October 17, 2023 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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Coulda Woulda Shoulda

PBS Mercy St image from PinterestI don’t have a bucket list, but there are things that were available to me when I lived in Alexandria, VA, that I wish I had taken the time to view. Many of them are not as obvious as the African American Museum in DC, for which we failed to get tickets on several occasions. In my own neighborhood, we missed the chance to tour Carlyle House when it was the set for a television series based on the Civil War… and I walked by it almost every day. And, of course, living across from Gadsby’s Tavern, you would think that I would have looked at the replica of a Founding Fathers’ era  ballroom – whose original woodwork is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which ironically we did manage to see. But the local version, half a block from our house, I missed. Apparently, after much begging, the Met sold only the genuine door back to Gadsby’s Museum. 

Philosophical Fruit

Other treasured spots are lesser known, such as the US Department of Agriculture’s Museum in Beltsville, MD. Known as the United States National Agricultural Library. I only found out about one of their remarkable collections through my son-in-law, who is interested in all things cerebral. He sent me a link to an article and intriguing video from Aeon a  weekly digital magazine that presents, according to its website, “ideas, philosophy and culture and asks the biggest questions and finds the freshest, most original answers, provided by world-leading authorities on science, philosophy and society.” The magazine was founded by an Australian couple in 2012 and currently has offices in London, Melbourne and New York City. It has two offshoot digital formats – Psyche and SophiaClub – the first is a platform for essays on subjects related to psychology, the second a calendar of events for live audiences which showcases philosophical ideas. I’ve always been fascinated with agricultural products from a cook’s perspective, but I now appreciate their complex scientific historical context.


Pomologically Speaking

In the 19th century, the growing of fruits and nuts became a multi-million dollar business. And the term “pomology” is the science of growing fruit.  Orchardists and nurserymen (Johnny Appleseed was one, as well as a bit of a weird religious crackpot) could not patent their innovations, as there was a law against filing a patent on a living organism, according to Gastro Obscura. Stealing from plant breeders was not uncommon. It was not until 1930 that the Plant Patent Act protected the property rights of fruit innovators. The Department of Agriculture’s catalogue of these meticulous paintings was the first Federal effort to create a register of a fruit’s provenance and distinctive characteristics to help protect their creators. 

This grand project was started in 1886 and terminated in 1942. Its continuing harvest is not only the pleasure of viewing 7,584 watercolor renderings of fruits and nuts, but also the fostering of  appreciation for the history behind varieties (some now extinct) that grew where cameras did not exist. Some orchardists are currently trying to bring back some of these varieties. One is in North Carolina and has revived over a thousand varieties of apples. I would even venture to say that these paintings make each subject more delicious and seductive than a photograph ever could. 

Opportunity Knocks

What I found even more intriguing is that this project started just when women were first allowed into art schools in the US, offering one of the few areas of artistic employment for women. Although over 60 artists contributed to this massive undertaking over 56 years,  most of the paintings were accomplished by nine artists, and six of them were women. Wikipedia states that the top three women artists, each contributing over a 1000 works, were Deborah Griscom Passmore, Amanda Almira Newton and Mary Daisy Arnold. 

James Marion Shull painting of pineapple variety for USDA Pomological CollectionLooking through the collection, which has been put in digital format by the National AgriculturalDeborah Griscom Passmore painting of strawberry plant for USDA Pomological Collection Library, the vibrancy and attention to detail exhibited by the women artists compared to some of their male counterparts is striking. Here is a random comparison between the pineapple drawing submitted by J. Marion Shull and one of the strawberry plants submitted by Deborah Griscom Passmore. Although little is known about Mary Daisy Arnold, looking through the collection, her renderings really jump out at you. 
Some of the women moved up in the ranks at the USDA and held administrative positions at a time when women were not generally employed at an executive level in the private sector. 

This chance encounter on my (old) home turf is one I’m grateful not to have missed. What wonderful serendipity: a recommendation for a digital magazine led me to to discover this fascinating collection and its history, plus an opportunity to view the video (with an eye popping flipbook) of Sebastian Ko, a Canadian filmmaker. The experience was as much a wonder as the Pomological Collection itself.

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9 months ago

Why do I feel like that change in patent status was a loss for us and a gain for Monsanto? One of the fruit vendors at the Alexandria farmer’s market loves his apples and is always looking out for heritage and rare varietals.