Between 1886 and 1942 a unique project sought to bring the natural world into greater focus. The USDA hired 21 artists to depict in watercolors colors every fruit known to man at the time. This was long before commercial breeding, supermarkets, and genetic modifications made significant changes to what we eat. These artists created a visual database of fruits from all over the globe from custard apples to baels to cashews.
Long before color photography was invented, let alone economical, the study of fruits was best depicted in watercolor drawings. At the time scientific drawings were long appreciated for their ability to convey the textures and growth patterns that aren’t always so obvious in photographs. These types of drawings are still used, though they increasingly rare.
In all there were 7,584 pieces of artwork created for this database, of which over 3,000 are of apples. That’s a lot of apples!
The database served to help classify the different kinds of fruit and also to create regional fruit industries, something the U.S. is known for today. Through pomology, the science of growing fruit, the most amount of food would be grown in the correct conditions for each species – something which was desperately needed during the Great Depression and World War II. The trend for more and more produce continued long after the war years as the population expanded during the 1950s.
We have much different ways of tracking species today and they usually don’t involve watercolors. But, these images sure are beautiful to look at. Plus, some of these fruits are still uncommon in the U.S., so there’s still much to be learned from these antique drawings.