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“Yes, this is my album” Victorian Collections of Scraps, Signatures, and Seaweed

Collecting, Preserving, and Arranging

My own collection of seaweeds is extensive and fairly representative. . . . They are mounted on the backs of letters, on fly-leaves torn from books, on printed papers, on anything that could be found anywhere, whether in a hotel or the house of a friend, and by the rough and ready methods which an improvident traveller must resort to when suddenly inspired with a desire to add to a herbarium or museum.

– Shirley Hibberd, The Seaweed Collector: A Handy Guide to the Marine Botanist (1872)

Edward Morell Holmes Herbarium - Seaweed Specimens

Although seaweed collecting could certainly be undertaken on the fly, as Hibberd describes, there were well-established best practices for the creation of seaweed albums. Part of the attraction of the activity was the careful planning, patience, and skill required to collect, preserve, and arrange seaweed specimens. Many manuals were published on the subject.

When planning seaside excursions, collectors were encouraged to consider timing carefully. In The Seaweed Collector: A Handy Guide to the Marine Botanist (1872), Hibberd reminds British readers that although the pursuit could be undertaken throughout the year, “the best specimens are obtainable in summer and autumn” (5). Time of day, too, is underscored as important. Hibberd explains that low tide lines are ideal, and encourages collectors to be ready, on the beach, before the tide goes out.1

Collectors were also encouraged to carefully select the right outfits; sturdy boots, comfortable woollen clothes, and walking sticks were all recommended.2 In British Sea-Weeds: Drawn from Professor Harvey’s “Phycologia Britannica” (1872), Gatty urges women collectors to choose water-proofed boots instead of Balmoral boots, to choose hats instead of bonnets, to wear shorter petticoats and flannel skirts, and to carry a walking stick for support.3 Despite unconventional appearances, Gatty suggests that women could celebrate the opportunity for wearing more comfortable attire: “Feel all the luxury of not having to be afraid of your boots; neither of wetting nor destroying them. Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm—confident in yourself, and, let me add, in your dress” (x).

Pictured above, to the right: Page of specimens from the Edward Morell Holmes Herbarium. Annotations include information on the months the specimens were collected (often summer and autumn months).

Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm—confident in yourself, and, let me add, in your dress.”

– Margaret Gatty (1872)

In addition to the need for practical outfits, seaweed collectors needed the right gear for obtaining and carrying specimens. Chisels and hammers were essential tools for detaching whole specimens (including the roots, if possible) from rocks.4 Odds and ends such as oyster knives, string, notebooks, and pencils were carried in backpacks, along with bottles, jars, and plastic-lined baskets.5 These various containers were filled with seawater and used to safely transport collected and cleaned specimens.6

After seaweed collectors returned from their beach excursions, specimens needed to be quickly treated for preservation. First, collectors washed their specimen in a container of fresh water (pie dishes were recommended). Then, they submerged a piece of paper in the water, just below the seaweed; using a quill pen or a crochet hook, branches were fleshed out, and collectors would carefully lift the paper and now-mounted specimen out of the water, laying it aside to drain. Once this was done, the mounted specimen would be pressed between boards or books and clean linen rags, ideally in a warm room.7

The drying and pressing process could take days, depending on the dampness of the weather, but once the seaweed was sufficiently preserved, collectors would carefully remove the mounted specimens from the linen rags and makeshift presses.8 Choices were then made about how the specimens would be arranged in albums—the arrangements could be focused on scientific ordering or have aesthetic aims. A plethora of album-making materials could be purchased for the final displays: blank albums with appropriate titles (“Sea Moss,” “Ocean Gems,” etc.), drying paper specialized for botanical specimens, and even pre-printed seaweed specimen labels.9

Pictured above, to the right: Specimen from the Edward Morell Holmes Herbarium, mounted on the back of a postcard.

Continue to next page: Seaweed Albums in Archives

  1. Hibberd 8 Back ↑
  2. Hibberd xx-xxi Back ↑
  3. Gatty viii, ix Back ↑
  4. Hibberd 9 Back ↑
  5. Gatty ix and Hibberd xxi Back ↑
  6. Hibberd 9 Back ↑
  7. Hibberd 10, 12-13 Back ↑
  8. Hibberd xxvi-xxvii Back ↑
  9. Duggins 123 Back ↑
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