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The Growth and Glory of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Library

(The major substance of this history has been extracted from "The Building of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Library", an article by Robert Fraker which appeared in The Journal of the New England Garden History Society in the Fall of 2000)

A remarkable collection of botanical and horticultural literature is to be found at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Such celebrated treasures as Allen's Victoria Regia keeps company with Redoute's Les Roses and with many others in a collection that would be impossible to duplicate today. It is admirable that a nonacademic society of mostly amateur farmers and gardeners succeeded in creating such a collection, during a period when few institutions of any kind were pursuing the subject with comparable focus and determination.

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society was founded in March 1829, the fifth organization of its kind in this country, and today the second oldest continuously in existence. Among the founders' chief priorities was the formation of a practical library, and in April, less than a month after the adoption of the Society's constitution and bylaws, a committee was appointed "to have charge of all books, engravings and drawings, and to recommend from time to time such as it may be deemed expedient to procure." Among the founding members of the committee were the first president of the Society, Henry S. Dearborn; Jacob Bigelow, author of the pioneering American Medical Botany (1817-1820); and Thaddeus W. Harris, who later wrote the standard Insects Injurious to Vegetation (1842).

By May of the same year, the committee had acknowledged a gift of books that constitute the earliest of the library's recorded holdings. The gift was made by founding member and distinguished pomologist Robert Manning of Salem, and consisted of such standard works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as Richard Bradley's New Improvements of Planting and Gardening, John Lawrence's The Clergyman's Recreation, and William Forsyth's Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit Trees. Other members and supporters soon followed suit, donating William Speechly's Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, Sir Humphrey Davy's Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, Bernard McMahon's American Gardener's Calendar, Samuel Deane's New England Farmer.

These first books donated to the library were, for the most part, popular British and American authorities of the period, widely distributed, easily obtainable, and inexpensive. Another purpose of the library was to provide access to the grand and uncommon contributions to horticultural literature, works whose rarity or costly production put them out of reach to all but a few. Towards this end expenditures had early on been authorized for the purchase of books, and the library's first purchase consisted of several notable French works, including Ventenat's Description des plants. . . dans le Jardin de M. I. M. Cels and the seven-volume second edition of Duhamel's Traité des Arbres Fruitiers, with plates after Redouté and others, one of the most beautiful books on fruits ever produced. These and other purchases were made by agents for the Society in Paris and London. The Society's robust commitment to the library in the early days is demonstrated by the fact that nearly a third of its expenditures in the first two years were on the library's account.

By 1831, the library was sufficiently established to issue its first catalog, published in the August 10 issue of the widely distributed periodical The New England Farmer. The catalog recorded 190 volumes of mostly English and French works. Subsequent catalogs document the modest but steady growth of the library and the careful and systematic building of its collection. By 1854, the library had grown to 414 volumes, and by 1867 to 1,290 volumes. Although an occasional expensive work was added during the 1850s, it is clear that the priority of the library had waned, and acquisitions were, for the most part, predictably practical works added as they were published. The books were kept in "a dark back room, fronting on an obscure, ill-lighted court, where often, at noon day, it was necessary to light the gas to read. No wonder the members felt indisposed to procure expensive books, or to make donations, when they must be buried in darkness, and often exposed to injury from mould and damp."

It was not until the mid-1850's that separate reports of the library committee, under the chairmanship of pomologist and nurseryman Charles Hovey, were published in the Society's Transactions. The reports were perfunctory half-page affairs, followed by lists of the year's acquisitions, consisting of a handful of new titles and lists of periodicals taken; the whole report covered two or three pages. It was in this distinctly laissez-faire atmosphere that the library entered the 1860's and the dawn of the Civil War years, a decade that would evolve as the most dynamic in the Society's history, thanks to two dedicated individuals and a remarkable gift.

