Skip to main content

Saunders Family Papers

Identifier: yhm-arc-0000-061

Scope and Contents

The Saunders Family Papers contain correspondence, journals, business records, biographical information, and documentation of the interests and daily lives of the Saunders family of Clinton, New York. Researchers examining the papers will gain insight into the family of a beloved Hamilton College faculty member and a world-reknowned peony hybridist. Of special note are correspondence between family members and friends including letters from the Brothers Grimm, J. Agee, R. Eberhart, Ezra Pound, Elihu Root and family, B.F. Skinner, Alexander Woollcott, and letters from Susy Clemens to Louis Brownell (later Mrs. A.P. Saunders). A significant amount of the collection pertains to the horticulture business started by A.P. Saunders and holds correspondence, orders, marketing materials, and research notes on peony hybridization.


  • Creation: 1877-1985


Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on accessing material in this collection.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright restrictions may apply. Unpublished manuscripts are protected by copyright. Permission to publish, quote, or reproduce must be secured from the repository and the copyright holder.

Biographical / Historical

Arthur Percy Saunders was born in London, Ontario in 1869 into a prominent Canadian family. His father William established the system of experimental farms throughout Canada. He had 4 brothers, all distinguished in their professions and avocations. Also one sister who never married. A.P. obtained his B.A. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto in 1890 and then went on to Johns Hopkins for his PhD in Chemistry, graduating in 1894. During at least one summer (1892), he worked for his father doing crosses in wheat. The cross he did led to the Marquis wheat strain selected by his brother Charles who became the first Dominion Cerealist. (Charles also did Chemistry at Toronto and Johns Hopkins but originally pursued a career in music, only turning to breeding of cereals when he couldn't make a living in music. Marquis Wheat was high quality and ripened early enough to be grown in the northern US and the prairie provinces of Canada. Charles was knighted by the British and honored by the French for the contributions of grain to the allies of WWI.)

The family were all interested in ornithology, entomology, music, theatre, art, etc. A.P. played the violin all his life and founded the Chamber Music Society of Ithaca after his retirement from Hamilton College.

After his PhD, A.P. had several one year positions - a year teaching at U W Madison, two years of presumably research at two different German universities, a year at McGill in Montreal, and finally in 1899-1900, a year at Cornell. There he met Louise Brownell who was the Dean of Sage College (Women's College) and who had a doctorate in literature. She had done her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr and was great friends with Olivia Clemens, Samuel Clemens' daughter (who died young). Her letters to Louise are housed in the Saunders Family Papers.

A.P. and Louise married and moved to Clinton in fall 1900. At first they lived in part of a house on campus, sharing it with the widow of another faculty member. In 1903 they moved into the Williams Farmhouse, now known as the Saunders House, on Griffin Road. He was Dean from 1909 to around 1929 and continued to teach until 1939. He grew many types of plants - roses, irises, colchiums, etc. but settled on specializing in peonies because they grew well.

As soon as he moved into the Saunders House, he filled the yard with plants. He did some iris breeding and grew the common Chinese peony (then known as Paeonia albiflora or P. sinensis - both names appear in his records, now known as P. lactiflora). He had his own seedlings and named about half a dozen. He also got seeds of Japanese tree peonies and grew those up, naming only one, Noelle de Mosa. He acquired a few European Paeonia species as well such as tenuifolia (the fern leaf peony), mlokosewitschi, and officinalis and began to make crosses between those and the lactiflora varieties. He also acquired some of the newly discovered (1886) woody species, P. lutea and P. delavayi, and began crossing those to the tree peonies (known as Moutan peonies or P. suffruticosa - no longer considered a true species). Only a couple of breeders in France had previously made those crosses.

A.P. and Louise had 4 children: Silvia, Olivia, Duncan, and Blake. Duncan finished high school and started college at Hamilton at the young age of 15. In February of 1922, he was living in a dorm and hit his head during some rough housing and died a few days later. The next year, A.P. took a sabbatical in Europe to get away with his remaining family (personal communication, Saunders' relative Lucy Saunders). While in Europe he visited many botanical gardens and nurseries and upon his return, he ordered many plants and seeds from nurseries and botanical gardens in Europe. He eventually acquired all the known species of peonies.

He attempted to make every possible cross, some of which have never been repeated. He numbered every peony (species, his own plants, and those of others) with 17,224 at the time of his death. He named and introduced over 180 herbaceous peonies and 79 woody peonies, all but one a lutea hybrid. Some were later discarded by either A.P. or Silvia with about 140 herbaceous and 70 woody peonies still in existence. Although the F1 plants were generally single and mostly sterile, some F2 plants were obtained and many of these are in the lineage of today's latest introductions.

