Tag Archives: Smithsonian

The Power of the Printed Image

Most of the courses that I teach focus on the period in which printing technology first emerges, so I am constantly assessing the influence of print on the Renaissance, the Reformation, and nearly every aspect of early modern society and culture. Consequently I have a particular and professional appreciation for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ digital exhibition Picturing Words:  the Power of Book Illustration, which began its life as a “real”exhibition at the Smithsonian and on the road and then evolved into a virtual one. Ironically, I think most exhibitions that feature texts work better online than in rooms, and I bet this one does too:  you can get closer to the images, for longer, and come to appreciate the influence they must have had in their own time, and their continuing power in ours. The images in the exhibition are organized into three categories, inspiration, information, and influence, with an additional section of pictures which illustrate the process of printing illustrations from Gutenberg’s time to ours. I think that all the images are well-chosen, but for the purposes of this post I am limiting myself to just five illustrations, with a few more for context.

First up, from the Information column, a work I refer to often in all of my classes: the pioneering anatomical treatise by the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, or “The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body” (1543).  In the Fabrica, Vesalius took on authoritative Galenism with the help of draftsmen from Titian’s workshop:  the result was a triumph for empiricism and a great example of the often-close relationship between art and science in the Renaissance. Several images are in the Picturing Words exhibition, but you can “turn the pages” of the entire text at the National Library of Medicine.  I love the title page, with Vesalius conducting a theatrical dissection, his face turned to us, the audience and readers, as well as the artfully placed skeletons and body parts.

As I am essentially materialistic at heart, the images from the exhibition that appeal to me the most are from the Influence category, as in influencing design and attracting consumers.  Asher Benjamin’s Practical House Carpenter has always been a favorite source for architectural images, and even though I’m about a century late for these particular products, I am quite drawn to these stoves and shoes. It’s important to remember in this digital age that print was at least as important to the Consumer Revolution as it was to the Scientific Revolution.

Columns, stoves and shoes:  images from Asher Benjamin’s The Architect; or, Practical House Carpenter, Boston: B.B. Mussey, 1853; Oriental and American Stove Works, Perry & Co., New York: The Van Benthuysen Printing House, 1874; Queen Quality Smart Shoes, Thomas Plant Co., Boston, 1910.

My last image is from the Inspiration section, but I have bypassed the medieval religious texts in favor of a page from David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet (1996).  The link between the two is through the use of letterforms as illustration, an interesting feature of the exhibition:  ornamented capitals in the past, letters as ornaments in the present.

David Pelletier, The Graphic Alphabet.  New York: Orchard, c. 1996.


Gardening by Mail

Leaving aside our unnaturally warm March week, this is the first really springlike weekend, and a long one at that with the commemoration of Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts on Monday.  Lots of things have popped up in the garden, though I suspect many plants never went to sleep during this warm winter.  I’m not sure what I’ve lost; there are some conspicuous holes but it’s still a bit early.  In any case, I always buy a few things in the spring and find places for them, often from some of my tried-and-true catalog sources.

The healthiest and hardiest plants in my garden come from Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, Vermont.  When I started the garden over a decade ago, I wanted to have only heirloom plants, and their little catalogs featured lots of varieties from the 17th through the 19th centuries, along with all the essential information about how to grow them.  I learned a lot from those catalogs, and I still have them, as well as all of the plants I purchased from them.  Now Perennial Pleasures only sells their specialty, phlox (of which they have many varieties that you cannot get anywhere else), by mail, along with a few other plants, but their plant guide (which you can download from their website) remains an essential reference for gardeners.  And if you’re in the Northeast Kingdom this summer, they have a Phlox Festival during the first two weeks of August.

After a couple of summers, I abandoned my “heirlooms only” rule because it was a little limiting, and there are lots of beautiful modern varietals out there that I wanted in my garden.  One particular summer, I became obsessed with alstroemeria, and the search for more varieties took me (virtually) to Digging Dog Nursery in northern California.  Since that time I’ve moved on from alstroemeria but not from Digging Dog, which supplies lots of healthy and well-established plants that you seldom see in regular nurseries.

Another online source of plants you don’t see anywhere and everywhere is Avant Gardens of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I generally drive down there as it’s not too far for me but I know they do a large mail-order business.  Lots of varieties of my favorite perennials, like the masterwort above, and unusual annuals as well.

Seeds have been a mail-order product for more than a century, and one of the oldest US suppliers is Comstock, Ferre & Co. of Wethersfield, Connecticut, a beautiful colonial town just outside Hartford.  Except for a little recent gap during which they were purchased by Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Comstock has been in the business of selling “hardy northern” seeds for 200 years. You can purchase their heirloom seeds online or at their retail location in Wethersfield, a charming cluster of buildings. Their seeds come in really lovely packets, another major attraction for me.  In fact, I am rather ashamed to admit that I have purchased seeds in the past (like the vegetable assortment from Monticello below) simply because I liked the packets they came in.

Now that I’ve shifted the focus of this post from plants to paper I might as well keep going!  Gardening by mail has a long history, and the Smithsonian Institutions Libraries have a great collection of  nursery catalogs from around the world and the last century or so.  Here are some of my favorites:  from a local seller in black and white, and nurseries in England and Maryland in vibrant chromolithographic color.  How different the last two catalogs are:  a rather restrained British offering of “golden” seeds and an exuberant display of Italian-American patriotism in the waning days of World War I.


Pine Cone Time

(Having spent more time than I have trying to determine whether “pinecone/ pine cone” is one word or two, I’m opting for two).  Along with the Christmas tree, there is no more omnipresent natural motif at Christmas time than the pine cone, which is rather ironic, given its decidedly pagan roots.  In classical mythology, the pine cone is most prominently featured on the thyrsus, the staff held by Dionysus and his bacchanalian cohorts.  The thyrsus is made from a stalk of fennel topped by a pine cone, representing the farm, the forest, and all sorts of fertility; in both classical and more modern imagery it is more representative of revelry than religion.

A.E. Becher, Bacchanal Scene (with pine cone-topped thyrsus leading the way, in left-hand corner),1903

With the coming of Christianity, the pine cone fades into the background as a natural motif and a way to bring some “life” indoors during the long winter.  I’ve seen pine cones in medieval manuscripts, but I think they become more apparent in early modern decorative arts.  Pine cone knobs are common features of eighteenth-century porcelain, like this beautiful coffee pot from the 1730s.  Fabrics and wallpapers also featured pine cones in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as they do today.

Mulhouse Fabric, 1830s, Victoria and Albert Museum

Cotton Pine Cone fabric from the Whispering Pines Catalog.

Even if pedestrian pine cones don’t make it into the final product, they often served as objects of study for artists.  The two charming studies (made between 1950-75) by Samuel Chamberlain (also a brilliant photographer, whose Salem Interiors remains one of my favorite books) in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art illustrate his composition process.  The pine cone comes into its own in the recent drypoint by Jake Muirhead, from the Old Print Gallery.

Pine cones remain a popular element of seasonal decor because they’re so affordable (free!), accessible and flexible:  you can make ornaments, garlands, swags, topiaries, tablescapes, and wreaths out of pine cones, or just scatter them around.  And when the holidays are over and the glitter goes away, the pine cones can remain until the Spring, when more signs of life begin to appear.  Here are a few pine cone items that transcend holiday decor, and could (I think) be made at home (relatively) easily.

Pine cone garland from Anthropologie, map “pine cone” ornament from Turtles and Tails, and rustic pine cone mirror from Wisteria.


Past and Future Plants

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.


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