The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » Building on a Century of Collecting at the Clements Library » Pair 21: Organizing the Natural World

Pair 21: Organizing the Natural World

Pair 21: Organizing the Natural World

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed an unprecedented popular obsession with natural history. Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, remembered as the founder of modern taxonomy, published his new system for classifying plants and animals in 1735. His Systema Naturae inspired both professional and amateur botanists to collect their own specimens and send them to Linnaeus for inclusion in subsequent editions.

The burgeoning field of scientific botany attracted women who found the art of collecting plant specimens to be both an accessible and respectable mode of participating in scientific discourse. 101 Treasures featured illustrations drawn in 1755 by the first American woman to earn an international reputation as a scientist in the field of systemic botany: Jane Colden (1724-1766)’s collection of nearly 400 plants was one of the few in America to be described and arranged in strict adherence to the Linnean system. Colden’s illustrations showcase her pioneering method of recording leaf impressions with a rolling press and printer’s ink, a far more accurate way to document specimens than drawing them by hand.

Jane Colden, Cadwallader and Jane Colden manuscripts and leaf impressions (1755, 1765).

By contrast, hobbyists such as Elizabeth Benton [Lily] Frémont (1842-1919?) painstakingly handcrafted personal albums of pressed flowers as private floral mementos. After Lily’s father, the explorer John Frémont, moved the family from the city to rural Bear Valley, California, Lily assembled an album of eighty pressed flowers and plants, annotated with sensory descriptions of smell and appearance. Some specimens were sentimental (“This piece came from under Mother’s oak on the lawn”) and others documented indigenous foodways (“The gone-to-seed leaves of a plant which the Indians use as a salad”). In contrast to Colden’s relentless desire to organize and describe, Lily was frank about the limitations of her collection: “I never saw this growing so know nothing about it,” she admits about an undescribed specimen.

Elizabeth Benton [Lily]Frémont, Album of Pressed Flowers. (Bear Valley, California, 1859).

After the Frémonts moved back to San Francisco in 1860, Lily’s collecting slowed and eventually halted entirely, stymied by the more crowded urban environment. Likewise, after Jane Colden married William Farquhar in 1759, she ceased her botanical work altogether and died in childbirth at the early age of 41. The illustrations and album preserve brief glimpses of a moment in which each woman devoted themselves to recording knowledge about the natural world and in doing so, memorialized their own distinct contribution to women’s environmental history.