Why were these beautiful watercolours of imperfect fruit so important?

In 1886, researchers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Division of Pomology agreed that there was a need to document the many varieties of fruit and nuts found within the nation’s borders. They hired 21 artists to produce detailed illustrations of these specimens, of which more than 7,000 are preserved today in the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, based at the Agricultural Research Service’s library in Beltsville, Maryland.

It was an extraordinarily impressive undertaking. At the time, the illustrations were invaluable for USDA publications and reports which were distributed to farmers, horticulturists, breeders and botanists across the US to help them identify different species and their properties. Today they are considered hugely significant records for understanding the history of fruit growing in the USA; some specimens in the collection no longer exist.

James Marion Shull was one of the illustrators. According to the Journal of Botanical History, he worked with the US Bureau of Plant Industry between 1909 and 1942, first as an illustrator and then as a botanist. The USDA has 777 illustrations credited to him, and he specialised in fruit disease. As a result, many of his contributions are of fruit with a multitude of deformities.

Naturally, I was most interested in such images that depicted spoiled or wonky fruit. Despite being objectively “ugly”, these images were just as meticulously and beautifully painted as their “perfect” counterparts. I asked the USDA why there were so many illustrations of these kinds of fruits. A Special Collections Librarian was kind enough to find out.

“Although beautiful, the illustrations were not originally created for aesthetic purposes, and their highest priority was to be scientifically accurate,” she explained. “The artists were not in the field; the specimens came to the Division of Pomology where the artists illustrated them. If blemishes were on the specimen, they were included in the paintings. In addition to identifying and documenting the specimens, the Division of Pomology wanted to document any type of defect on the specimen to help growers identify problems.”

Rohini Chaki’s image compilation of spoiled fruit – lemons and cherimoya by Deborah G. Passmore, and a pineapple by James Marion Shull. From USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

The illustrations with blemishes, deformities, mould and bruising were therefore just as important, if not more, for the intended audience of the Division of Pomology. As this excellent article by Rohini Chaki highlights, it was important to document the damaged fruit as well as the perfect specimen, in order to record the effects of post-harvest storage to inform farmers about perishability. The database was primarily created for research and practical purposes, and images of rotten fruit tells us a lot about the species that were so important to American growers.

Despite the invention of the Kodak photo film in 1888, the USDA preferred their precious collection to be painted by their specialists until 1942. Not all of their illustrations made it to the library; some are scattered across the US, for example in the Smithsonian and other university libraries. But the main database can be perused on the USDA website, and there is even a Twitter bot that posts a random illustration every few hours.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

%d bloggers like this: