Specimen Labels: Bartram and Petre


John Bartram’s specimen of Acer pensylvanicum, in the Petre Herbarium at the Sutro Library, San Francisco State University

During the 18th and 19th centuries when colonial powers were scouring the world for resources to send back home, plants were important targets of their efforts as valuable sources of wealth in terms of foods, garden plants, medicines, and other products. By this time botany had developed significantly as a discipline, and its practitioners were eager to make their mark by identifying as many new genera and species as possible. Since it was difficult to transport live plants, and even seeds would often fail to survive a long sea voyage—or fail to germinate even if they did—pressed specimens were frequently the first sources of information to reach Europe. While collectors and nurserymen like John Bartram in Philadelphia sent seeds and cuttings to Hans Sloane and his associates such as Peter Collinson and Lord Robert Petre, specimens were also a significant element of the interaction. Bartram could much more easily find single specimens of rare plants than gather seeds for plants he seldom encountered.

At the Sutro Library in San Francisco, there is a 16-volume herbarium owned by Petre with Bartram specimens in four of them (Schuyler & Newbold, 1987). Petre, an ardent horticulturalist, employed a botanist to carefully mount and label his specimens. These were prepared in the 1730s and 1740s, before Linnaeus had introduced binomial nomenclature, so the names are often six or seven words long, which suggests why reform was needed: no one could keep track of many names that extensive. Besides the names, some of the Bartram specimens also have notes on scraps of brown paper describing where he found the plant or something of its characteristics. These are informal messages to help his patron visualize what he saw or to give a sense of the plant in situ. For example Bartram writes of Pluchea ordorata or salt marsh fleabane: “This I gathered in a pond as I came from Albany,” and for Saxifraga virginiensis, a saxifrage: “This is one of our first spring flowers.” In the case of Comptonia perigrina or sweetfern, its medicinal value is noted: “This we call sweet fern from its similitude to that plant The root is a wonderful astringent for stoping (sic) of blood.” These personal messages are a reminder of the lives and minds behind the specimens, both on the collecting and receiving ends: Bartram wrote the notes because he knew Petre would be interested in reading them. There are many examples of such collections that can be of interest not just to botanists but to cultural historians because they hint at what was important to the literate classes of the time. They also are significant documents of the age of discovery, and it is then that geography begins to become more important in labeling. During the Renaissance learning about the plant itself and its medical uses was key; later where in the world a plant grew became crucial. Biogeography slowly developed, particularly with the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, who with Aimé Bonpland collected over 60,000 specimens on they explorations in the Americas (Lack, 2009).

The Bartram/Petre exchange suggests that horticulture had become an important driver for botanical exploration and research. Still, botany’s link with medicine remained strong, as many botanists well into the 19th century had found the science while studying medicine. By the mid-19th century, botanical research was being done not only in universities but in botanic gardens. With this institutionalization of the discipline and its professionalization came a standardization of methods, including those of the herbarium. Along with the name of the species, there were often the name of the collector as well as the date and the place of collection. Many collectors used labels printed with their name and sometimes the region of the collection, but the rest of the information was added in longhand, and it varied in detail. Sometimes the exact date was given, sometimes month and year, or just the year. The place of collection could be simply the name of a town or even a county, or perhaps that the plant was found along a road or by a lake. For the early expeditions in the western United States, collectors were using crude maps and were in areas that were previously unexplored, so there was good reason for the nebulous location information. However, I have also seen specimens from the late-19th century that read simply “New York City.”  In the next post, I will examine what became standard practice by the beginning of the 20th century.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.
Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.