Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album
Combing across 19th-century shores, seaweed collectors would wander for hours, tucking specimens into pouches and jars, before pasting their finds into artful albums. Sasha Archibald explores the eros contained in the pressed and illustrated pages of notable algologists, including “the most ambitious album of all” by Charles F. Durant.
March 9, 2022
I love the sea as my soul. Often, it even seems to me that the sea really is my soul.1—Heinrich Heine, 1826
Seaweed’s appeal may not be immediately obvious. It comes to beauty by way of strangeness. The texture is uncouth and the shapes irregular; the reference to “weed” does it no favors. Seaweed’s core self proves elusive. Some varieties are delicate, filmy, and slick, and others dense and meaty, prone to intractable knots. I’ve used seaweed as a jumping rope, but I’ve also liquified tendrils with a forefinger’s stroke.
Nowadays, the plant begs respect for its utility. Seaweed prevents oceanic erosion, we are told, and nurtures biodiversity. It’s a nutritious edible that can be cultivated with a light ecological footprint. Most impressively, marine forests are far more efficient than land-based forests at absorbing atmospheric CO2. Seaweed has become commonplace: a children’s snack, a type of massage, an ingredient in face lotion, shampoo, and Bloody Marys. Seaweed deserves our attention, the argument goes, because it is so tremendously useful.
Naturalists of the nineteenth century took a different angle. Although they understood that seaweed “conferred a positive benefit on the atmosphere”, its appeal was precisely its lack of utility.3 The same word that described seaweed on shore — “rejectamenta” — also described anything more generally considered detritus. Seaweed seemed to be a weird, surplus embellishment that existed for no particular purpose except to express the wonders of the deep ocean. When the preeminent algae scholar William H. Harvey decided at age fifteen to devote his life to algology, it was the same as if he’d pledged allegiance to profitless esotericism. He wrote his former teacher that he intended “to study my favourite and useless class, Cryptogamia. I think I hear thee say, Tut-tut! But no matter. To be useless, various, and abstruse, is a sufficient recommendation of a science to make it pleasing to me.”4 No other field of study was so delightfully feckless.
Interest in the plant signaled refinement. Flowers were the Victorian middle-class obsession, but those of greater discernment favored seaweed. The exclusive fabric designer William Kilburn led the way by printing muslin chintz with a seaweed pattern in the 1790s, and his client, Queen Charlotte, showed her exquisite taste in wearing the fabric to a ball.5 Eighteenth and nineteenth-century seaweed enthusiasts were a motley bunch, but their cultural tastes were consistently out of the ordinary. Harvey, for instance, was very fond of his pet ostrich; other seaweed fans obsessed over butterfly genitalia, paper adverts, beetles, and ballooning.6 Such men took pride in nonconformity. The author of the first American book on seaweed, Charles F. Durant, fit this type exactly: brilliant and cavalier, an intellectually-restless iconoclast. Durant and his ilk embraced seaweed as the niche preference, the obscure art film to the cineplex blockbuster.
The most avid fans became collectors. A serious seaweed habit required canvassing miles of shoreline, tracking the ground for hours at a time, stooping occasionally to clip a specimen and tuck it inside a leather pouch or glass jar. Collectors tended to work in damp solitude. The best time to go out, advised nineteenth-century how-to guides, was after a storm. Wind and waves churn the compost on the ocean floor, uprooting deep-water plants and spitting them onto sandbanks a dozen miles away.7 A disheveled beach might be laden with treasures, chief among them fibrous bits of jewel-like red seaweed. Seaweed was then organized by color; the three types correlated to hue. There was the “grass green” Chlorospermae, the “olivaceous” Melanospermae, and the “red” Rhodospermae.8 This last class, which included violet, copper, and persimmon-orange varieties, was arguably the most beautiful, and the most elusive.
Like any physical exercise, collecting seaweed cleared the head and strengthened the body. “Many a head-ache, and a heart-ache too, would be relieved if its owner could be brought to feel an interest in the shells or seaweeds which are strewed on the beach”, reflected one collector.9 These therapeutic effects seem to have been especially pronounced for women. Margaret Gatty, for instance, a celebrated children’s book author and exhausted mother of seven, was advised to take up seaweed collecting to restore her vim. She dedicated fourteen years to British Sea-Weeds (1863), which remained a standard text of classification into the twentieth century. Her devotion to seaweed is indisputable, but it’s Gatty’s pleasure in shedding the constraints of femininity that shines off the page: “to walk where you are walking, makes you feel free, bold, joyous, monarch of all you survey, untrammeled, at ease, at home!”10 She praises seaweed hunting as the best excuse a woman has for “imitating the costume of a man” — petticoats were impractical for clambering over rocks and kneeling in tide pools — and addresses her readers throughout as her “sisterhood”.11 At least one literary historian speculates that it was the summer collecting seaweed in 1856 that gave George Eliot the courage and presence of mind to try her hand at writing fiction.12
Seaweed collectors worked to many different ends. Specimens were used as the subject of ink drawings, watercolor paintings, and a variety of early photography techniques. Anna Atkins produced cyanotypes in which the seaweed appears as a white silhouette against a page of cornflower blue, and the botanical illustrator Alois Auer pioneered a method of nature prints that worked exceptionally well with seaweed. (The specimen was pressed between soft lead and steel to create an impression carefully filled with colored ink.13) For many collectors, however, representations did not suffice. They sought to preserve the tactility of the original, so that rather than paint or draw or photograph their seaweed, they kept it as it was, pressing it between pages of paper to be later bound into a book: a seaweed album.
