Heirloom Fruits of America: Selections from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Heirloom Fruits of America: Selections from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection
No author; introduction by Daniel J. Kevles

Heyday, Berkeley, CA, 2020
128 pp., illus. 100 col. Trade, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1-59714-506-0.

Reviewed by
Ellen K. Levy
December 2020

Heirloom Fruits of America announces its topic, the perfection of a variety of fruits, through immediate aesthetic appeal. Like its subject, this small, delicately colored, and thoughtfully designed book asks to be held, savored, and digested. Its hand-held scale enables it to occupy the cusp between a carefully crafted artist’s book and a factual archive of botanical illustration. In his introduction, historian Daniel Kevles relays some of the social and cultural history of the production, documentation, and reception of heirloom fruits in the U.S. that led to the creation of a Division of Pomology in the Department of Agriculture via the recruitment of art. Kevles relays how chromolithography proved critical to the production of colored plates that could compete in a national market. In the recounting, the book and its contents become works of connoisseurship, practicality, identity, and imagination.

In essence, this book is a boundary object. As described by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, boundary objects inhabit multiple communities of practice, enabling them “to travel across borders and maintain some sort of constant identity.” [1] The book encapsulates a host of themes and philosophies involving the merger of early industrialization and the art of growing fruit. The communities traversed include worlds of art and commerce. Kevles articulates how depiction of the fruits enacts a journey from the unique and local to the standardized and mass distributed that references a lineage of patent protections en route. As he describes the voyage, we, the readers, realize that authorship and identification became keys to the success of the pomological enterprise (pomum is Latin for fruit). To succeed, the images of heirloom fruits must function as recognizable names and claim unique identities. Such intellectual property protection was to be found chiefly in the utility patent, the definition of which dates to the 1793 patent law. Without such protection, there was considerably less incentive to perfect and document the fruits, which were subject to appropriation.

Chromolithography is a technique for making multi-colored prints that use lithographic stones; it was developed in 1837. Both chromo and photolithography became essential to traversing the worlds of culture and commerce. At first, watercolors were used to render heirlooms; then coloring was applied by hand to grayscale plates. Chromolithography proved the best way to reproduce the appearance of volume and coloration found in fruit paintings. The same process was critical to reproduce multiples of patented technological inventions. Lithographic techniques were applied to depictions of the organic long before patents for living organisms existed and specified intellectual property protection in living things. As described at length in other publications by Kevles, this development happened during the emerging age of biotechnology when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, that “whether an innovation is alive or not is irrelevant to its patentability.” [2]

Historian William Rankin recounts that, towards the end of the 1860s, the requirements for color drawings and models in the patent system changed to black and white ink drawings. The Patent Act Amendment of 1861 called for multiple copies of each patent – something unavailable until photolithography. By 1870, the patent office had to provide copies to libraries along with the public that inexpensive photolithography made possible. The highly prized asset of each species of fruit was its flavor, which could not be captured by any reproduction. Nevertheless, chromolithography situated apples and other fruit as treasures within the cultural context and as commodities within a socio-economic framework built from patented inventions. Claims of propriety were essential to their commercial viability.

Applicants for fruit patents had to submit colored drawings of their products. The ensuing reproductions enabled by lithography mark a pivotal change from a horticulture that depended on senses of tactility and smell, to one reliant on the copy. You can think of the relationship that exists between fine artworks (the original watercolors) and patent drawings as a kind of seesaw that, at times, inverts relationships between culture and commerce. For example, inventions when outmoded are more readily accepted as art. Chromolithography served as the fulcrum of the relationship between fields of art and economics. It was as widely employed to depict inventions of succulent fruit as to multiply innovative images of perfected machines. Such juxtaposition occurs in other historical contexts as well. For example, art historian Carla Yanni has described how, during the 19th century, new understandings of nature called for British architects to propose erecting a single architectural structure to serve as a museum for both natural history and patent inventions. [3]

Many plates in the book date before 1900; the depictions constitute a sub-selection of plates by Kevles and the Heyday staff.  Several date from the 1880s, almost 100 years after the patent law of 1793. A few images in the book are from the 1930s. Kevles claims his basis for selection was primarily aesthetic rather than informational. Among the early plates in Heirloom Fruits of America is the Winter Paradise apple (1905) by artist, Ellen Isham Schutt. It relies on the convention of depicting a whole apple above one bisected revealing its seeds. That convention is used repetitively with minor variations. Other fruit, including avocados and mangoes, are depicted besides apples. A more recent depiction is the Lodi apple of 1937, by James Marion Shell. At times branches and leaves are portrayed. In general, conventions of positioning and shading were retained throughout.

