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  • Seeing Botanically: Linnaean Influence in Popular Antebellum Flower Books and the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Visual Collections
  • Alison M. K. Klaum (bio)

In the introduction to Flora’s Interpreter, or the American Book of Flowers and Sentiments (1832), of which the Library Company of Philadelphia has nine editions, Sarah Josepha Hale supplies two reasons for incorporating Linnaean taxonomy into her collection of floral poems.1 She writes that Linnaeus’s choice to use twenty-four categories of plants “seems most gracefully to round the number of classes” and that his system is also the “most poetical.”2 By applying these aesthetic modifiers to abstract botanical theory, Hale links the artistic and the analytical. These surprising associations are indicative of the ways in which writers and editors of many popular nineteenth-century floral texts incorporated botanical theory into their aesthetic study of flowers, [End Page 298] basing their choices on the system’s beauty rather than on its scientific correctness.

Hale’s reference to the work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus also indirectly invokes the sensual temptations associated with the floral. Linnaeus was famous for revolutionizing botanical studies by devising his “sexual system” for organizing plants that he outlined in his first publication, Systema naturae (1735). Based on the knowledge that flowers house the reproductive organs of the plant, Linnaeus’s system divided plants into classes and orders according to the number and arrangement of the stamens (male sexual organs) and pistils (female sexual organs).3 As a result of Linnaeus’s sexual system, the flower became integral to the discovery and categorization of new plant species as well as a focal point for metaphors of human desire.4

While many scholars have emphasized both the overt and covert sexual associations of floral temptation, they have avoided Linnaeus’s warnings about flowers, and how, though flowers house the very means by which the plant can be identified, other features like color may distract the scientific eyes of the botanist.5 Linnaeus’s aesthetic caveats about the danger of color in flowers, and his instructions on how botanists must train themselves to perceive abstract ideals in the face of visual variation, also seeped into the discourse of popular American flower books. Common in American educational literature and as subjects for new printing techniques, printed flowers functioned as key sites for cultural concerns about human control and self-restraint, both physical and intellectual.

While Linnaeus’s influence can easily be traced in the many popular nineteenth-century botanical treatises or floral texts that adopt or reference his taxonomy directly, my research at the Library Company revealed other, less obvious textual evidence of his botanical sway. Floral-themed instructional art books such as A Series of Progressive Lessons Intended to Elucidate the Art of Flower Painting in Water Colours (1818) promote self-discipline and the careful observation and processing of floral nature in a way that echoes Linnaean botanical ways of seeing even in the absence of direct references to botanical theory. Conversely, American language-of-flower books such as Elizabeth Wirt’s Flora’s Dictionary (1829) showcase the vicissitudes and inconsistencies of floral print culture, which challenge Linnaeus’s method for seeing botanically, even as they devote whole sections to descriptions of his sexual system.6

Despite their variations in method and focus, these two types of floral genres collectively demonstrate how Linnaean botanical theory contributed [End Page 299] to the diverse applications of floral aesthetics in nineteenth-century American popular print culture. And it was my encounter with these two genres in the archives of the Library Company that has significantly shaped how I look at the relationship between visual and verbal floral vocabularies in nineteenth-century printed works.

How to See Botanically: Linnaean Visual Self-Control

Although Linnaeus likened plant reproduction to sexual relations in the context of marriage, his system still ignited controversy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.7 It inspired Erasmus Darwin’s provocative poem The Loves of the Plants (1789), which drew out, through personification of flowers, the illicit potential of multiple female and male sexual groupings.8 Such associations made flowers tricky objects, but sexuality represented only one facet of their desirability. In Critica Botanica...


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