Collections: Lists and Catalogues

A portion of Hans Sloane’s vegetable substances collection, Natural History Museum, London

In writing of Hans Sloane, the great collector of plant specimens and so much more, all forming the foundations of the British Museum, James Delbourgo (2017) argues that Sloane’s greatest legacy as a writer was not his two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, significant though it was, but rather the catalogues he produced for various parts of his collections and the labels he handwrote for so many of its items, including herbarium specimens.  Lists and labels may not seem exciting, but think of all the time, money, and volunteers’ hours that have been expended in the 21st century in digitally transcribing herbarium labels.  And what is a spreadsheet but a glorified list, though at times a very sophisticated one?

Labels and catalogues are what make collections valuable and useable.  A specimen without a label is usually of little if any worth, and unless there is some clue to how a room of specimens is ordered, chaos reigns.  The order may be alphabetical by family, according to the latest Angiosperm Phylogeny Group report (APG IV), or some other system.  In a sense, digital portals such as iDigBio’s or GBIF’s are catalogues on a massive scale and would probably stun Sloane as he thought about all the hours he’d spent inputting data into his catalogues, which were essentially ledger books.

There are no catalogues for Sloane’s herbarium of 265 volumes and 120,000 specimens.  He had an alternate reference system based on the botanist John Ray’s compendium of plants, Historia Plantarum, completed in 1704.  In it, Sloane and his curators noted next to a species entry the volume and page where the specimen of that plant could be found and added species that weren’t described in the text (Dandy, 1958).  Botanists still use this reference to locate specimens.  A copy of Sloane’s two volumes on Jamaica was similarly annotated.  The latter were considered so significant that the names were updated by later botanists, including Daniel Solander who added the names from Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum to keep the reference relevant (Rose, 2018).  When Joseph Banks invited him to join Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world voyage, Solander was also doing something similar for other Sloane specimens, often attaching paper slips with updated names.

Sloane also had a  “Vegetable Substances” collection with 12,000 small, sealed boxes filled with seeds, fruits, and resins, some of medicinal value.  Such a collection is much rarer than the herbarium.  There are written references to botanist’s sharing seeds and other plant materials, but most have not survived.  Analyzing Sloane’s collection, Victoria Pickering (2016) found that about two-thirds of it is intact along with three catalogues, which for most items list who sent the material and what it was used for.  Without the catalogues, determining what was in the boxes would be guesswork at best and there would also be no way to track provenance.  The boxes are just marked with a number, usually corresponding to a catalogue entry.  For example, Pickering was able to attribute 215 items to Mark Catesby, and 160 to James Petiver, who would be receiving them from his numerous contacts.

Sloane’s boxes provide a picture of what was considered valuable, including medicinal substances and seeds.  For collectors like James Cunninghame and Engelbert Kaempfer, the material in the boxes was sent in addition to their specimens.  The seeds may have been viable when they arrived, with some likely given to gardeners of Sloane’s acquaintance who eagerly attempted to grow new finds.  To keep track of things like seeds botanists shared lists of various kinds from the beginning of early modern botany.  Each year, Luca Ghini sent a seed list of what he had collected at the Botanical Garden of Pisa, and his correspondents could, in turn, send lists of those they would like to receive.  The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank grew out of a similar, but much more elaborate seed saving program at Kew.  Lists or catalogues were also common among garden owners as a way to display their prowess in obtaining and cultivating rare and exotic species.  At times these were simply lists of plant names, but sometimes descriptions were included.  Some were publications with illustrations.  That is essentially what Linnaeus’s book on George Clifford’s garden at Hartekamp is.  The illustrations were done by none other than the great botanical artist Georg Ehret.

Another elaborate catalogue, Hortus Elthamensis, was created by Johann Dillenius for James Sherard to describe his garden at Eltham.  The book was 437 pages long and published in two large-format volumes.  Dillenius drew the illustrations of 417 plants on 324 plates, all of which he also engraved.  This was definitely an impressive way to present a rich man’s garden.  James Sherard was the brother of botanist William Sherard of Oxford University.  When William died, he left money for a professorship in botany and arranged for the position to go to Dillenius, who had already come to Oxford from Germany.  Dillenius ends the preface by mentioning his “friend and patron” William Sherard, and this catalogue is definitely a tribute to both brothers.  It also indicates how broad the definition of “catalogue” can be to encompass both a simple list or pamphlet and a two-volume opus.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pickering, V. R. M. (2016). Putting Nature into a Box: Hans Sloane’s “Vegetable Substances” Collection. London: University of London.

Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.