Art historian George Kubler’s Shape of Time asks why certain methods and images become popular and persist, a question implicitly raised by Heirloom Fruits of America. Conventions may be arbitrary, but they leave many possible alternatives unanswered. For historian William Rankin, the way patent drawings oscillate between abstraction and naturalism is closely tied to the dual legal status of patents as both disclosing and protecting an idea.  Rankin points out that ambiguity gives patentholders a legal advantage when acting against an alleged infringer: they want their patent to have the widest applicability, and thus want to depict their invention as vaguely as possible. [4] By contrast, Kevles points out the need for depictions of the heirloom fruits to be highly specific since protection was to be found in identification.

Conventions adhere to the rendering of any fruit or machine at any given time and particularly when the images are part of an archive. I have seen such adopted conventions (however strange) as gorillas holding canes in successive plates in 18th century depictions in natural history books. In addition, conventions of inverse perspective and cross-hatching have often been used to depict machinery in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. These conventions call for interpretation. I recall that contemporary artist Jeffrey Schiff rendered 3-D wood objects based on illustrations from the Encyclopédie, humorously scoring them with cross-hatching to simulate the parallel lines in the drawings. Kevles, too, has grappled with various iconological approaches to the portrayal of heirlooms; he singles out art historian Christopher Wood in the book’s acknowledgements, well known for perusing some of interpretive complexities of representation. Other iconographic approaches are suggested as well. As witnessed in many painted biblical narratives of lost innocence, the image of the apple may tempt us with fond memories of simpler times. We recall settlers in the U.S. following well-established routines of planting and trying to improve conditions of soil, water, and sun.

Archives are defined by what they do not do as much as by their appearances. Different government agencies have different goals. The heirlooms that were rendered even during critical economic periods greatly diverge from the Farm Security Administration photographs that defined the Great Depression visually and offered an interpretation of poverty. These heirloom fruits offer no easily accessible interpretive role to explore economic circumstances although their documentation was certainly incentivized by fierce market competition. But could heirloom archives even have implied stressful times? Absolutely- they could have suggested conditions of economic difficulty through depictions of pitted skin, rotted pulp, and insect bored interiors. But that was never the intention. These pomological images also eschew the poetic atmospherics of, for example, late 19th century exquisite cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. The power of the apples and fruits depicted in this book lies in their directness and literalness. They and their spokesman, Daniel Kevles, speak to the aims of the producers to avoid confusion through developing a clear system of visual classification.  The primary idea was to turn the fruits into marketable products after which they could be reproduced virtually identically by grafts or cuttings.  The colored illustrations were a means of advertising fruits and securing their intellectual property. But they nevertheless achieve far more.

The heirlooms provide a stunning framework for Kevles to discuss intriguing issues touching on the relationship between industry and nature, the desire to establish institutions as aesthetic resources for a public, and as an ongoing argument for the necessity of developing “retreats from materialism.”

Kevles includes some wonderful narratives in his introduction, including the history of Luther Burbank, the famed fruit breeder in Santa Rosa, California, who took inspiration from Charles Darwin's Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Burbank found it to be a source of information on the ideas and practices of plant and animal breeders. Kevles then recounts the fascinating tale of how Burbank discovered and perfected a new and superior variety of potato that became known as the Idaho Russet.

The fruits in this book are composites of different species and of the natural and artificial. The nature/culture distinction has often entailed legal consequences, most notably and recently with respect to biotechnology; aspects of patent law are premised on legally constructing a divide between them. In this regard, it is important to remember that only inventions (e.g., culture) can be patented, and not discoveries (e.g., nature). Patent law is a place where political, economic, legal, and scientific interests meet and highlight how arbitrary it can be to make distinctions between nature and culture. The great interest in this book is to see its intersection with art.

The book implicitly presents a choice – it is a reminder that Americans have greatly valued time spent working with their hands and working for themselves. Kevles’s essay is a vivid framework for understanding how art's iconography can render visible relationships to its production and reception, raising unique material and theoretical issues relevant to the current time. The apple is centrally positioned as both cultural art icon and technologically improved commodity. The downside is that economic gain is often a driver of efficiency. Technological innovation tends to diminish the diversity of cultivars. The images of fruits look to America’s agrarian past but implicitly raise questions about a more sustainable future. By now another evolution has taken place - from bites to bits and back again to seeds. Knowledge (in the form of stored seeds at Svalbard and other places) may prove to have survival value in the Anthropocene. Such products as heirloom fruits gain additional significance, as Michael Pollan puts it, in “communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.” [5] Professor Kevles is very well positioned to discuss these different threads.


[1] Bowker and Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999), 16

[2] Daniel J. Kevles, “Ananda Chakrabarty Wins a Patent,” HSPS: Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 25: 1 (1994), 111-131

[3] Yanni, Carla, “Divine Display or Secular Science: Defining Nature at the Natural History Museum in London.” J of Soc. Arch Hist, Vol. 33 No. 3 (Sep. 1996), 276-298.

[4] Rankin, William, “Bureaucracy at a Glance: Visual Evidence and US Patents, 1790-2005.” A paper delivered at Contexts of Invention, Case Western Reserve University. 2006.

[5] Michael Pollan, “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Food Issue (Oct. 9 2008).