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Source of the images used on USPS “Botanical Art” stamps

On January 29, 2016, the United States Postal Service issued "Botanical Art" stamps, depicting highly-idealized paintings of flowers taken from nursery catalogs of over a hundred years ago. These are not only beautiful but fascinating, in that they indicate the aesthetics of the day — what the ideal of perfection was thought to be.

booklet-image

I had an idea for a series of first day covers, but the information from the USPS was woefully incomplete:

Depicted on the stamps, top row from left: corn lilies, tulips, stocks, roses and petunias.
Pictured bottom row from left: tulips, dahlias, japanese Iris, tulips and daffodils and jonquils.

Those vernacular names do not even map directly to species, let alone provide the source of the images. I read through the art credits for the stamps, however, and saw that they were taken from nursery catalogs held by the Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden, which boasts one of the largest collection of such catalogs in the country.

So, I sent the library an email, asking if they could help me identify the plants. But the Public Services Librarian did far more than that. She sent me a spreadsheet with the following columns:

  1. The nursery that issued the catalog
  2. The title of the publication
  3. The year (and season, if applicable) of the catalog from which the stamp images were taken
  4. The name given for the flower in the catalog
  5. And, for each, either one or two links: a digitized copy of the catalog in the archives of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, or a digitized copy in the archives of the Mertz Library!

Oh, and just to go entirely above-and-beyond, the spreadsheet rows were arranged in the order the stamps appear in the booklet. Each pair of images below shows a stamp opposite its catalog illustration, and the links will take you to a digitized copy of the catalog from which the stamp image was taken.

botanical-art-stamp-pair-1_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: John Lewis Childs
Title: Catalogue of Bulbs and Plants
Issue: Fall 1891
Flowers pictured: ixias
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/3226

botanical-art-stamp-pair-2_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: John Lewis Childs
Title: Childs' Fall Catalogue of Bulbs, Plants & Seeds
Issue: 1897
Flowers pictured: tulips
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/44290234
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/3290

botanical-art-stamp-pair-3_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Garden Book : Seventy-Fourth Annual Edition 1912
Issue: 1912
Flowers pictured: gilliflowers
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42695545
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/13108

botanical-art-stamp-pair-4_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's 72nd Annual Edition Garden Book : 1910.
Issue: 1910
Flowers pictured: roses
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/15407

botanical-art-stamp-pair-5_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Garden Calendar : 1898
Issue: 1898
Flowers pictured: fringed petunias
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/43827887

botanical-art-stamp-pair-6_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Autumn Catalogue 1907
Issue: 1907
Flowers pictured: tulips
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42720886

botanical-art-stamp-pair-7_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Farquhar, R. & J. Company
Title: Farquhar's 1910 Garden Annual
Issue: Spring 1910
Flowers pictured: dahlias
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42231623
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/26972

botanical-art-stamp-pair-8_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Garden Book : Seventy-Fourth Annual Edition 1912
Issue: 1912
Flowers pictured: Japanese irises
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42695717
http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/13279

botanical-art-stamp-pair-9_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Autumn 1901 Catalogue
Issue: 1901
Flowers pictured: tulips
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42696550

botanical-art-stamp-pair-10_collectpostmarks_com

Nursery: Dreer
Title: Dreer's Autumn Catalogue : 1899 Bulbs, Plants, Seeds, etc.
Issue: 1899
Flowers pictured: narcissus
http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42696608

With this information, I was able to design my cachets:

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3 Responses to Source of the images used on USPS “Botanical Art” stamps

  1. Lorena says:

    They are beautiful! Gotta love librarians .

  2. R.L.Mussi says:

    Great news.
    Kudos to the librarians and researchers.
    Has anyone been able to pinpoint the exact common names and scientific names for all of the depicted flower species.
    Especially those tulip color variations that are caused by a tulip virus?
    Not too much available in libraries in NYC, NY.

  3. Joshua McGee says:

    Has anyone been able to pinpoint the exact common names and scientific names for all of the depicted flower species.

    No, except to say that I did ask the librarian on my initial inquiry, and the response was "For some of the stamps, we unfortunately do not have exact species or cultivars."

    One thing to perhaps keep in mind is that these were highly-idealized images used for marketing purposes, and may not be representative of what a gardener's results would have been. The precise cultivars may forever remain elusive precisely because these are, essentially, artists' interpretations of the flowers. But the links in the post will take you to full copies of the nursery catalogs, and you may find what you are looking for by scouring the catalogs for more information.

    Hope this helps.

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