Plant People

The chalkboard-painted backsplash in my kitchen( (which is really not a backsplash at all, a topic for another day), in a color called “peapod”, compelled me to find a few more spring green, pea pod accents for the room.  A simple search uncovered one of John Derian’s decoupaged mini-trays, featuring two people dressed in pea pods, an item that I’d seen before but never really took note of.  My curiosity about the source of the image led me to the blog of the New York Historical Society, which offered up more of Jerome B. Rice’s trade cards from 1885:  not only anthropomorphic peas, but a beet, onion, and potato as well!  Interesting that there is a Mr. Potato-body rather than a Mr. Potato Head, one of my favorite childhood games.

Jerome B. Rice Trade Cards from the Bella Landauer Collection at the New York Historical Society.

So now of course I forgot all about my kitchen and went off on a quest for anthropomorphic plant images.  It wasn’t a difficult quest, as I knew where to begin:  with the mystical medieval mandrake, a plant with a decidedly human root system which has long been the stuff of legend.  There are biblical references to it, as well as Shakespearean ones, and in between all the medieval herbals refer to the plant that shrieks or groans when it is pulled from the ground, a sound that is absolutely fatal to those who hear it, necessitating a dog-pulling technique if one wants to be bold enough to try.  All sorts of secret virtues, both magical and medicinal, are attributed to the plant, from the ancient era to Harry Potter.

Three views of the Mandrake:  Harley Manuscript 5294  (12th century) and Sloane Manuscript 4016 (15th century), British Library, and Hieronymous Brunschwig, Kleines Distillierbuch  (1500), Smithsonian Institution.

Now it is time for a distinguished late Renaissance plant person:  Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 until 1612  (and avid cultural patron), depicted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  You would think that Arcimboldo was on dangerous ground with this “portrait” but apparently Rudolf admired it–I’m sure that the latter knew what he was getting as this painting is very representative of Arcimboldo’s rather whimsical (strange?) works.  This is an image that never fails to amuse (repulse?) my students; it captures their attention at the very least!

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Rudolf II), 1590.  Note the pea pod eyelids!

Fast forward to the Victorian era and its obsession with flowers and their essence and meaning, very well expressed by J.J. Grandvilles Les Fleurs Animées (1847) in which a virtual army of flowers begs their commander Flower Fairy for permission to transform themselves:  “We are tired of this flowerlife. We wish for permission to assume the human form, and to judge, for ourselves, whether that which they say above, of our character, is agreeable to truth.”  They receive permission to join the human world, but the 54 etched and hand-colored plates that chart this evolution (devolution?) present them as beautiful but hybridized versions of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the  Grandville illustrations were issued as postcards in the 1870s and again around 1900, along with a veritable flood of flower people postcards on the market:  sugary sweet floral children and young maidens, which make Grandville’s flower girls look quite sophisticated and artistic.  Below is Miss Periwinkle, from a card dated 1900.

There are so many flower people out there from this era that I have to admit that I’m more interested in the rarer fruit and vegetable people, like the Rice pea pods that started my quest. Rice’s trade cards apparently initiated or reflected a trend of anthropomorphic crop images, as illustrated by the “cabbage girl” below (although what Dutch cabbage had to do with the flavoring this Baltimore company was offering I do not know), and a group of radishes from a British nursery in the 1890s.

The postcard manufacturers of the new industry’s golden age could clearly not resist the potential that “cantaloupe” (with or without an e) offered for plays on words, so we have several examples from the first decade of the twentieth century:  for a romantic attachment, and against:  we are too young, dear, we cantaloupe.

This last cantaloupe card is part of a series entitled “Garden Patch”, illustrated by E. Curtis for the prolific postcard publishers Raphael Tuck & Sons of New York City in 1907 and 1908. All of the cards in the series can be viewed here , including my favorites:  featuring a [water]melon, lettuce (be married), and a turnip (your nose is a little turn [ed]ip).  The latter is a bit of a stretch, but at least it gives us a full basket of vegetables.


10 responses to “Plant People

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