October 7, 2023
An essential—and monumental—member of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, the saguaro cactus has become the quintessential icon of the American West.
In the Arms of the Saguaros by William L. Bird Jr., shows how, from the botanical explorers of the nineteenth century to the tourism boosters in our own time, saguaros and their images have fulfilled attention-getting needs and expectations. Through text and lavish images, this work explores the saguaro’s growth into a western icon from the early days of the American railroad to the years bracketing World War II, when Sun Belt boosterism hit its zenith and proponents of tourism succeed in moving the saguaro to the center of the promotional frame.
What first sparked your interest to write this book?
I trained as a historian at the University of Arizona, so you can probably understand how the saguaro came to lodge in my head as an impressionable student from the east. Pictures of people posing with saguaros have a certain timeless quality. Most of the pictures of—let’s call them social saguaros—bridge no distance between person and plant. People posing with saguaros sometimes reach out and touch them, but actually it’s the other way around. These special plants touch us.
What was the first image of a saguaro that inspired you to personally own this image?
I found a dog-eared copy of a 1950s Arizona annual magazine in a used bookstore in Washington, D.C. shortly after returning home from my studies in Tucson in 1975. The magazine’s cover pictures a western wear model wearing a saw-tooth pocket shirt and a cowboy hat, with her folded arms resting on the curve of a spineless saguaro arm. I kept this thing for years. I was lucky enough to find a clean copy and made it my frontispiece.
Sometimes saguaro images are misplaced—What is the place farthest from the Sonoran Desert that a saguaro has been used to represent?
The saguaro’s success as a far-flung western symbol lies in the assumptions that people have picked up about its habitat, most of them mistaken. And this is where the fun begins. Transplanted saguaros popped up throughout the west and beyond after the railroad came to Tucson in 1880. At first there were so-called Arizona gardens in California and track side displays that the Southern Pacific railroad mounted at select passenger stations. Saguaros and other native plants rode the rails to the era’s world’s fairs. Out-of-habitat transplants might cheat death for a summer or for a little while longer in the care of a botanical garden. The New York Botanical Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden (Shaw’s Garden) and Pittsburgh’s Phipps Botanical Garden all had them. Their pictures circulated in the press. With the first rush of conspicuous transplants and publicity about them, you might be excused for thinking that they grow anywhere.
Why are saguaros so interesting to people from around the world?
The saguaro joined the travel industry’s toolkit of symbols freely associated with the American West. Historically southwestern tourism’s fun-in-the-sun sales message has featured freshly starched western wear, horseback rides, campfires, bathing suits, swimming pools and saguaros, whose welcoming arms wave you in, closer and closer. This anthropomorphic quality may be the basis of the saguaro’s success as a symbol, which though ephemeral, is nevertheless powerful. And this is pretty much where we are today in fashion, art and craft.
What is your next book or research project?
I am working on a couple of publication projects with the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, that focus upon the development of graphic identities in the American Southwest. One is a book-length illustrated history of Tucson’s Cabat-Gill Advertising Agency, which among other things pioneered in early television production. Another is a short piece on stylized linen postcard images picturing downtown Tucson and their acceptance as actualities.
William L. Bird Jr. is a curator emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. His interests lie at the intersection of politics, popular culture, and the history of visual display.