The third Resident Scholar to complete a term working with our collections this year definitely wins the longest-traveled award: Dr. Graciela de Souza Oliver is Professor of Science and Technology at the Universidade Federal do ABC in Santo André, Brazil, where her research focus is the institutionalization of science, especially agricultural science.
In furthering her primary research agenda, Dr. Oliver spent one month working with the Nursery and Seed Trade Catalogues Collection in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Her particular goal was to reach a greater understanding of the relationship between amateurs and science professionals between the years 1860-1940, as reflected by the visual and textual elements documented in the seed catalogs collection. As she wrote in her project proposal
The catalogues embraced different interests and communities including lovers of nature, amateur horticulturists, collectors, entrepreneurs, agricultural journals and editors, but also botanists and a variety of scientific and technological institutions. The bibliography for the history of sciences and popularization of science suggests that we might expect an increasing presence of science elements by the second half of the nineteenth century in periodicals, manuals, [and] catalogues…with examples, images and publicity of scientific methods, techniques, procedures, equipment and technological machinery. In addition, horticulture was becoming a scientific discipline within agricultural colleges at the turn of the twentieth century while the selling and buying of plants and seeds would become even more asserted by science specialists of the time. Presuming that these science elements can be seen in the seed catalogues it is possible to analyze the material as a type of science popularization publishing.
As Dr. Oliver soon discovered, OSU Libraries’ seed catalogues collection is rather vast, consisting of over 2,200 items dating from 1832-1966, with the bulk falling into Dr. Oliver’s specified time range. (An exhibit featuring many of the collection’s highlights is available here.) Partly because of this, Dr. Oliver decided to narrow her focus onto chrysanthemums. Choosing chrysanthemums was especially useful because a manageable subset of the collection deals exclusively with the genus, but the subset was still large enough to allow for Dr. Oliver to test her idea that “the circulation of natural objects influences the circulation of scientific knowledge and practices.”
In her initial survey of the material, Dr. Oliver found that, in the late 19th century, large European and stateside companies initially imported a substantial volume of chrysanthemum varietals from Chinese and Japanese producers before later expanding their warehouses and selling their own stocks, seedlings and new varieties. By the end of the century, the market for chrysanthemums had grown such that several medium- and small-sized companies emerged, sometimes offering specialized varieties unique to them.
Companies of all sizes naturally needed to advertise their product, and this is where Dr. Oliver’s close examination of the seed catalogs began to show some patterns. For one, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it appears that companies increasingly began to market their products to a new cadre of consumers called “botanical amateurs” – individuals who sought to possess multiple or rare varietals and to possibly win an exhibition someday. Simultaneously, horticulture, once considered a pervasively amateur pursuit, gradually became more of a professional enterprise as firms increasingly sought out horticulturists’ expertise in plant genetics.
Dr. Oliver took hundreds of photographs during her time in Corvallis and, having now returned to Brazil, will continue sifting through the data and drawing conclusions. For us, it is rewarding to know that the Resident Scholar Program has assumed such an international posture, and that the collections held within our facility are greatly benefiting the work of a historian who is located many thousands of miles away.
For more on the Resident Scholar Program, including profiles of all past award recipients, see this link.