Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Celebrating Arbor Day with
Great American Trees
April 30 is the national celebration of Arbor Day making it the perfect day to highlight two exceptional Mercantile collections that document American trees in very different ways.
Left: Francois Andre Michaux, Dogwood (Cornus florida) Plate 48 from The North American Sylva.
Right: Romeyn B. Hough, Tilia Americana l, Volume 1 Plate 3 from American Woods.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Arbor Day originated in Nebraska in 1872 when J. Sterling Morton – then Secretary of the Territory of Nebraska – proposed a state-wide tree planting holiday on April 10. Prizes were offered for the cities and counties that properly planted the most trees, resulting in more than 1 million trees being planted in Nebraska that day. Since then the observance of Arbor Day grew steadily into a national holiday. By 1920 there were 45 states and territories with official Arbor Day celebrations, and now it is held in all 50 states. While most states celebrate on the last Friday of April, some have chosen dates in other months to coincide with the best tree-planting weather. Missouri traditionally celebrates on the first Friday in April. 

The Mercantile’s broad horticultural collections are rich in tree-related resources, including agricultural catalogs, early travel diaries with observations on tree species, and more. Among these are works that each document American trees, one using fine prints and one with examples from the trees themselves.
Francois Andre Michaux, Terminalia catappa (Indian Almond), plate 32 and Acer grandidentatum (Mountain Sugar Maple), plate 19 from The North American Sylva.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Francois Andre Michaux (1770 - 1855) was a French botanist who came to North America in the early 1800s on a commission from the French government to document the forests of the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia. Michaux’s father had also been a botanist and a friend of Thomas Jefferson, and the elder Michaux first brought his son to the continent in 1785 to establish horticultural nurseries in New Jersey and South Carolina. The younger botanist established his own reputation with The North American Sylva published in Paris between 1810 and 1813. It was translated into English five years later. Michaux relied on three French masters of botanical artwork to illustrate his work; Pierre Joseph Redoute, Henri-Joseph Redoute, and Pancrace Bessa created stunning artwork documenting a huge variety of trees Michaux catalogued in this seminal work that was the most comprehensive description of North American forest trees of the time. Multiple reprintings in Philadelphia and a later supplement by Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), an English botanist and zoologist working in North America, expanded the reach and importance of this significant publication.  The Mercantile Library holds a complete set of this multivolume work as well as extra volumes.

See more of Michaux’s prints on the Digital Library here.
Romeyn B. Hough, Acer Dasycarpum, Ehrhart (Curly Maple), Volume 2 Plate 26a and Acacia Melanoxylon, Aiton (Black-Wood) from American Woods.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
As the century drew to a close, another landmark publication on American trees became available. Romeyn B. Hough (1857-1924) published The American Woods: Exhibited by Actual Specimens and with Copious Explanatory Text between 1888 and 1913. This remarkable 14 volume set not only catalogued tree specimens, it documented each with three cross-sections prepared by the author. Each volume contained 25 plates held in a portfolio; each plate held a transverse, a radial, and a tangential section of wood which Hough cut from each tree with a special lateral saw created for the purpose. The Mercantile Library subscribed to Hough’s stunning and unique portfolio of wood specimens – in effect a portable arboretum – and is among the few libraries that have it in their collection.

Hough’s quest to preserve these specimens was, like Michaux, inspired by his father’s role in the forest service – he had authored the first official forestry report of the United States in the late 1870s, when it was becoming alarmingly apparent that the lush landscapes of the unexplored West had been deforested to a dangerous degree. Fortunately, others across the country were recognizing this as well, including J. Sterling Morton whose idea for a national Arbor Day has become an event that reminds us all to treasure, preserve, and keep planting our American trees.
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