Apples fueled the economic engine of Northwest Arkansas in the early 20th century and a new digital exhibit, “Fruit-full” Arkansas: Apples, offers a concise history, luscious renderings and more about the apple industry in Arkansas. The exhibit is a collaboration of the University of Arkansas Libraries and the Library of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The exhibit’s name is taken from an 1890 railroad advertisement enticing people to venture to “Arkansas, the world’s orchard.” The exhibit materials include images of apples taken from color plate nursery catalogs, published between 1851 and 1922, from the Crystal Bridges library collection. Materials from the University Libraries’ special collections include folklore class reports, folk customs, poetry, and souvenir booklets of Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas. Together, these materials give a sense of the vast production of apples at one time in Benton and Washington counties; in 1910, these two counties had a combined total of 2 million apple trees. The exhibit is available on the University Libraries’ website and in the Digital Collections area of the Museum Library website.
The website also lists the items from which the digitized materials were scanned, a resource list for further historical study of the Arkansas apple industry, and a link to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pomological Digital Library, which has artistic renderings of the 25 apple varieties that originated in Arkansas, including the Arkansas Black and Springdale varieties.
Apples were introduced to the Americas by explorers and later by early settlers who planted “kitchen orchards.” Significant apple production in the South started with Jarvis Van Buren in Georgia, who later contributed much to southern apple nomenclature and literature. Few apple orchards escaped the ravages of the Civil War, but with the growth of the railroads in the 1880s came an increased market for apples. By 1910, Benton and Washington counties had the highest population of apple trees of any county in the United States, and the commercial apple industry became the largest employer in the northwest region of the state. “Southern apple mania” didn’t last long. Drought, wind, extreme temperatures, diseases and insects contributed to poor harvests. A decade after its peak, the demand for apples grown in southern regions lessened due to rising expectations for higher quality fruit, variety uniformity and reliable supply.
High quality seed catalogs with colorful prints of a variety of fruits, vegetables, trees and flowers were produced by many of the leading nurseries. Most were created using chromolithography, a printing technique in which an image is drawn with a grease-based crayon onto a block of limestone. A chemical solution is then brushed over the stone, which causes the image to attract the ink, while blank areas repel the ink. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, chromolithography was replaced with a photographic lithography technique.
In 2006, Crystal Bridges acquired the most complete collection of American color plate books published in the 19th century. This collection of more than 1,200 items explores all of the uses to which color illustration had been applied in the 19th century. Natural history books are the best-known examples, but there are also landscape view books, scientific illustration, sporting books, architecture and design, works of fiction, gift books and trade publications, such as the seed catalogs used in this digital exhibit.
Collaborators on the project include Catherine Petersen and Jason Dean from Crystal Bridges and Janet Parsch and Martha Parker from the University Libraries. University Professor emeritus Roy C. Rom, “Mr. Arkansas Apple,” served as consultant to the project.
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