Victorian Botany: Seaweed

Title page of Specimens of Sea Weeds, British (circa 1840), Yale Center for British Art.

Along with ferns, which were discussed in the last post, Victorians were also fascinated by seaweed or macroalgae, to be more botanically correct.  While ferns became popular in the 19th century, seaweed had already piqued interest in the later 18th century.  Sales of the estates of the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), who both owned herbaria, included seaweed collections.  While the earlier attraction was among the upper classes, pursuit of aquatic plants grew as natural history became a more popular pastime.  This was due to the 19th century’s expanding educational opportunities, cheaper publications, and increasing leisure time for those in the middle and lower classes.  Trains made travel more accessible, as did more and better roads.  Because Britain is an island, it’s not surprising that seaside areas became popular vacation spots.  Since many people were already accustomed to studying the plants and animals around them, they brought this curiosity with them to the seashore and began collecting sea life.  In the 1830s, the first aquaria were developed (Brunner, 2005).  For those more interested in documenting than nurturing what they encountered, a seaweed herbarium was often the answer.

Just as fern albums were popular souvenirs, so were seaweed books.  I examined several of these along with a small herbarium at the Museum of Natural History in Providence, Rhode Island; this experience hooked me on herbaria.  After my visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of collectors, often women, making their leisure time profitable by learning about nature.  One of the museum’s albums was created by Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore, wife of a former governor, who summered in Newport, Rhode Island.  In Britain, it was places like Bath where shops sold blank albums to be filled by vacationers, or already-made ones for those who wanted a souvenir without the work. 

The technique for preparing specimens was different from that for land plants. The alga was floated in a pan of water, then a sheet of paper was placed underneath the specimen and gently raised to catch it.  Some collectors recorded the Latin name and even where it was found, others included no information at all.  The latter albums were definitely made for their aesthetic qualities, with the specimens mounted on paper doilies and sometimes with several species on a page arranged to form a landscape or to resemble flowers spilling from a paper basket (see image above).  In this genre, art and science were definitely intertwined.

These interconnections are brought out in an intriguing book called Ocean Flowers (Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, 2004), that deals with mounted specimens, nature prints, and botanical art, focusing on aquatic plants.  One of the most spectacular displays of macroalgae in the 19th century was the work of Anna Atkins who produced hundreds of nature prints in the form of cyanotypes of seaweeds in her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53), considered the first published book of photographs.  A cyanotype is a form of photograph created by placing a specimen on chemically treated paper that turns deep blue when exposed to light, usually by placing the preparation in bright sunlight.  Each of Atkins’s photographs is labeled with the species name, so there is a nod to science, even if the date and location of collection aren’t given.

Many collectors were definitely more scientific.  One example is Margaret Gatty who was introduced to algae when she visited the shore to recover from the delivery of her seventh child.  Someone loaned her a guide to British algae, and she became entranced.  She started collecting specimens and matching them to descriptions in the book.  Soon she was in contact with experts like William Henry Harvey, who realized from her keen observations that Gatty was someone whom he could guide and in the process acquire specimens and other information.  They corresponded until his death, he and his wife visited the Gatty family, and Gatty herself prepared exsiccatae organized according to Harvey’s guide to British algae.  Harvey collected broadly while he lived in South Africa and later when he traveled to Australia.  He created specimen sets that are found in many herbaria, since serious botanists were also interested in these organisms. 

I want to end with one more example, a seaweed album with 293 species now held at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.  It was described in an article by Michele Navakas (2018) who writes that leafing through it, she could feel the creator’s passion for the subject.  She also admits that the digital version available on the library’s website, great though it is, just doesn’t give a sense of its impressive physicality, with its gold embossed red leather cover.  It was published in runs of fifteen copies, the work of  Charles Durant, a Jersey City stockbroker who enjoyed walking along the beach near his home, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan.  This was in the mid-19th century when both sides of the river were very different from what they are today and when the river was alive with intertidal life.  To produce the exsiccatae, Durant spent, according to his records, 2000 hours of work on the project that had him walking a thousand miles searching for the right specimens.  It was obviously a labor of love, and it is wonderful that we can at the very least experience it digitally.

References

Armstrong, C., & de Zegher, C. (2004). Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brunner, B. (2005). The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Princeton Architectural Press.

Navakas, M. (2018). A book full of seaweed. Huntington Frontiers, Spring/Summer, 8–12.

2 thoughts on “Victorian Botany: Seaweed

  1. Hi Maura,
    I loved reading this post on the Victorian craze for collecting seaweed, which has been a topic of passion for me over the last 5 years. I have a general observation, one which you may be able to answer. In the course of my research I have come across many articles (both academic and other) that state that “Queen Victoria as a young girl made a seaweed album”. Articles by Laura Massey and Allison Meier (that you reference in your post ‘Queen Victoria’s Herbarium?’ of Feb 16 2015) both reference page 124 of Thad Logan’s book ‘The Victorian Parlour’. However, Logan does not reference the statement itself, so unless it is elsewhere in the book it does not give any real evidence that Queen Victoria indeed made a seaweed album. I was wondering in the course of your research whether you have come across anything to support this statement? Did she make a diary entry or did someone else see her with it, for example. I would dearly love to find out, because it is annoying when you read a “fact” but can’t find the source of it. I have found evidence of her daughter having collected seaweed, but not QV herself.

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