Drawings and paintings had long been used to identify botanical specimens, including fruits. During the early 19th century in Britain and France, heightened attention was given to the practice of illustration in response to the proliferation of different names for the same fruits. An exquisite exemplar of the genre was the artist William Hooker’s Pomona Londinensis, the first volume of which was published in London in 1818. But beautiful as they were, pictorial renditions such as Hooker’s did not lend themselves to the widespread identification of fruits, even in small markets, let alone the steadily enlarging ones of the United States. Hooker’s illustrations were hand-painted. Such paintings, or watercolored lithographs or etchings, were laborious and expensive to produce and limited in number.
But in the late 1830s, William Sharp, an English painter, drawing teacher and lithographer, immigrated to Boston with a printing technology that had been devised in Europe. It promised to enable the production of multiple-colored pictures. Called chromolithography, it involved impressing different colors on the same drawing in as many as 15 successive printings.
Charles Hovey enlisted Sharp to produce the colored plates in Fruits of America, declaring that his “principal object” in publishing the work was to “reduce the chaos of names to something like order.” Together, the two volumes included 96 colored plates, each handsomely depicting a different fruit with its stem and leaves. Hovey held that Sharp’s plates showed that the “art of chromo-lithography produces a far more beautiful and correct representation than that of the ordinary lithograph, washed in color, in the usual way. Indeed, the plates have the richness of actual paintings, which could not be executed for ten times the value of a single copy.”
Not everyone agreed. One critic said that fruit chromolithographs lacked “that fidelity to nature, and delicacy of tint, which characterize the best English and French coloured plates, done by hand.” Some of the illustrations did appear metallic in tone or fuzzy, which was hardly surprising. Chromolithography was a complex, demanding process, an art in and of itself. It required a sophisticated understanding of color, the inventive use of inks and perfect registration of the stone with the print in each successive impression.
The editors of the Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, who had tried chromolithographs and been disappointed, resorted to a prior technique—black-and-white lithographs that were then watercolored by hand. The editors engaged an artist named Joseph Prestele, a German immigrant from Bavaria who had been a staff artist at the Royal Botanical Garden in Munich. He had been making a name for himself in the United States as a botanical illustrator of great clarity, accuracy and minuteness of detail. Prestele produced four plates for the 1848 volume of the Transactions, and observers greeted his efforts with enthusiasm, celebrating them as far superior to Sharp’s chromolithographs.
Artists like Prestele did well in the commercial sector among nurserymen eager to advertise their fruit varieties, original or otherwise. But it was only the large firms that could afford to regularly publish catalogs with hand-colored plates.
The smaller firms, which were legion, relied on peddler’s handbooks such as The Colored Fruit Book for the Use of Nurserymen, published in 1859 by Dellon Marcus Dewey, of Rochester, New York. It included 70 colored prints, which Dewey advertised had been meticulously drawn and colored from nature, saying their purpose was to “place before the purchaser of Fruit Trees, as faithful a representation of the Fruit as is possible to make, by the process adopted.” Deluxe editions of Dewey’s plate books, edged in gilt and bound in morocco leather, served as prizes at horticultural fairs and as parlor table books. Dewey produced the books in quantity by employing some 30 people, including several capable German, English and American artists. He also published the Tree Agents’ Private Guide, which advised salesmen to impress customers that they were God-fearing, upright and moral.
Still, colored illustrations could not by themselves protect an innovator’s intellectual property. Luther Burbank, the famed creator of fruits in Santa Rosa, California, fulminated that he had “been robbed and swindled out of my best work by name thieves, plant thieves and in various ways too well known to the originator.”
What to do? In 1891 some fruit men called for the creation of a national register of plants under the Department of Agriculture. The originator would send the department a sample, a description and perhaps an illustration of his innovation, and the department would issue a certificate, a type of trademark ensuring him inviolable rights in his creation. No such formal registration system was established, but a de facto version had been created in 1886, when the agency organized a division of pomology. It established a catalog of fruits and attempted to deal with the problem of nomenclature by hiring artists to paint watercolor illustrations of novel fruits received from around the country. The first such artist was William H. Prestele, one of Joseph Prestele’s sons. He produced paintings marked by naturalness and grace as well as by painstaking attention to botanical detail, usually including the interior of the fruit and its twigs and leaves.
By the late 1930s, when the illustration program ended, the division had employed or used some 65 artists, at least 22 of whom were women. They produced some 7,700 watercolors of diverse fruits, including apples, blackberries and raspberries, currants and gooseberries, pears, quince, citrus, peaches, plums and strawberries.