Botany and Agriculture in the Natural History of New York

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

Among the many books about natural history in the Library’s collections are 22 volumes of the Natural History of New York. In a blog post from 2017, NYAM archivist Rebecca Pou took a close look at one volume from the set, the Birds of New York. In her blog post you can read about the history and scope of this ambitious project to document the natural and geological history of the state of New York, the first published volumes of which appeared in 1842; learn more about the production of Part I, the volumes devoted to zoology; and see some of the hand-colored lithographs of birds, made from drawings by artist J. W. Hill. This current post takes a deeper look at the two botanical volumes and the two volumes from Part V, Agriculture, that document the many fruits grown in the state.

After all but one of the zoology series had appeared, Part II of the survey was published in 1843: two volumes about the flora of the state of New York, with 161 plates. John Torrey (1796–1873) authored these two books. Torrey first developed an interest in botany as a teenager, when his father became the fiscal agent for Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village. Torrey befriended the incarcerated Amos Eaton (1776–1842), who later became a notable natural historian and educator but was then serving time in the prison for illegal land speculation. It was Eaton who introduced him to the study of botany. By 1815, Torrey was pursuing a medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, from which he graduated in 1818. He briefly practiced medicine before shifting his interests to natural history, teaching chemistry, minerology, and botany at several institutions, including the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), and Columbia. He became a founding member of the Lyceum of Natural History in 1817, before he had even graduated from medical school, and devoted much of his leisure time to botanical study.

John Torrey (1796–1873),
from the NYAM collections

By the time he began work compiling the Flora of the State of New-York in the 1830s, Torrey had published several other botanical volumes, collaborating with many of the noted botanists of his day. In the preface to the first volume, Torrey celebrates the botanical diversity of the state, claiming that “our Flora embraces nearly as many species as the whole of New-England.” He divided the state into four regions: the Atlantic; the Hudson Valley; the Western Region; and the Northern Region. About 1,450 species of flowering plants are represented in the two volumes, along with about 250 woody plants, and more than 150 non-native plants introduced mainly from Europe. Torrey admits that there are many others that he had no time to describe, including ferns and fungi. About 150 of the plants described in the Flora were used for medicinal purposes (preface, p. vii).

Torrey acknowledges the generosity of many botanist friends who contributed specimens and descriptions from around the state. And he notes that the publication was slowed because it took over two and a half years to find satisfactory illustrators. His original plan also called for many more illustrations than it was ultimately realistic to include. The primary creators of the drawings were two female artists, Agnes Mitchell and Elizabeth Pooley, with some additional drawings by Frederick J. Swinton. Torrey originally hoped the illustrations could be reproduced using engraving, but as happened with the zoology volumes in Part I, the expense proved to be too great (preface, p. ix), and lithography was used instead. George Endicott, the lithographer for the zoology volumes, worked on these two volumes as well. While Endicott’s name appears on every plate, no artists’ names do. All the plates are beautifully hand-colored, but the colorist is similarly uncredited.

American Globe Flower
Giant St. John’s Wort

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Black Snakeroot
Green flowered Milkweed

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Part V of the Natural History of New York, published between 1846 and 1854, describes the geology of the state, including its soil, rocks, and waters. Food crops like vegetables and grains or cereals appear in this part’s second volume, which analyzes the soil around the state, and volumes III and IV of this series, from 1851, are completely devoted to fruit production, with the descriptive text in volume III and a companion atlas of 95 hand-colored illustrations forming volume IV. The final volume of the series is a survey of insects, mainly those that cause the most damage to crops.

Ebenezer Emmons (1799–1863) took on the task of assembling these volumes. From childhood Emmons had been fascinated by geology, minerology, and natural history. He went to Williams College, where, like Torrey, he was influenced by Amos Eaton, who by then was on the faculty. He continued his education at the Rensselaer School, where he earned a graduate degree in geology in 1826. He also pursued a medical degree from the Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He taught chemistry, geology, and mineralogy at several colleges, including Williams, and maintained an active medical practice on the side.

Ebenezer Emmons (1799–1863), frontispiece image from Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly 48:21 (January 1896)

Emmons was hired to work on the natural history survey because of his geological knowledge, but he was responsible for the practical texts about cultivation as well, and he acknowledged the rapid pace of change in agricultural science. He worried that his attempts to create a better system of classification for fruit had already been surpassed by those with more expertise, and that the illustrations did not represent the fruit as well as he had hoped. Some are engravings, while others are lithographs, and Emmons made all the original drawings himself.

The Maiden’s Blush, in an engraved image
Several varieties of apples, including Bastard Seek No Further, Lafayette Red, and Prince’s Russet, reproduced by lithography

When comparing the engraved images with the lithographs, one can readily see why the authors of the natural history volumes wanted all the reproductions to be engravings, as they convey a richness of detail and subtlety that lithography just cannot match, although the lithographs are beautiful as well.

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An engraved image of the Beurre D’Amalise pear
Lithographed images of the Frederic de Wurtemburg and Easter Beurre pear varieties

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The zoological, botanical, and agricultural volumes from the Natural History of New York are the featured in a Library virtual visit. There you can see many more images, learn more about the New York State natural history survey, and discover how the NYAM Library came to own its copies of these marvelous volumes.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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