Brian Stewart

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How the Archives Taught Me to Stop and Smell the Roses

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

When Jenna and I first learned that we would be processing the records of the Conard-Pyle Company at the University of Delaware, all we knew was that they were rose breeders. Well-known rose breeders, but specialists in flowers nonetheless. As someone whose gardening prowess extends only to watering a cactus every couple of weeks, I was convinced that I would be processing some kind of massive storehouse of Martha Stewart gardening advice, long treatises on soil composition, or any number of earthy subjects beyond my ken. With this in mind, what I found was something completely different.

Unknown size: small.

Flowers, and roses in particular, are big business; the process required before any cultivar ends up in the average garden is staggering in its scope. Tens of thousands of plants are grown, examined, and discarded in the search for a single plant of suitable characteristics. For any variety to really sell, or be purchased for resale, it has to enter into the All-American Rose Selections judging process, placed in test gardens around the country and evaluated for years before being a winner. Though not all commercial roses are AARS award-winners, those that are reap fame and fortune, and may be hybridized for years to come. There is no better example than the rose named ‘Peace’. Shipped to Conard-Pyle in 1942 by French hybridizer Francis Meilland,  budwood of Peace was spirited out of France on one the last (legend says the last) planes to leave the country before the arrival of the German blitzkrieg. Originally named ‘Mme A Meilland’ in memory of Francis’ mother Claudia, the rose was propagated by Conard-Pyle during the war and given the name ‘Peace’ on the very day that Berlin fell to the Allies. Blooms of Peace later adorned the breast pockets of each delegation during the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. Since then, there have been somewhere between 30 and 50 million Peace roses grown. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of roses.

Unknown size: small.

Yet this collection isn’t all pretty flowers. Its greatest strength is that it is a window into an industry that most people, including myself (before this project), never knew a thing about. The Conard-Pyle Collection is a nearly unbroken history of business from the company’s founding in 1897 to the early 2000s. That’s over a century of roses, and nearly all of those records are here, including every retail sales record from 1897 to the cancellation of retail by the company in 1978. Beyond sales, the collection provides insight into the lengths required to market new rose cultivars, including press releases to announce the strengths of each variety and careful cost-benefit analyses of advertisements, recorded in detail in massive ledgers covering 40 years at a time.

Unknown size: small.

And, archivists and librarians, if you think intellectual property issues are a concern for modern times, ask a rose breeder about plant patents. The Conard-Pyle collection contains over two thousand plant patents, each describing ownership of the cultivar in terms of coloring, bud quantity and dispersal, and petal size and quantity, among other characteristics. These patents, coupled with the documentation concerning the transfer of rights from the original hybridizer, documentation about infringement litigation, and huge quantities of correspondence, paint a detailed picture of the refined and complex business process that lies behind every rose.

Unknown size: small.

For those of you that aren’t as utterly fascinated by business records as I am, the collection is not without its visual appeal. I wouldn’t be stretching the truth if I said that many of the early catalogs are works of art, many of them having printed or inked depictions of flowers in place of photographs (color catalogs were also something of a coup in the industry, at the time). Many of the printing plates used for those catalogs are also in the collection, offering further insight into the production of those materials (or the history of printed advertising, if you’re a graphic designer).  I have never before worked on a collection that so succinctly and completely documents the inner workings of a single (and somewhat obscure) industry, and I found myself enthralled by a subject that, according to the dead ferns in my backyard, is completely outside my usual interests. So, if you’ll forgive my use of the phrase, I urge everyone to stop and smell the roses while you process or research an archival collection. You just might find something fascinating you never thought would be.

Oh, and it has beer.

Yes, beer.