In this series of posts (1,2), I’m exploring the history of individuals who were not professional botanists, but were still passionate about plants, studying and collecting them while pursuing other careers. I’ve already discussed clergy and philosophers, now I’m going to delve into entrepreneurial realms. Today’s business moguls rarely keep herbaria; they are more likely to collect art or cars or golf trophies, but in the 19th century the culture was very different. One way of displaying wealth, without being too ostentatious about it, was by gardening and learning about plants: a sophisticated man or woman knew their botany. And what better way to discover more about plants than by collecting them, not only in the garden but between sheets of paper. Some went out and did their own collecting, others paid to have it done for them.
Henry Shaw was an entrepreneur in the early days of St. Louis’s development as a hub on the Mississippi River. Interested in plants and gardening, he sought advice from William Jackson Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about finding someone to help him develop a public garden in St. Louis. Hooker replied that the right person for the job was living close by. George Engelmann was a German physician with a great knowledge of plants who had emigrated to St. Louis years before and developed a network of collectors who sent plants not only to him but to his friends, John Torrey, and Asa Gray.
Hooker’s matchmaking worked well. Engelmann helped Shaw create what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden and a botanical research center as well. There were greenhouses built for growing delicate plants as well as research space and even a museum, which has recently been restored to its former glory (see earlier post). Shaw did not collect specimens, though he did make two album herbaria as gifts for the daughters of neighbors. Engelmann, however, amassed a large collection including specimens received from his plant hunters. At Shaw’s behest, he also went to Europe and bought the 60,000-specimen collection of Johann Jakob Bernhardi that was rich in American, African, and Asia plants. In addition, Engelmann bought books for what has become one of the finest botanical libraries in the world (Grove, 2005).
Wealthy Europeans also built significant herbaria. The French banker Jules Delessert’s mother had been sent a herbarium by Jean-Jacques Rousseau so she could instruct her daughter in botany (see last post). History doesn’t record much about her daughter’s interest, but her son read the letters and became a great collector, acquiring 300,000 specimens for which he hired curators. He also amassed a large library with not only reference works but manuscripts and botanical art. After his death, his herbarium went to the Geneva Botanical Garden and his library to the Institut de France in Paris (Stafleu, 1970).
In Britain, a number of 19th-century business administrators devoted as much attention to their herbaria as to their jobs. Charles Bailey worked for a shipping company that had links around the world while James Cosmo Melvill was secretary of the East India Company, another post that would have put him in contact with collectors. These men were friends and decided early on that their activities shouldn’t be in conflict, since they intended to donate their specimens to the Manchester Museum, where these collections still reside. Bailey focused on the British Isles, Europe, and Africa, and Melvill took on the rest of the world. Bailey’s collections eventually amounted to over 300,000 items, and Melvill’s, not surprisingly, was of comparable size.
These collections, along with that of Leopold Hartley Grindon, who specialized in cultivated plants, formed the foundation of the Manchester herbarium, which is housed in the newly renovated and still lovely museum attic. Many of the natural history museums of the 19th century have such collections that have now become important documents not only of environmental change, but also of the culture of the times. I think Grindon’s collection is particularly interesting because he created what I would call extended specimens, with notes, illustrations, and articles (see image above). Many of these comprise a number of sheets to accommodate all the explanatory material.
I should note before I end this post, that it wasn’t just the rich who worked seriously at plant collecting in the 19th century. Particularly in Britain, there were many in the working classes who used their leisure to collect, often getting together afterwards at a pub or tea room to share specimens and information (Shteir, 1996). These individuals frequently sent specimens to wealthy collectors in exchange for information and sometimes for payment; the terms of these relationships varied, but they were usually based on mutual respect and love of plants (Secord, 1994a,b).
Present-day attitudes to the botanical world have obviously changed, but the millions of photos and information shared on websites like iNaturalist suggest that there is a viable community of plant lovers today. Their motives may have changed, with conservation and biodiversity now the focus, but the same passion is still there, and that’s a wonderful thing. They may be less likely to physically collect plants, but many are beginning to appreciate the vast collections now available to them online.
Grove, C. (2005). Henry Shaw’s Victorian Landscapes: The Missouri Botanical Garden and Grove Park. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Secord, A. (1994). Corresponding Interests: Artisans and Gentlemen in Nineteenth-Century Natural History. The British Journal for the History of Science, 27(4), 383–408.
Secord, A. (1994). Science in the Pub: Artisan Botanists in Early Nineteenth-Century Lancashire. History of Science, 32, 269–315.
Shteir, A. (1996). Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760 to 1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Stafleu, F. A. (1970). Benjamin Delessert and Antoine Lasegue. Taxon, 19, 920–938.