The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is one of the most unique collections in the Rare and Special Collections
of the National Agricultural Library (NAL). As a historic botanical resource, it documents new fruit and nut varieties,
and specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Lithographs of the watercolor paintings were created to illustrate USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other publications
distributed to growers and gardeners across America.
Pomology, the science of fruit breeding and production, has been an important area of research since the early years of the
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). During the mid-1800s, farmers were expanding fruit growing programs in response to
rising demand. At the same time, horticulturists from USDA and agricultural colleges were developing new fruit varieties, often incorporating
specimens from foreign plant collection expeditions. In response to this increased interest and activity, USDA established the Division of
Pomology in 1886. An important focus of the division was to publish illustrated accounts of new varieties and to disseminate research findings
to fruit growers and breeders.
To make the research publications more useful, exact representations of the fruit were required so that varieties could be accurately
identified and studied. USDA commissioned artists to create watercolor illustrations of newly introduced cultivars at a time when the
methods and technologies needed to print color photographs were still on the horizon.
In 1886, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Division of Pomology to oversee the collection and distribution of new varieties of fruits, and to disseminate information to fruit growers and breeders. USDA commissioned artists to create technically accurate illustrations of newly introduced cultivars for the division's publications. In 1887, William H. Prestele was appointed as the first artist for the Division of Pomology. Henry E. Van Deman, division chief, explained the importance of Prestele's appointment in his 1887 Report of the Pomologist:
Over the years, other artists were also assigned to the division and their watercolors were used for lithographic reproductions in USDA publications and as scientific documentation of research results. Although some of the watercolor paintings are not signed, we know of 21 artists (nine of whom were women) who contributed to this important resource.