Leading Ladies in the World of Seeds: Part Two

A Garden Stories celebration for Women’s History Month

Seed Catalogs to Inform Botanical Research

Carrie H. Lippincott (featured in our previous post) exploited the potential that seed catalogs offer in a business setting. Ethel Z. Bailey recognized the potential of seed catalogs in an entirely different application: cultivated plant research.

Ethel Z. Bailey, daughter of Liberty Hyde Bailey (botanist, a foremost leader in American horticulture, and the first dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture) and Annette Smith Bailey, was born in Ithaca, New York on November 17, 1889. Born in a faculty house on the Cornell University campus, in the middle of what is now Phillips Hall, Ethel was surrounded at an early age by the students, professors, deans, and presidents of Cornell University, witnessing over her lifetime the evolution of the university from a three-building campus at her birth to one of America’s premier institutions.

In 1911, Ms. Bailey graduated with an A.B. in Zoology from Smith College in Northampton, MA. While her early scientific interests were zoological in nature (influenced in part by natural history excursions during her youth with Cornell herpetologist Albert Hazen Wright), her focus soon turned to botany and horticulture shortly after her graduation, when she became her father’s co-worker, editor of his many books and articles, and field assistant on collecting expeditions around the world. She also served as her father’s chauffeur, as she was the first woman in Ithaca to obtain a driver’s license.

Ms. Bailey was a particularly well-traveled individual. As a girl, she traveled with her parents and sister to Europe, and in 1914 she accompanied her parents on a trip to New Zealand (her father wrote his book The Holy Earth during this latter venture). Once joining her father in his work, Ethel traveled with him to Japan and China in 1917, Brazil in 1922-23, the west coast of the U.S. in 1926, as well as locales in Puerto Rico, Panama, Barbados, Trinidad, other West Indian Islands, and Venezuela, collecting plant specimens. These specimens were processed and cataloged (largely by Miss Bailey), and housed at the family home at Sage Place, about 10 blocks from the Cornell campus (the palms were housed in the carriage house and the remaining general herbarium in a wing off of the carriage house, where the work areas were situated).

During one particularly memorable collecting excursion, Miss Bailey, her father, and a few other botanists ventured into the wild jungle island of Barro Colorado in the Panama Canal Zone in search of a rare palm, which L.H. Bailey believed would be found in the Mohinja Swamp. Wading through hip-deep water amidst warnings of disease and boa constrictors, the group found the palm as predicted and photographed it in the middle of a downpour using a tripod nearly submerged in water. But the specimens, and the photographs, were successfully obtained!

Miss Bailey assisted and edited many of her father’s works during his lifetime, including Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1914-17) and the Manual of Cultivated Plants (1924; 1949)She also served as editor of Gentes Herbarum through its first eight volumes and co-authored Hortus (1930) and Hortus Second (1941) with her father.

As part of her work, Miss Bailey also maintained a collection of seed and nursery catalogs from around the world, which she and her father used to gather and record information on cultivated plants (this collection greatly informed L.H. Bailey’s Manual of Cultivated Plants and L.H. and E.Z. Bailey’s Hortus Second). As each catalog was received, the plants listed were recorded on index cards, along with the name of the firm offering the plant, the year of offering, Latin names, and prices, resulting in an index providing a record of the species and variants available in the commercial trade. The file grew to become the most comprehensive index of available ornamental plants in the world.

In 1935, L.H. Bailey donated his Hortorium, which contained over 100,000 plant and seed catalogs, 125,000 plant specimens, and nearly 3,000 books, along with the family home buildings that housed the collections, to Cornell University, establishing the L.H. Bailey Hortorium. Interestingly, L.H. Bailey coined the term “hortorium” in 1935 as (in his words) “a repository for things of the garden. It is to be a place for the scientific study of the plants of the garden–their documentation, their classification, and their naming.”

Miss Bailey became the first Hortorium curator, managing the herbarium specimens (which since 1953 have been located in Cornell University’s Mann Library building), seed and nursery catalogs and book collections, and card file index system. She diligently processed herbarium specimens, grew the catalog collection, and built her cultivated plant index system until her “retirement” in 1957. She continued to volunteer her time at the Hortorium after her retirement, however, working five days a week, 9am-4pm, on her index and curating the catalog collection. She also glued pressed plants on sheets for the herbarium on Saturday afternoons at her home at Sage Place, while listening to the opera on local radio – Ethel had played the violin in the Ithaca High School orchestra.

After her death on July 15, 1983 at the age of 93, the seed and nursery catalog collection at the L.H. Bailey Hortorium (which today holds over 134,000 pieces) was named after Miss Bailey. It is now known as the Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection in recognition of the 70+ years that Miss Bailey curated and cultivated the collection. Explore the catalogs in the Cornell University Library Mail Order Gardens exhibit and materials from the L.H.Bailey Hortorium in BHL.

Miss Bailey’s tireless efforts and research involving cultivated plants boldly illustrates the importance of seed and nursery catalogs in historical research. The catalogs and index are today used to trace the introduction of plant cultivars and species, support price-index studies and related economic investigations, and verify the existence of certain plant varieties. Miss Bailey’s contributions to horticultural science were well-recognized both during and after her lifetime. She was awarded the George Robert White Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1967 and the Smith College Medal in 1970.

Explore other remarkable Leading Ladies of the Seed Industry represented in BHL 

More Garden Stories Fun

With Significant Contributions From:
Robert Dirig
Curator, Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium, Cornell University Department of Plant Pathology
Marty Schlabach
Food and Agricultural Librarian, Cornell University Library
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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.