Summer Search: A Plum Assignment

A few years ago, I tried out a summer “looking” challenge in an attempt to parallel the clever ideas my local public library uses to encourage summer book club participants to pick out volumes they might not have otherwise sampled (“Summer Looking Challenge–Touring the Collections with Azure Allure“). It’s getting to be that time of year again, so I decided to try sampling for the season itself. I started by doing a search in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for the word, “summer.” I was soon off swinging from link to link on a chain of visual and word associations.

My initial “summer” search had me touring a variety of summer houses, visiting locations with “summer” in their place names and gazing at group portraits of child laborers who seemed anything but the picture of carefree summer (the captions identified the ages they had attained “last summer”).

Sample results from searching the word "summer" in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Sample results from searching the word “summer” in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

But I soon became intrigued by the focus in our Popular Graphic Art collection of historical prints on the fruits of the season, because they were, for the most part, wholly unsatisfying. Although chromolithographs — lithographs printed in color often made to look like an oil painting or watercolor — are plentiful in the Popular Graphic Art collection, the summer fruits were largely devoid of color.

The summer gift. Print by Currier & Ives, copyrighted 1870, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.09903

The summer gift. Print by Currier & Ives, copyrighted 1870, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.09903

Summer fruits. Print by Currier & Ives, copyrighted 1861, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.05036

Summer fruits. Print by Currier & Ives, copyrighted 1861, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.05036

Of the seven I counted, only one was in color. (It must be the Californian in me that fails to associate what looks like an orange with the summer season–we always got them in our Christmas stockings!)

Summer fruit Print by Prang, copyrighted 1868, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.12022

Summer fruit. Print by Prang, copyrighted 1868, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.12022

A majority of the prints came to the Library of Congress as copyright deposits when the publishers registered their intellectual property rights. Maybe the publishers decided to send those to which they had not gone to the added labor of applying color? Whatever the explanation, I couldn’t resist the ultimate personification of Summer, whose curly locks are composed entirely of summer fruits!

Summer. Print by Thomas Kelly, 1874. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11338

Summer. Print by Thomas Kelly, 1874. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11338

But by that time, I had also had plums on my mind, as the smooth, juicy (and sticky!) fruits graced many a summer afternoon snack in my childhood. So I went seeking color pictures of plums, by searching “color” and “plums.”

I was immediately greeted by the tempting sight of yellow plums that hung on a tree in the Russian Empire in 1910, courtesy of Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s early 20th century innovations in producing color photographs.

Vnutri oranzherei. Zheltyi︠a︡ slivy. [Blizhneĭ dachi︠e︡, Kyshtym] (Inside the conservatory. Yellow plums). Digital color composite from glass negative, 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/prokc.20515

Vnutri oranzherei. Zheltyi︠a︡ slivy. [Blizhneĭ dachi︠e︡, Kyshtym] (Inside the conservatory. Yellow plums). Digital color composite from glass negative, 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/prokc.20515

And these Marianna plums completely hit the spot.

Marianna Plum. Print by Prestele, copyrighted 1884. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.12212

Marianna Plum. Print by Prestele, copyrighted 1884. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.12212

Satisfying many tastes, a Popular Graphic Arts print that catalogers had thoughtfully summarized provided not only a dark red plum, but other fruits, and a flute of champagne, to boot!

Fruit. Print by Edmund Foerster & Co., 1872, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.06731

Fruit. Print by Edmund Foerster & Co., 1872, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.06731

Traveling from the representational to the fanciful, this comic card from 1887 visually attests to how well a plum shape can be re-envisioned as the upper half of a man’s body.

Bufford's fruit cards, no. 779-3 [plum] . Print by J.H. Bufford's Sons Lith., copyrighted 1887. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.05553

Bufford’s fruit cards, no. 779-3 [plum] . Print by J.H. Bufford’s Sons Lith., copyrighted 1887. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.05553

But my search results reinforced verbal associations, as well as visual ones. The comic weekly, Puck, offered political commentary on ducking for “plums,” where the fruit implies something very desirable. In the political context of 1913 New York City, sought-after plums included “contracts,” “appointments,” “jobs,” and “control.”

Hallowe'en in New York - ducking for plums. Print by S.D. Ehlert, published in Puck, 1913 October 29. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27993

Hallowe’en in New York – ducking for plums. Print by S.D. Ehlert, published in Puck, 1913 October 29. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27993

Plums apparently repeatedly offered a ready visual for the publication’s satirical barbs. In 1905, with the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil under intensifying scrutiny, Puck had John D. Rockefeller serving up “rebate plums.”

Belshazzarfeller's feast. Print by J.S. Pughe, published in Puck 1905 May 31. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25960

Belshazzarfeller’s feast. Print by J.S. Pughe, published in Puck 1905 May 31. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25960

I was delighted by the literal and figurative plums my search turned up–just as satisfying a combination of tart and sweet as the fruit itself. And my search results reminded me that plum associations belong to many seasons: delicate spring blossoms, plum pudding (which doesn’t actually contain plums–apparently “plum” used to refer to raisins and other fruit), and sugar plums (which bear even less relationship to the fruit, being sugar hardened around a hard center).

See how far a simple word search can take you? Apple anyone? Or how about going bananas?

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