Seaweed destined for an album was typically washed of sand, floated in water to resurrect its buoyancy, and then captured by a thick piece of paper skimmed underneath. While still moist, the seaweed fronds could be adjusted, gingerly, with a camel hair brush or porcupine quill. An especially fastidious collector might coax various specimens into tableaus — wreaths or bouquets or monograms — that were called “marine paintings”. All wet seaweed has some amount of mucilage, so that many varieties stuck to paper with no aid at all. Others needed a bit of glue, typically made of fish gelatin. A seaweed that refused to lie flat was fastened down with fiddly paper tabs.
Making a seaweed album was a fairly common Victorian pastime. The same sort of person who collected shells or ferns, or outfitted a home aquarium, might purchase a kit of preprinted paper that would help her assemble a seaweed book. Queen Victoria is said to have made a seaweed album as a young girl, presenting it as a gift to the Queen of Portugal. Albums were exchanged amongst tweens, gifted to grandchildren, or donated, like a quilt or a pie, to a charity auction. One collector sold albums to buy blankets for the poor in her parish, and another to raise money for wounded soldiers.14
The more intellectually-inclined hobbyists adapted the conventions of the seaweed album to scholarly purposes. They often attempted a comprehensive collection of a distinct geographical area, for instance, and rather than pasting in seaweed willy-nilly, they arranged their specimens systematically. They noted where and when each vegetative scrap was found, provided labels that followed scientific nomenclature, and included ponderous introductions that make reference to seaweed scholarship. These hobbyists were in the habit of sending long, detailed queries to Dr. Harvey at Trinity College Dublin, with samples of their most unusual finds. (The gatekeepers of academic botany were usually apprehensive about feminine incursions, but Harvey was warm and welcoming.)
Nineteenth-century seaweed albums have a baked-in melancholy. Despite the best intentions, they do not flatter seaweed. The samples are brittle where the plant was pliant, opaque when once translucent, flaccid where previously ballooned. The displacement from sea to paper steals a measure of the plants’ integrity, and time leaches away the rest. In every respect, the wonders of seaweed have fled the book. And yet, these albums still speak — not of seaweed exactly, but of the collector’s care and devotion. There is a particular kind of eros that thrums between a receptive human and the natural world; the contours and depth of this eros is the true subject of a seaweed album.
The best example of seaweed love is the most ambitious album of all: Durant’s opulent Algology: Algae and Corallines of the Bay and Harbor of New York. Published in 1850, it aspires to be much more than a Victorian craft set piece. The covers are bound in Moroccan leather and intricately tooled with gold flourishes. Seaweed albums were typically one-offs, but Durant managed an edition of about fifteen, and grandly announced one hundred. In the most robust version of Algology, 293 specimens follow 46-pages of letterpress-printed text. There is a glossary with definitions of “lanceolate”, “pedicel”, “capitate”, and other fanciful words, and the samples themselves are numbered and artfully arranged. “As an example of bookmaking it is in a class by itself”, noted the Staten Island Association of Arts and Sciences.15 The book sold for $100, about half the cost of a new piano.
Unlike the typical seaweed collector, Durant was not a British woman but an American man, an inventor and scientist. Born in 1805, he seemed to assume, like many educated men of his era, that no aspect of the mechanical, physical, or natural world was beyond his ken. His biography is a litany of claims-to-fame.16 With a hot-air balloon ascent from Battery Park, New York in 1830, he made his name as the first American aeronaut, staying aloft for two hours in a balloon he’d sewn himself. His second ascent, in 1833, was attended by President Andrew Jackson and thousands of others, during which Durant dropped leaflets featuring his own ecstatic poetry. These poems, about the virtues of ballooning, seem to have been the world’s first instance of aerial propaganda. He was the first US manufacturer of silkworm gut, a filament used for fishing line, and his raw silk and cocoons took high awards. He turned his attention then to Mesmerism, a faddish belief in clairvoyant hypnosis that was sweeping the nation. After infiltrating Mesmerist circles by pretending to find the practice credible, he wrote one of the first anti-Mesmerism screeds to be published in America, in which he debunked the supposed science with great relish.17 After that book, Durant became interested in hydraulics. He maintained a year of technical correspondence with Ellis S. Chesbrough, chief engineer of Boston’s waterworks, and soon-to-be engineer of Chicago’s sewage system. Their letters were published as Hydraulics: On the Physical Laws that Govern Running Water (1849).
