Friday, April 17, 2015

Botany - A Proper Female Pursuit for "the fair daughters of Columbia" in a British American Patriarchal Society


Early British American colonial botanist Jane Colden Farquher (1724-66) came from a traditional patriarchal family. Her physician father Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776) sailed to New York in 1710, He was Lt. Governor of New York from 1761, until his death & served as Surveyor General for New York. His scientific curiosity included a personal correspondence between 1749-1751 with Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778).


1748-52 John Wollaston (American colonial era painter, 1710-1775) Cadwallader Colden

Colden thought women should study botany because of "their natural curiosity & the pleasure they take in the beauty and variety of dress seems to fit them for it."  Moreover, he viewed such study as an ideal substitute for idleness among his female children, when he moved his family to the country in 1729.


He believed gardening & botany "an Amusement which may be made agreable for the Ladies who are often at a loss to fill their time."  He went so far as to recommend that perhaps from Jane's example "young ladies in a like situation may find an agreable way to fill up some part Of their time which otherwise might be heavy on their hand May amuse & please themselves & at the same time be usefull to others."


A letter of 1755 from Colden to Dutch botanist Jan Gronovius (1666-1762)
 : "I have a daughter who has an inclination to reading and a curiosity for natural philosophy or natural History and a sufficient capacity for attaining a competent knowledge. I took the pains to explain to her Linnaeus' system and to put it in English for her to use by freeing it from the Technical Terms which was easily done by using two or three words in place of one. She is now grown very fond of the study and has made such progress in it as I believe would please you if you saw her performance. Tho' perhaps she could not have been persuaded to learn the terms at first she now understands to some degree Linnaeus' characters notwithstanding that she does not understand Latin."

Jane Colden far surpassed her father's amusement theory. She was the first scientist to describe the gardenia. Although she had to read the works of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) in translation, she mastered the Linnaean system of plant classification perfectly. She cataloged, described, and sketched at least 400 plants. She actively collected seeds & specimens of New World flora & exchanged them with others on both sides of the Atlantic.



The South Carolina scientist Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791) wrote in a letter to John Ellis in 1755, that Jane Colden “is greatly master of the Linnaean method, and cultivates it with assiduity.”  

Peter Collinson (1694-1768) wrote about her to American plant collector John Bartram: "Our friend Colden's daughter has a scientifical manner. Sent over several sheets of plants very curiously anatomised after [Linnaeus'] Method. I believe she is the first Lady that has attempted any thing of this nature." Collinson reported to Carolus Linnaeus, "Your system, I can tell you obtains much in America. Mr. Clayton and Dr. Colden at Albany of Hudson's River in New York are complete Professors....Even Dr. Colden's daughter was an enthusiast."   He later wrote to Linnaeus, that  Jane Colden “is perhaps the first lady that has so perfectly studied your system. She deserves to be celebrated.”  


Carolus Linnaeus also knew of her work.  He corresponded directly with her father; and in a 1758, letter to British naturalist John Ellis (1711-1778) tells Linnaeus that he will let Jane know "what civil things you say of her."  The only plant bearing the Colden’s surname is Coldenia, so named by Linnaeus, in reference to a relative of the Borage and Comfrey plants Coldenia procumbens. Her work on plant classification was in a Scottish scientific journal in 1770, four years after her death.



Outdoors with a book. 1798 William Clarke. Mrs William Frazer. Delaware.

In South Carolina, Eliza Pinckney (1722-1793), who was responsible for profitably changing the economy of South Carolina by introducing indigo agriculture, wrote in 1760, “I love a garden & a book; & they are all my amusement.”

The Rev. Mr. John Bennet (1714–1759), a Methodist English clergyman interested in the appropriate behavior (especially the conduct of women) for a moral society whose 1803 Letters to a young lady...calculated to improve the heart, to form the manners and to enlighten the understanding circulated throughout Great Britain & the United States, wrote"Attention to a garden is A truly feminine amusement. If you mix it with a taste for botany, and a knowledge of plants and flowers, you will never be in want of an excellent restorative."


Irish immigrant gardener, seed dealer, & writer Bernard M'Mahon (1775-1816), noted nearly the exact sentiments as father Colden in his 1806 Phildadelphia book The American Gardener's Calendar"The innocent, healthful, and pleasing amusement that Botanical studies might afford to the fair daughters of Columbia, who have leisure time to devote to such, is also a very important object, as in that way, many happy and enchanting hours might be delightfully spent to useful and salubrious purposes, which othecwise would hang heavily or be trifled away perhaps to disadvantage."


Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778–1821), who lived near Washington D. C. just when it was becoming both a political & social capital, thought women should hold themselves above an discussion of politics, especially during the mud-slinging surrounding Thomas Jefferson's personal life & loves. She called gardening her “greatest diversion.”



1804 Gilbert Stuart (American artist, 1755-1828) Rosalie Stier Calvert and their eldest daughter Carolina Maria

In 1807, she observed, "I see so many women making themselves ridiculous by discussing politics at random without understanding the subject that I am disgusted with all controversy except about flowers! Their culture absorbs me more every day, for as I go out rarely, it is my chief amusement."

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1883) of the Troy Female Seminary wrote in her 1829 Familiar Lectures on Botany:  "The study of botany seems particularly suited to females; the objects of its investigation are beautiful and delicate." 



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