A. G. Wetherby wrote to Christian Marinus Poulsen on 15 April 1879. The ink is pink. A bright, bubble-gum pink that I would not expect to see used by anyone over the age of twelve. I am somewhat surprised that the technology to make such an unnatural color existed in the nineteenth century. I suppose it might be a result of fading, over the years…but from what original color?

Also of note is the diaersis over the second “o” of Zoölogy (Wetherby was a professor of geology and zoology at the University of Cincinnati), a common rendering on letterhead. Wikipedia (sans citation) says the diaeresis was fading from English words by the 1940s. That feels late to me, though I can’t say why, and I certainly haven’t played extensively enough with early twentieth century documents to offer any solid impressionistic opinion. (And I’ve decided “solid impressionistic” is not an oxymoron.)


Stone implements

In an 18 September 1873 letter to an unknown recipient, John Evans discussed the notches in stone implements which he believed to be ornamental. He included an impression of one of his samples, a blade pressed into a big red blob of sealing wax. When I first saw it, I thought it was perhaps the abdomen of a grasshopper and that Evans might have been an entomologist, rather than an archaeologist and geologist.

“You are under no obligations to me, pecuniary or other.”

Isaac Hays wrote those words in a brief 19 November 1833 letter to Sally Minis, which he signed as “Your friend.” The phrase has a ritual ring to it, though I am not sufficiently informed on nineteenth century courtship practices to say so with any degree of certainty.

The couple married in Savannah the following year. Earlier letters, much more wordy, are filled with lines written at ninety degree angles, filling the page with cubes (but remaining legible, with some effort).

The politics of measurement

Sir John F. W. Herschel wrote to the East Indian Company on 5 November 1867. He argued against the adoption of the metric system for weights and measures in India (recommended in the Report of the Bengal Committee, 23 Aug 1866, which cited Herschel in a way that he felt completely misrepresented his position, which was anti-metric and “diametrically opposed” to the conclusions of the Report, “that the French metric system ought to be adopted exclusively and in its integrity for general use in India.”) After laying out a lengthy argument, defending the mathematical integrity of the British system, Herschel made a more nationalistic appeal:

For, whatever may be the efforts of the Committee who are agitating in England for the expulsion of our national and the adoption of the French system, and however a few scientific men, and especially Chemists, may consider that by the habitual use of the latter in their writings they shew themselves superior to antiquated or national prejudice, we may rest assured that nothing will ever induce British shopkeepers, farmers, and their customers to buy and sell by the metre, kilogramme, and litre; or British proprietors to alter their title deeds and measure their land by the Hectare.

Just another way in which science and empire were intertwined.


Sir Oliver Lodge to F. Bernard Vesper, Jr., 3 February 1925:

Biologically it is difficult or impossible to draw a hard and fast line between one species and another: I see no reason why such sharp lines should be attempted.

As to Survival, we must be guided by the facts; I expect that there are many grades of survival, that is to say I expect that life never goes out of existence. But whether individuality is associated with it depends upon the grade attained.


Michel-Eugène Chevreul

Photograph of Michel-Eugène Chevreul (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing to Paget on 5 February 1888, Charles Edward Brown-Séquard enclosed something extra.

The drawing, in ink, is a “Sketch of Monsieur Chevreul (back view), on his chair at the Academy of Sciences, taken by Professor J. M. Charcot December 1887.” The gentleman in question is balding, with a mad-scientist’s ruff of hair ringing his head.

I find “taken” an odd choice of words: one takes photographs but makes a sketch. Photography can seem—can be, in the case of amateur snapshots, with little thought given to composition or technical requirements, beyond (maybe) flash/no flash—a more passive thing. A real image is preserved. “Taken.” Almost like “stealing,” a lucky seizure of something to which one has no particular claim. A certain degree of accuracy is assumed, which need not be the case with a sketch, created from nothing (even if inspired by reality).


There are a bunch of early nineteenth century letters featuring family arms in the upper left hand corner. The style is ubiquitous amongst correspondence to clockmaker/conchologist Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, so I’m thinking the paper crests were added on that end at some point.

In a couple cases (e.g. the Shaftesbury bull, 23 October 1815) the image was pressed into a fat glob of red wax. In others (e.g. Lord Yarborough, 25 June 1815) the arms are cut from a different sheet of paper and glued in place. There are also cases where a brief bio is pasted beside the arms (e.g. Bishop of Lincoln, 25 February 1818). And the Marquis of Queensberry (15 April 1820) has the arms glued beneath his signature and a glob of black wax in the upper left-hand corner. They’re quite different: the crest (a crown over a winged heart) in wax, the pegasi supporters and motto (“Forward”) glued on. I spent some time googling family crests, amused by the density of description in digitized nineteenth century heraldry books, and wishing for links to illustrations (rather than references to plates, if that). I should bone up on my heraldry terminology.