In Edward S. Rand, Jr., and Francis Parkman, the library had at last found passionately devoted superintendents intent on escalating the standards of its holdings. Rand, who had become a member in 1855, was a Harvard-educated lawyer, floriculturist, and the author of a number of standard works on bulbs and perennials as well as the first American book on rhododendrons. Parkman is best remembered as the pioneering historian of French America and the Oregon Trail. His historical interests were combined with a love of horticulture, and he taught the subject at Harvard's agricultural school and wrote a still worthwhile volume on rose culture. He joined the Society in 1859. Parkman and Rand alternated as chairmen of the library committee for the next eighteen years, overseeing a dramatic change in the library's position and substance.

Rand succeeded to the chair in 1860, just after the library's annual appropriation had been increased from $180 to $400, and it is clear from his first published report that business was decidedly not as usual. In contrast to its wan predecessors, Rand's first report is a vigorous eight-page manifesto on the crucial importance of the library to the Society, calling out its strengths and deficiencies as he saw them. In particular, he notes an increasing apathy towards the library, a flagging interest in "an all-important subject, [which] is more incomprehensible, as, during all these years, our Society has been steadily gaining in wealth and position, attaining the rank, which it well holds, of the wealthiest Horticultural Society in the country." Rand's report is a rallying cry for renewed interest and increased funding, and he sets the tone for ensuing years by proudly announcing that along with adding to the shelves such titles as French's Farm Drainage, the library acquired, by special authorization of funds, Bonafous's Histoire Naturelle Agricole et Economique du Mais (Paris, 1836), the latter glowingly described by Rand as a "beautifully illustrated and very valuable work of the utmost rarity.. probably the only copy in the country'' Rand's mission was unmistakable, and his and Parkman's subsequent reports reveal an explicit intention for the first time in the library's history to make it the finest collection of its kind in existence.

Their plan was not without obstacles. One can deduce from the defensive tones that here and there ring out of these reports that the library had its critics, that there were some who were skeptical of its value to the broad membership. These included Charles Hovey himself, who firmly opposed Rand's grandiose plans, warning in his presidential inaugural address of 1862 against favoring "the ponderous tomes and elaborate works valuable only to the student" (this despite Hovey having written an elaborate and costly fruit book of his own, The Fruits of America (1847-1856). During the Civil War years the library did in fact observe a policy of obtaining books of minor expense that offered the most practical value, ignoring the acquisition of costly rarities, whereby a single volume might consume a quarter of their $500 annual budget. But this was not to concede Hovey's point, which echoed a suspicion of books voiced by practical farmers and gardeners ever since the earliest days of printing, but rather to fall in with the austerity of the times. Parkman was careful to counter the attitude of Hovey and others in his report of 1863, in which he observed, "To despise the aid of books, is no evidence of practical skill or good sense; and it is especially true of horticulture, that those of greatest practical eminence in it have been, without a single exception, among those who have largely availed themselves of the recorded knowledge of their predecessors or contemporaries."

This counterattack was repeatedly reinforced by both in the following years and with apparent success, as Rand would report in 1868: "We know there is a class in the community who would sneeringly say, 'What is the use of such a lot of books. It is throwing away money'. Thank Heaven, those who hold such sentiments are becoming fewer each year." With their combined persistence and shared vision of what the library could become, Rand and Parkman succeeded both in suppressing opposition to the library and demonstrating a dramatic need for funding far beyond the normal allocations. In his report of 1868, Rand upped the ante and argued that "our aim must be high: no less than to contain a copy of every work published on horticulture." He stressed the deficiencies of the collection and the financial wisdom "that a well selected library increases wonderfully in value". He concluded with the hope that a contingency fund could be established to take advantage of brief and unpredictable opportunities to acquire rare titles. At least one member of the Society was clearly impressed.

Josiah Stickney of Boston had been elected to the Society in 1839, not long after he had attended a dahlia exhibition that sparked a lifelong interest in horticulture. He served both as its president and vice-president, and chaired the finance committee for a time. In February 1869, after thirty years of involvement in the Society's affairs, he announced his gift of a fund to provide an income for the benefit of the library. It was one of the most generous donations in the Society's history, a $12,000 fund to be active for thirty years, the proceeds of which were to be used exclusively for the purchase of books-not periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets; not binding or repairs; not salaries. The proceeds of the fund would amount to $700 annually, more than double the existing allocations. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society was in its prime, and the library was at last free to develop itself in kind.

