Perhaps the owner had no gall-stone brown or French berry yellow. Or kept the book only for pressing plants.
Whatever the reason, light use may have helped preserve a rare, early coloring book found in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s library. Noticed just last month, the book predates by 100 years what has been cited as the first coloring book.
“The Florist” wasn’t for education. It wasn’t for exploration. It was for coloring.
Printed about 1760 in London, “The Florist” includes 60 images of flowers with instructions for “drawing and painting according to nature.” The printer, Robert Sayer, explains right up front: It’s a “new work intended for the use & amusement of gentlemen and ladies delighting in that art.”
Apparently the printer also sold pigments for watercolors, describing recommendations such as ultramarine and sap-green. The brown was “gall-stone.” The yellow apparently came from a common buckthorn bush, although its fruit was confusingly called both “French berries” and “Persian berries.” Gentlemen and ladies would use the paints with “hair pencils.”
Although there are stains from pressed plants and one green smear, the garden’s own copy wasn’t colored.
Fewer than 10 copies of Sayer’s book appear to be preserved in libraries. A librarian with the Yale Center for British Art confirmed that its rare books collection holds two copies of “The Florist,” one colored, one not. Only one other U.S. library lists a copy (Virginia’s Oak Spring Garden Library); the rest are in Europe.
“The book doesn’t have scientific merit, but it does have a lot of cultural merit,” said Amy Pool, a botanist with the garden.
Pool is a curatorial assistant and an editor of “Flora de Nicaragua.” She was doing some light reading in “The History of Botanical Illustration” when she happened upon a reference to a 1760 coloring book. Pool entered the title in the garden’s digital catalog and found it had a copy.
The garden’s Peter H. Raven Library has more than 250,000 items. Scientists probably wouldn’t be looking for a coloring book in its rare book collection, which includes more famous things — such as the first U.S. edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and a palm-sized field guide from 1553.
As for quality of illustration, many of the rare books have more beautiful, detailed images than “The Florist.” One is Elizabeth Blackwell’s hand-colored “A Curious Herbal.” Published in 1737-39, it describes how to use plants for medicine. Blackwell’s shady husband was in debtor’s prison, so to support herself and her child, she drew the plants, engraved the drawings in copper, then painted the prints. (She sold four plates a week and got the husband out of prison, but he left her anyway.)
The garden’s rare book collection has some 6,000 volumes published before 1825. Research librarian Linda Oestry says she is “amazed at what people knew about the world.” “The Florist” was published less than a decade after Carl Linnaeus released a book formally introducing his revolutionary method of naming plants (binomial nomenclature).
Oestry says people of the era had enormous interest in botany. But she doesn’t consider the coloring book’s pages to be fine illustration.
Pool, however, detects a certain charm: “I kind of like the drawings.”
While showing the book, Pool pointed to scribbles apparently made by a child, plus a few random words written down, such as “leaf.” Stains show where plants were pressed between the book’s pages. The owner at one point may have been “Albert,” which is beautifully written on an early page. An imitation leather cover was added much later when some conservation work was done. Beyond that, the library doesn’t know how it acquired the book (many rare books have been donated).
“There are probably lots of things that are odd and interesting that we’re not aware of,” Oestry said of the rare books collection.
The garden’s library is “amazing,” she says. “The library is one of a half-dozen best of its type in the world.” It has digitized more than a million pages for the open-access Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Not only scientists but other researchers use the library, including those investigating history, English literature and exploration, Oestry said. They must call or email for an appointment at the library, which welcomes appropriate use. It is on the fourth floor of the garden’s Monsanto Center, which is a block and a half west of its well-manicured acreage on Shaw Boulevard.
A few materials from the garden’s library are included in a St. Louis Art Museum exhibit called “Cross-Pollination.” It highlights the mid-1700's floral artistry as “the interest in natural science — notably botany — became widespread in aristocratic, artistic, and scientific circles.”
The exhibit’s description underscores the 18th-century market for a book promoting the painting of flowers in “their succession of blowing,” as “The Florist” seems to describe blooms.
Librarian Francis Lapka of the Yale Center for British Art points to “The Key of Green” by Bruce R. Smith for coloring book history.
In an afterward, the author mentions “The Florist” but says that within 20 years such books weren’t marketed to ladies and gentlemen but to “the little Misses and Masters of Great Britain,” connecting coloring books to children.
A century later, Smith writes, coloring books really “came into their own” with titles such as “The Little Painter” (1860) and “The ‘Little Folks’ Painting Book” (1879). The latter is often cited as the first coloring book.
More than another century later, the coloring craze re-captured adults, who have bought millions of books and used not hair pencils but gel pens and other modern instruments to satisfy their creative urges.
No one is going to be coloring “The Florist,” of course, unless they go to botanicus.org and download pages that were posted on Friday. And the garden does have other copies of drawings for kids who, 257 years later, still yearn to color plants in bloom.