University of Delaware Library

Special Collections

An Introduction to the Collection

In April 1969, with a grant from the Unidel Foundation, the University of Delaware Library acquired a collection consisting of 193 titles relating to the history of American horticulture. This modest group of books, periodicals, trade and seed catalogs formed the core of the Unidel Collection of the History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, which over the last two decades has been developed into a collection of remarkable depth.

Horticulture, often considered to be synonymous with gardening or the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and flowers in an enclosed area, is both art and science, involving ornamental planting as well as the efficient production of food. From the very beginning, the Unidel Collection of the History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture was viewed as an interdisciplinary resource that supported University of Delaware academic programs. These programs reflected the status of the University as a land-grant institution with an Agricultural Experiment Station, and developing cooperative programs between the University of Delaware and neighboring cultural institutions. Among those who spoke in favor of the initial acquisitions were Richard Lighty, director of the University's Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture Administration, established in 1967; George B. Tatum, H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Art History; and Charles van Ravenswaay, director of the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum. These individuals and their successors understood that a collection devoted to the history of horticulture and landscape architecture would have wide-ranging research potential for students and scholars at the University of Delaware.

Additions to the horticultural collections over the first decade, supported by the Unidel Foundation, the University of Delaware Library Associates and the Melva B. Guthrie Fund, included a collection of 350 volumes in garden design and horticulture in 1970; 200 volumes of early botanical horticulture, medical botany and general gardening in 1972; 135 volumes "rich in botany, botanic medicine, landscape architecture, gardening and horticulture" in 1974. By 1974, the total collection stood at 1,500 volumes. A further 450 volumes were added in 1977, including many seed catalogs and nursery plate books.

Not all of the acquisitions were rare, and a good number were added to the University of Delaware Library's Agriculture Library, established in 1888, the same year as the Agricultural Experiment Station. Space considerations in the Agriculture Library soon required the removal of historical materials, and many of the original acquisitions were transferred to the Morris Library.

The pattern of steady growth was radically transformed in 1984, when the University of Delaware Library acquired the collection of American horticultural materials formed by Charles van Ravenswaay. This spectacular collection had been formed over a 35-year period of dedicated and knowledgeable pursuit. In the finest tradition of private book collecting, Charles van Ravenswaay sought out the rare, the unique, the commonplace and the ephemeral, the plain and the spectacular, in his effort to document the growth of American horticulture. His collection of 2,900 titles published between 1760 and 1900 included books, pamphlets, reports, nursery and seed catalogs, nursery plate and sample books relating to all aspects of the subject--scientific, commercial and avocational, ornamental and artistic, theoretical and practical, urban and rural.

With this single acquisition, the horticultural collections at the University of Delaware Library were doubled in size and enriched beyond measure in depth. Earlier acquisitions had emphasized horticulture in America, but also sought to represent a broad range of horticultural literature -- botany, medical botany, landscape architecture, and the European roots of the American tradition. Imprints ranging from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, with many English, French and German works, had been within the scope of the collection in its earlier development. Charles van Ravenswaay concentrated solely on the development of American horticulture as reflected in American horticultural publications, and he plumbed the subject to its core. His collection contained rare runs of early agricultural and horticultural society reports and periodicals, unique copies of seed catalogs issued by short-lived firms across the country as well as runs of major firms, nursery plate books, trade catalogs, and advertising ephemera. Monographic holdings covering the literature of vegetable and fruit culture, gardens and gardening were comprehensive, including every edition of many works, often in variant issues and bindings. The collection was strongest beginning in the 1820s, coincident with enormous increase in American horticultural publishing, and continuing through the golden age of American horticulture in the decades following the Civil War.

The horticultural collections at the University of Delaware Library continue to grow through gift, purchase and exchange. Although European materials that fit in with earlier acquisitions are still added, the direction of future growth has been shaped by the van Ravenswaay collection. Particular emphasis is placed on filling in American seed catalog, monographic and serial holdings, adding horticultural ephemera and nursery plate books. Among outstanding recent acquisitions are A Guide to the Paris Nursery, an unrecorded catalog compiled and privately printed by Julius Faxon, "Nurseryman," in Elmwood, now part of West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1845; and a group of watercolor paintings of fruits and vegetables by various artists for the Stecher-Traung Lithographic Corporation, Rochester, New York, ca. 1930, as illustrations for chromolithographic seed packets.

Suitable for Cultivation, on view in the Special Collections Exhibition Gallery June 11-September 15, 1990, marks a milestone in cataloging the horticultural collections at the University of Delaware. All monographic and most serial titles have been cataloged and input into OCLC, and local finding aids now provide access to material awaiting complete cataloging. In order to serve as a guide to the collection, the exhibition and catalog have been organized into topical sections devoted to specific aspects of practical horticulture and gardening--fruits and vegetables, flowers, and the seed and nursery trade--and to landscape architecture. Concluding sections on agriculture and the botanical sciences place the horticultural collections at the University of Delaware Library in their broader disciplinary context. Each section is prefaced by an introductory scope note.

The Unidel History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Collection covers every aspect of the field, from agriculture through floriculture, from art historical subjects such as landscape architecture and park design to more scientific ones, for example agricultural chemistry. As the catalog reveals, the collection contains early herbals and botanic works; eighteenth-century British agricultural treatises, eighteenth and early nineteenth century gardening dictionaries and manuals; British, French and German landscape works. However, despite the equal emphasis on horticulture and landscape architecture in the collection's title, following the van Ravenswaay collection the balance shifted decidedly in the direction of American imprints and practical and ornamental horticulture.

