Nature Domesticated: A Victorian Seaweed Scrapbook
As children many of us will have collected flowers to press between the pages of books and, if we were very organised, gathered them into scrapbooks. But how many have done the same with seaweed? During the Victorian era seaweed collecting was a popular occupation for young ladies. It was a Romantic, but sentimental and safely domesticated, way to explore the natural world for women who were not expected to study science for its own sake, but as a social accomplishment. The present scrapbook (book sold) is an early Victorian example containing thirty-four artfully arranged specimens of red, green, and brown seaweeds. Its upper cover is embossed with the name Miss Mary Carrington, but we not not sure whether she was the collector or perhaps the recipient of the completed scrapbook.
What was so appealing about seaweed collecting that it became a popular hobby? For the Victorians, the natural world was inextricably tied to religious and moral edification, with amateur collectors drawn to its study “as a culturally approved form of recreation… seen as aesthetically pleasing, educational and morally beneficial, since [natural objects] lifted the mind to a new appreciation of God”. “Queen Victoria as a young girl made a seaweed album; later in the century, materials for such an album could be purchased at seaside shops like that of Mary Wyatt in Torquay, who specialized in natural souvenirs” (Logan, The Victorian Parlour, pages 144 & 124).
Mounting the seaweed allowed the hobbyist a level of aesthetic freedom, as they were expected to artfully arrange the samples rather than simply pasting them into a book.
“In the late 19th Century, the book Sea Mosses: A Collector’s Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae by A. B. Hervey outlined how to properly press and mount various types of algae. The tools needed are a pair of pliers, scissors, a stick with a needle in the end, at least two ‘wash bowls,’ botanist’s ‘drying paper,’ or some kind of blotting paper, cotton cloth, and finally cards to mount the specimens on. Pliers and scissors are used to handle the specimens and cut away any extraneous, ‘superfluous’ branches, and the needle is used like a pencil so that the plant can be moved around with relative ease to show the finer details… The drying and pressing process consists of layering the mounting papers with various types of blotting cloth and additional paper topped with weights… Most seaweed in this case will adhere to the mounting board via gelatinous materials emitted from the plant itself” (Harvard University, Mary A. Robinson online exhibition).
The creator of this scrapbook must have followed a similar set of instructions, as each specimen is carefully fanned out to achieve a naturalistic beauty and symmetry, and no adhesives have been used.
This delicate process exposed not only the beauty of the seaweed, but reflected the character of the collector. Nature was at the centre of the Victorian domestic imagination, and “one reason for the appearance of various representations of the natural world in the parlour… was a continuing apprehension of the world as beautiful – or at least a continuing prestige attached to those who were sensible of that beauty” (Logan, p. 142). In other words, collecting and carefully arranging seaweed demonstrated the participant’s refined sensibilities and her appreciation of nature’s more subtle forms of beauty.
For more on scrapbooking see our related posts on a Jazz Age scrapbook and a Victorian illustration scrapbook. And to learn about another Victorian hobby see Painting by Words: The Original Drawings of Charlotte Brontë.