From the accounts in the Hamilton College Half Century Annalist's letters, he was beloved by his students (and nicknamed "Stink Saunders" for the odious demonstrations in chemistry classes) and their home was opened to students on many occasions. His own notebooks reflect his concerns for students. He attended the college athletic events and helped to establish the Art Department.

Silvia Saunders had a career in photography for House and Garden magazine among others but returned in 1951 to help her parents. A.P. apparently had a stroke in 1945 and after that time, correspondence was handled by Louise and then Silvia and his journals stopped (they had started in 1877 when he was 8 years old). A.P. died in 1953, Louise in 1961, and Silvia in 1994. Silvia kept up the nursery until about 1970. The Saunders House reverted to the College and the strip of land Saunders had purchased along College Hill Road for his nursery was sold to the College for $1.

Both A.P. and Silvia were very active in the American Peony Society including terms as President. A.P. was also active in the Chamber Music Society of Utica and there are a lot of documents related to that. There are journal notes about theater excursions and Robert Frost was a guest (signed the guestbook in the archives).

Saunders doesn't appear to have published any research articles on chemistry after he went to Hamilton but he collaborated with Dr. Stebbins, then at Colgate University and later at Berkeley, to do cytogenetics of peonies, establishing that some species are diploid, some are tetraploid, and some have both diploid and tetraploid members. They also observed the aberrant pairing of chromosomes in some of the hybrid peonies, especially the lutea hybrid peonies, indicating that although they had the same number of chromosomes, the arrangements of the genes on the chromosomes were not the same. (Chromosome inversions, deletions, duplications, and translocations contribute to speciation.) They published in Genetics in 1938.

Saunders is considered the "father of the modern peony". The only major group of peonies he did not succeed in hybridizing is the intersectional or Itoh group, crosses between woody and herbaceous peonies. Although these are still difficult crosses to make, almost all successes have been achieved by pollinating a P. lactiflora plant by a lutea hybrid. The abnormal chromosome pairing observed years ago by Saunders in the lutea hybrids results in unreduced gametes and the resulting intersectional hybrids are generally triploid with two sets of woody peony chromosomes and one set of P. lactiflora chromosomes.

Source: Lois Girton email to Jeremy Katz (Oct. 4, 2022)


44 Linear Feet (42 standard boxes; 4 card boxes)

Language of Materials





The Saunders Family Papers contain correspondence, journals, business records, biographical information, and documentation of the interests and daily lives of the Saunders family of Clinton, New York. Researchers examining the papers will gain insight into the family of a beloved Hamilton College faculty member and a world-reknowned peony hybridist.


The Saunders Family Papers are arranged into 7 series: I.) Business Records; II.) Correspondence; III.) Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks; IV.) Financial Records; V.) Personal Papers; VI.) Publications; and VII:) Video and Audio Recordings. All files within each series are arranged in either alphabetical order by subject or chronological order by date.

Related Materials

Short home video from the Alexander Woollcott Papers featuring Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Saunders tending their peony garden (Spec Coll Archives Media ; AL COLL W9 H64 no.8;

Related Materials

Short documentary with Silvia Saunders produced by the Hamilton College Art Department, 1980; Spec Coll Archives Media ; AL COLL W53 S9;

Synopsis: Silvia Saunders speaks about her transferring from Bryn Mawr (her mother's alma mater) to Radcliffe, where there was more music; her family's moving into Williams Farmhouse (now Saunders House) in 1903 after it was rehabilitated by Dr. Stryker; her father's breeding peonies; her photography--plants, gardens, architecture--and her travels for House and Garden; her father's teaching chemistry (1900-1939) and continuing to live in the house until he died in 1953; the importance of chamber music to the family; and her current life on the Hill.

Related Materials

Oral history with Mrs. Louis Brownell Saunders, April 24, 1960, Spec Coll Archives Hamilton Collection; HAM COLL HO H182 S83 1960;

Related Materials

Matilda Auchinloss Brownell, American, 1869 - 1966, Painting, Arthur Percy Saunders (1869-1953), 1902, Oil on canvas, Canvas: 26 × 21 in. (66 × 53.3 cm), Hamilton College Portrait Collection. Gift of Mrs. Skip Taylor to the Chemistry Department, 19XX.22, Stored at the Wellin Museum of Art

Separated Materials

Photographs removed to Photograph Collection (0000-092). Correspondence from B.F. Skinner removed to the B.F. Skinner Papers (0000-005). Correspondence with Ezra Pound removed to Ezra Pound Collection (yhm-spe-pou, file A2c). Oversized materials removed to oversized folder stored in flat file case. Nails from the Saunders House (Williams Farmhouse) added to artifact cabinet.

Jeremy Katz
Spring 2023
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Hamilton College Archives Repository

198 College Hill Road
Clinton NY United States