The end of the Civil War had allowed a relaxed preoccupation with domestic horticulture and botanic study and the Society flourished as never before, becoming perhaps the most distinguished American institution of its kind during this period. Among its nearly thousand regular and corresponding members were many of the ablest botanical and horticultural authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Charles Downing, Joseph Decaisne, Patrick Barry, Asa Gray, Shirley Hibberd, Joseph Hooker, Louis van Houtte, Joseph Paxton, Marshall P. Wilder, William Paul, George Ellwanger, and William Robinson.

The library benefited from unprecedented activity, witnessing a great exchange of publications among its membership, with the contents of its shelves swelled by numerous volumes donated by their authors as a matter of course. But as fine an archive as it had become, it was still in a sense a passive receptacle, with only limited opportunities to exercise deliberate taste and wisdom in acquisition. The Stickney Fund changed all that, and Rand and Parkman, with the able assistance of librarian E. W. Buswell, rose to the new charge with all the proverbial eagerness of children in a candy store.

The purchases of the fund are recorded in two manuscript quarto volumes; each work is listed by title and described in full, with the date of purchase, the source, and the cost noted. For the horticultural bibliophile, these records spark a simultaneously thrilling and wistful experience, providing as they do the histories of superb copies of the most celebrated books ever produced, acquired for a few hundred dollars at most, works that would cost hundreds of thousands today. The records recall an era that was the beginning of a golden age in American book collecting, when individuals of great wealth, such as James Lenox and J. P. Morgan, were assembling personal libraries of remarkable depth and richness, collections that would form the basis of today's finest institutional archives. Great numbers of books were available in England and Europe, and the agents and booksellers knew where they could be sold. The Stickney Fund could not have become available at a better time. Rand and Parkman were both able bibliophiles who knew the books and the market, and in the initial year of the fund, Rand would travel to London and Parkman to Paris to make their first purchases for the library. One of the most treasured books acquired in 1869 was Roxburgh's Flora Indica.

"The additions made to the Library since the last annual meeting have far exceeded, in number and value, those of any preceding year" wrote Francis Parkman in his report for 1869-70. Indeed, because of "an opportunity of securing valuable books, too favorable to be neglected" the library committee purposely exceeded their allotted amount, with the hope that the Society would cover the deficiencies. If not, Parkman pointedly observed, almost daring his fellows to object, "the books in excess will be taken at cost by a gentleman interested in horticulture, who is anxious to avail himself of this opportunity of adding to his library at far less expense than could be done by other means." Clearly the Stickney Fund had given the library some teeth, and a new era of boldness and pride had begun.

The aggressive acquisition continued in the following years. From such antiquarian firms as Bernard Quaritch and John Wheldon in England, F.A Brockhaus in Leipzig, Frederik Muller in Amsterdam, and N. J. Bartlett and Little & Brown in America, the library took in one great work after another. In 1870, the library purchased Sweet's Geraniaceae and Wight's rare Icones Plantarum Indiae Orientalis. In 1875, Rand issued a report that confidently expressed the library's newfound stature, stressing "position of influence" that it gave to the Society. With obvious personal pride he noted that "the growth of the Library during the last nineteen years, since in 1857 the writer first became a member of the Society, has been remarkable". The library's reputation was indeed growing on both sides of the Atlantic. William Robinson, in reviewing the library's catalog in 1873, had written admiringly, "We know of no equally extensive library in the possession of any English horticultural society". At the end of the first decade of the Stickney Fund, the library's holdings had expanded from 1,290 to 3,400 volumes. This number included a further bonus to the library's good fortune, the gift of the botanist John Lewis Russell's extensive collection of botanical books, the largest such gift up to that time. Rand's report in 1876 was even more enthusiastic: "When we look over the catalogue and see the titles of hundreds of books, of which probably the only copy in this country is found in our library, the Society has great cause for congratulation. Already, ours is the most complete and valuable horticultural library in the country".

