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 Zoe Bailey in 1905.
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).
|Ethel Zoe Bailey and her father on a collecting trip in Panama, 1931. http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/mailordergardens/intro.htm.
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.
|Cycadaceae in Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. Bailey, L.H. 2nd Ed. v. 1 (1916-17). http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/20553842.
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.
|Ethel Zoe Bailey and her father, L. H. Bailey. http://www.geraniumsonline.com/ethelzoe.htm.
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.
|Ethel Z. Bailey
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
- Carrie H. Lippincott. Her catalogs in BHL.
- Emma V. White. Her catalogs in BHL.
- Theodosia Shepherd. Her catalogs in BHL.
- Miss Martha Hiser. Her catalogs in BHL.
- Miss Mary E. Martin. Her catalogs in BHL.
- Mrs. Francis King. Her books in BHL.
More Garden Stories Fun
- Follow our blog and #BHLinbloom on Twitter and Facebook (or go directly to BHL’s Twitter and Facebook) this week as we explore the fascinating world of gardening, from its history to plant factoids and practical gardening tips.
- Browse over 14,000 seed and nursery catalogs in our collection.
- Browse over 2,500 seed and nursery catalog images in our Flickr collection.
- Explore select seed catalog art, and stunning bookmarks and postcards developed by Cornell Library, on Pinterest.
- See historic gardening come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries’ Tumblr.
- Purchase your very own Garden Stories T-Shirt through T-Fund. All proceeds will go to help us digitize more pages for BHL. Our goal is to sell enough shirts to digitized 5,000 pages. Can you help us get there?
- Help us improve access to seed and nursery catalogs by transcribing some today as part of our the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded Purposeful Gaming project!
- Find great online gardening resources, tips, and help on the BHL Gardening Resources Page.