Meeting Location: Papago Buttes Church of the Brethren, 2450 N 64th St, Scottsdale

Meeting Time: 2:00 p.m

Presenter: William Lawrence (Larry) Bird, Jr.

William Lawrence (Larry) Bird, Jr. is Curator Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Larry holds a Ph.D. in American History from Georgetown University (1985). He earned his M.A. in American History from the University of Arizona (1975) and his B.A. in American History from the University of Maryland (1973).

He began his museum career as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, working part time at the Arizona Historical Society with a grant-in-aid funded by Emery and Ann-Eve Johnson.

He is the author of several books and a curator of Smithsonian exhibits drawn from museum and archival source material. His interest lie at the intersection of politics, popular culture and the history of visual display. His Smithsonian exhibits and their companion books include Paint by Number; Holidays on Display; and Souvenir Nation.

He is a former Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellow and an award-winning recipient of Pima County’s 2022 Books of the Year list for In the Arms of Saguaros, the subject of this afternoon’s talk.

Presentation: In the Arms of Saguaros: Iconography of the Giant Cactus

Larry will discuss the history of the saguaro cactus and its popular imagery in a talk drawn from his recent book, In the Arms of Saguaros: Iconography of the Giant Cactus, published by the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill – University of Arizona.

Larry’s illustrated talk will picture the earliest published images of the saguaro dating to the era of botanical discovery in the Sonoran Desert in the late 1840s. A dramatic uptick in saguaro imagery followed the railroad’s penetration of the Sonoran Desert in the early 1880s. Transplanted saguaro displays acquainted Americans and the world with saguaros first hand. Images of the plant enjoyed wide circulation. In the years bracketing the Second World War, southern Arizona’s travel and tourism industry elevated the saguaro to the status of a regional icon. For many outside the region and unfamiliar with the plant, the saguaro became a popular icon of the American West writ large—that by the early 1960s came to reside in a new, if largely imaginary commercial range.

In showing photos and snap shots taken over the years of people from all walks of life posing with saguaros—standing, sitting, leaning and touching—comes the question, why?

In the end, the answer is not so much about us touching the plants. These plants touch us.

From top to bottom:

  • Book cover of “In the Arms of Saguaro”.
  • Marcia Louise Luglan posed on a saguaro arm. 1950. Western Ways, Pictorial America–Arizona Edition. Photograph by Ray Manley.
  • Giant cactus with brace. 1907. Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, San Antonio, Texas.
  • Brochure cover. In Arizona’s Valley of the Sun. Mesa Arizona Chamber of Commerce, ca. 1940.