One notices in the patterns of acquisition that the opulent color-illustrated volumes of the recent past were favored, perhaps because their obvious visual appeal would impress the nonspecialist constituency. Whatever the reason, relatively few of the great early botanical works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are to be found in the lists of acquistions in the 1870s. Over the next twenty years, however, the deficiency would be corrected somewhat, by acquiring such works as a perfect copy of the 1529 Grete Herball, the most famous of early English herbals.

Between 1869 and 1900, when, by the original terms of the bequest, the principal of the Stickney Fund reverted to Harvard University, the sum generated by the fund amounted to $21,000.16. Thus, this glorious chapter in the library's history officially ended, but the momentum engendered would sustain its commitment and successes well into the next century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the library of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society continued unchallenged in its holdings. Its reputation and importance to the Society were unquestioned and when new quarters for the Society at 300 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, were opened in 1901, the centerpiece of the interior would be a grand and elegantly appointed two-story library, a far cry from the dark and damp quarters about which Edward Rand had complained forty years earlier. Robert Manning's confident prediction in 1879, that "the law of gravitation holds good with regard to libraries,'' would prove true through the ensuing years. In the wake of the Stickney Fund's demise, two new funds for the purchase of books were established by the generosity of John S. Farlow and John D. Williams French, and further gifts, notably that of the collection from the family of Charles Hovey and that of Alfred C. Burrage, rich in early printed books, would continue to swell its holdings to admirable degrees of completeness in the subjects of agriculture and economic botany, systematic botany, pomology, dendrology and viticulture, ornamental gardening, landscape history, plant pathology, plant exploration, and botanic gardens, together with unrivaled holdings of periodicals and a remarkable collection of 12,000 seed catalogs. (The collection has since grown to about 40,000 items.) At the time the Society published its Catalogue of the Library in 1918, the collection consisted of approximately 22,000 volumes, and librarian William Penn Rich in his introduction to the catalog could justifiably boast of it as being "the oldest, most complete, and best organized strictly horticultural library in the world."

Since those days, many rarities have been sold, sacrificed to the demands of leaner times, but the library is still a unique window into the history of agriculture and horticulture in New England. Presently, it acquires the best of horticultural literature and aims to continue as a cultural treasure. The library's most valuable tool for the 21st century is its online catalog. All contemporary books, those designated "Rare", and titles from the late 20th century have been posted on the site. Each week, a number of books from the late 19th century and early 20th century are being added to the online catalog. Preliminary inventories of the Society's archives and of its botanical prints collection are available only in printed form, but library workers take steps each day to provide more online access to all the collections.

About the Massachusetts Horticultural Society

Mass Hort logo newFounded in 1829, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society is dedicated to encouraging the science and practice of horticulture and developing the public's enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of plants and the environment.

2017 Calendar & Courses

2017 Calendar and Courses

Mass Hort Classes & Events

Thu Jul 27 @ 5:30PM - 08:00PM
Evening at Elm Bank: Third Annual Arts on the Green
Sun Jul 30 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
What's Buggin' Me?
Tue Aug 01 @10:30AM - 01:00PM
Horticulture Experience at Plimoth Plantation Museum
Thu Aug 10 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Organically Treating for Garden Pests: Integrated Pest Management
Thu Aug 17 @ 5:30PM - 08:00PM
Goddesses in the Gardens : An Evening at Elm Bank
Sun Aug 20 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Back to School Gardens!
Sat Aug 26 @10:00AM - 04:00PM
Hops, Ales and Brewing, Oh My!
Fri Sep 08 @ 9:00AM - 05:00PM
Northeast Region Perennial Plant Symposium
Sun Sep 10 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Baby, It's Cold Outside
Thu Sep 14 @ 6:00PM - 09:00PM
Landscaping and Planting Design
Thu Sep 14 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Cold Frame Gardening
Tue Sep 19 @10:00AM - 12:00PM
Tour: The Arnold Arboretum
Thu Sep 21 @ 7:00AM - 08:30PM
Art & Spirit in the Garden: Incorporating Sculpture into Your Outdoor Landscape
Sun Sep 24 @10:30AM - 12:00PM
Composting at Home and in School Gardens
Thu Sep 28 @ 7:00PM - 08:30PM
Putting the Garden to Bed

Friends of Mass Hort Events

No events