that was frequently reprinted in the mid-nineteenth century under the title The New England Book of Fruit.