Brain Pickings

Beautiful Vintage Cross-Sections of Trees, Many Rare or Extinct Today

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A bittersweet masterpiece of design and natural history.

From Cedric Pollet’s artful photos of bark to Rachel Sussman’s magnificent portraits of Earth’s most ancient perennial plants, trees seem to possess a special magnetism for human curiosity. But no visual documentarian has approached the inventory of trees with more dedication than Romeyn Beck Hough (1857-1924). Between 1888 and 1913, Hough cataloged hundreds of tree specimens in what became an epic 14-volume masterwork entitled American Woods. He employed a breathtaking, unusual display method: actual specimens mounted on card stock in three cutouts of the tree’s wood — transverse, radial, and tangential — alongside detailed descriptions of the tree’s habitat, characteristics, growth patterns, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities. The collection endures as a work of unparalleled achievement and retails accordingly, with edition sets appraised as high as $30,000.

Luckily, Taschen has preserved Hough’s work and love of trees in the much more accessible The Woodbook: The Complete Plates, reproducing in painstaking facsimile all specimen plates from a rare original volume the editors acquired. The trees are arranged in alphabetical order and presented in Hough’s signature triad of cross-sections, revealing a wealth of colors and textures. Accompanying the wood cuts are lithographs by Charles Sprague Sargent, depicting the leaves and nuts of the trees, as well as texts contextualizing the trees’ geographical origins and physical characteristics.

Besides being an invaluable treat for naturalists and designers alike, The Woodbook is also a bittersweet artifact — in the century since Hough completed American Woods, many of the trees have become rare or completely extinct.

The individual plates have been made available online, courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center of the NCSU Libraries — a fine addition to these 7 important digitization projects.

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