Scholars using the Unidel History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Collection also draws on a rich context of related collections at the University of Delaware Library and neighboring institutions. The Agriculture Library holds current scholarly monographs, technical publications and serials covering agricultural sciences and economics, including botany and ornamental horticulture, entomology, and plant pathology; historical, nonrare materials in these fields are maintained in the Morris Library. The Morris Library maintains excellent collections of current scholarly works in landscape architecture and the history of gardens. Longwood Gardens maintains strong, current botany and horticultural collections, and has historic material relating to botanical art as used for taxonomy, including a complete run of Curtis's Botanical Magazine from its first issue in 1787.

The Winterthur Library contains the personal horticultural library of Henry Francis du Pont, a dedicated horticulturalist. The collection is strong in works relating to nineteenth- and twentieth-century American landscape theory and design and its English and Continental background. Some spectacular flower books, for example Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora, are also present. The Hagley Museum and Library holds some material relating to the commercial aspects of horticulture, including some seed and nursery catalogs and works on the cultivation of fruit and flowers for profit.

The lines of scholarly inquiry supported by the Unidel History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Collection at the University of Delaware Library are broadly based as well as interdisciplinary. In addition to the history of specific horticultural subjects covered in the monographic and periodical literature, many other themes can be studied because of the collection's depth. This is particularly true of topics relating to the history of printing and publishing. Printing contributed to the development of horticultural science by making possible the duplication and dissemination of identical images for study and comparison. Early botanical woodcuts were soon supplanted by engravings and etchings, which were capable of far greater detail. The great strength of the Unidel History of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century works enables one to trace processes used to depict or reproduce illustrations of fruits and flowers over the last two centuries, during which traditional graphic techniques of etching and engraving were replaced by lithography, wood engraving, chromolithography, and finally photomechanical processes.

The collection also constitutes an archive of American horticultural publishing reflecting enormous growth and change in American publishing during the nineteenth century. New printing technologies, new modes of book distribution and an expanded readership led to the development of the modern publisher as entrepreneur. This can be traced in the collection through horticultural imprints that illustrate the growth of specialized or "niche" publishing, for example Orange Judd. Judd began his career editing The American Agriculturist, took over the firm founded by Charles Saxton in 1836 to sell and publish books on agriculture and gardening and built it into a highly successful publishing house, specializing in treatises and manuals on every aspect of horticulture, agriculture and rural life. Also of interest are the imprints of seed and nursery companies that began issuing their own catalogs and promotional materials and branched out into substantial serial and monographic publishing ventures. The nineteenth-century binding trade can be surveyed in the development of cloth and gold-stamped cover design, and the variant cloths used to bind different parts of an edition.
Perspectives on American social, cultural, and economic history are afforded by the horticultural collections at the University of Delaware Library. Crosscultural contact played a central role in American horticultural life--seeds and plants were imported from and sent back to Europe beginning in the eighteenth century. Travel literature is an important source of horticultural information. Westward expansion and growing independence of Americans from European influence is evident in the establishment of seed companies in new towns and the emphasis on cultivation of American varieties of fruits and vegetables. A national seed business, dependent on mass advertising, a postal system and a transportation network of canals and railroads, fed this trend.

As science and industry expanded throughout the nineteenth century, agricultural societies were formed to develop and disseminate information about new methods and new machines. The collection contains reports and journals issued by agricultural societies that contributed to the improvement of agricultural practices in every region of the country. During this same period, the increasing affluence and leisure of Americans made horticulture less of a necessity and more of a pursuit for pleasure and instruction. Attitudes toward child-rearing and morality are reflected in horticultural works, as are concepts of beauty, the proper role of women, and the development of parks within growing cities. By the beginning of the twentieth century, American horticultural publications had become far more specialized and fragmented along lines familiar to us today, with journals publishing the results of scientific investigations distinct from those issued by trade groups for commercial growers and others directed at avocational gardeners.

The University of Delaware Library is fortunate to have these superb horticultural holdings to support the research and teaching of social, cultural, scientific, economic and art historians. This region has very close historical ties to American horticultural developments. Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, who purchased the estate on the Brandywine for his powder mills (now the site of Hagley Museum and Library), was very interested in horticultural and agricultural practices. He was receiving fruit trees from France as early as 1804, and sent back boxes of seeds and nuts. Philadelphia, home of John and William Bartram and David Landreth, was an early center for botanic gardens and the commercial seed business; and Chester County, home of William Darlington, was also famous for its botanic gardens. In the present, the University of Delaware Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture Administration, the University of Delaware Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, and the University of Delaware Hagley Program in the History of Industrial America continue to provide a strong institutional context.

The richness of the horticultural holdings at the University of Delaware Library makes them far more than a local resource. The purpose of Suitable for Cultivation: Horticultural Collections at the University of Delaware Library is to serve as a guide to the collections, illustrating their depth and broad scholarly potential.

Alice Schreyer
Assistant Director of Libraries
for Special Collections

Exhibit Home | Gardening | Fruit | Flowers | Nursery Trade | Landscape | Agriculture | Botany

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Last modified: 12/21/10

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