Durant’s turn toward seaweed seems at first counterintuitive. What internal logic connects hydraulics, ballooning, silkworms, and poetry with aquatic plants? I can only guess. Perhaps the difficulty of riding wind and channeling water prepared Durant to appreciate the grace of a plant that is rooted and yet in constant motion, a life form intensely subject to the vagaries of its environment, and yet also a freestanding marvel. Undoubtedly, Durant fell in love with seaweed. As evidence, there is the tender labeling, the rhapsodizing about the shoreline, the curlicue flourishes, the sumptuous crimson cover, the dreamy air of contentment that pervades the book’s introduction.
The key to Durant’s heart was the vastness of his subject. I imagine he began collecting with the assumption that he would learn and conquer and publish, as he had before. Instead, he was “admonished” by seaweed; his research served only to remind him, again and again, how partial his knowledge. Algology is a concession, and a surrender too. Durant seems to bow his head before the “unfathomable abyss” of his topic, which proves “too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration”.18 Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.
Perhaps the most overt signal of Durant’s affection is his heretical suggestion that seaweed is an animal rather than a plant. He implies that the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, responsible for the categorizing, was wrong, dryly noting that Linnaeus “resided at a very inconvenient distance from salt water”.19 Durant on the other hand, who has now spent “two thousand hours” in the company of seaweed, can attest that seaweed appears to have locomotion, a core characteristic of animals as Linnaeus defined them. Even more damning, however, is Durant’s opinion that seaweed feels pain. Durant describes how this discovery dawned on him: noticing that his fresh specimens tended to flatten and then crumple up and then flatten again in a cyclic pattern that ended with stillness, he recoiled, realizing with horror that these pulsating movements are in fact the “agonies of death”.20 Durant’s distress in this passage is palpable; he has unwittingly killed the object of his affection. The phonetic echo between “algology” and “apology” suddenly seems of great consequence.21
Reviewers claimed Durant’s Algology was the first work on seaweed ever published with actual specimens. This is not true. At least one book preceded Durant’s efforts, Mary Matilda Howard’s Ocean Flowers and their Teachings of 1846, which seems to climax with the frontispiece: a dainty seaweed cornucopia. Algology was, however, the first book on American seaweed. Durant’s collection centered on the shore of New Jersey, from which he lived “within ten minutes’ walk”, but also included specimens from Red Hook, Staten Island, Ellis Island, and the East River.22 The landscape of the New York Harbor was far less populous in 1850, and Algology mentions landmarks that have long since disappeared: a famous bathhouse in Lower Manhattan; a series of treacherous rocks that were soon blasted apart with dynamite; a floating chapel that serviced sailors. Durant’s bits of seaweed are souvenirs of a landscape gone extinct.
Although Durant gifted copies of Algology to various charity auctions, and a few ended up in venerable libraries, they seem to have been rarely consulted or referenced. When a Curator of Botany at the Central Museum of the Brooklyn Institute (now the Brooklyn Museum) found the book in the early twentieth century, he described it as “unrecorded and forgotten”.23 Later generations of seaweed scholars failed to note that Durant’s Algology contained several “types”, a designation for the first specimen of a plant found and labeled, and Durant was not given proper credit for his scholarship.
It may have just been bad timing. The very same year Durant published Algology, Harvey was invited by Harvard University to tour the United States. He gave many lectures and collected seaweed from Key West to Halifax. Shortly before his return, he was commissioned by the nascent Smithsonian to publish his findings. The resultant three-volume tome, Nereis Boreali-Americana or Contributions to a History of the Marine Algae of North America, became the definitive study of American seaweed.24 Unlike Durant’s valentine, it had no specimens and certainly no indication that a lovesick author had wrestled with moral and ethical questions about collecting the natural world. Algology was consigned to the nethermost regions of seaweed scholarship. In the end, it was nothing more or less than “a quaint old work on seaweeds”.25
Sasha Archibald writes essays about 20th-century culture. Her writing has appeared in The Point, The New Yorker, Places Journal, Cabinet, The White Review, The Believer, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and in books and catalogues published by the Walker Art Center, Culturgest, Armory Center for the Arts, and other institutions. She has also taught and guest-lectured at California Institute of the Arts, University of California Berkeley, and Portland State University. She was an editor for many years at the art-and-culture quarterly Cabinet, and remains an editor-at-large.
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