From Ocean to Ornament, the Most Extraordinary Victorian Seaweed Scrapbook
"Seaweeds," 1848 (all images courtesy the Brooklyn Museum Libraries Special Collections)
The Victorian period had a particular flourish for domesticating the wildness out of nature. From taxidermy animals contorted into a controlled version of ferocity to pressing flowers into collectible objects, there was both a mix of fascination with flora and fauna as well as a desire to form the natural world into a vision of refinement. Yet while some young ladies delighted in clipping flowers and pressing them in books, others scraped up seaweed and kept the specimens in elegant scrapbooks.
One of these scrapbooks is held in the Brooklyn Museum Library's Special Collections and was recently digitized with high res images viewable online. The 1848 scrapbook created by Eliza A. Jordson was given to Augustus Graham, whose name is spelled out in seaweed on the first page of the book. Graham was on the Brooklyn Apprentice's Library board of directors and was a founder of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, both precursors to the Brooklyn Museum. On the second page is another elegant script in seaweed spelling out "prepared by Eliza A. Jordson, Brooklyn, L.I. 1848" (this was prior to the consolidation of 1898 that brought Brooklyn into New York City as a borough, so it is labeled as its own city on Long Island).
The keeping of a seaweed scrapbook wasn't as unusual as you might think for a Victorian lady; even Queen Victoria herself reportedly made an album as a young girl. And Victorian ladies, stuck inside, definitely devoted themselves to some equally odd handicrafts, like hair art for example. Harvard Library has a detailed description of seaweed scrapbooking from A. B. Hervey's 19th century Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae, with the process involving washing, arranging, pressing, and then adhering the seaweed to paper in its pristine state.
Each page of the scrapbook seems carefully considered, the seaweed a response to the curves of the lace doilies with an eye to the balance between the space and the specimen. It's definitely not a scientific work, but instead a social one, with no labels of genus or providence, just the bits of dried algae and fine paper. On one page, the seaweed has even been positioned into a tiny house, and on another it is bookended by a poem written from the perspective of the seaweed. An excerpt:
"Hm! Call us not weeds —
We are flowers of the sea."
A letter included in the scrapbook addressed to Augustus Graham reads: "I am commissioned by the above named persons, members of the Brooklyn Institute, to beg your acceptance, from them, of the accompanying volume of Algae, as a memento of their gratitude and esteem." Below are some images of that volume of Long Island seaweeds that was created for Graham over 150 years ago.
View more of the Brooklyn Museum's recently digitized seaweed scrapbook online, and perhaps be inspired for your own mementos of the natural world.
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