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The George Newbold Lawrence Correspondence Collection

When I first began sorting through the hundreds of letters between Lawrence and his friends and colleagues in this collection, I expected the majority to be highly scientific—difficult for the average person to understand, loaded with terms and concepts foreign to non-ornithologists, and concerned with personal and institutional avifauna collections. Upon deeper inspection, many of the letters confirmed these suspicions. Some of Lawrence’s closest friends, including Baird and Cassin, held important positions in museums just beginning to establish their ornithology departments at the turn of the century. They dedicated their lives to bird study, and much of their correspondence reflects that. Though short, a letter from Robert Ridgway, Curator of Ornithology at the Smithsonian Institution and founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, packs in the scientific names of multiple new specimens found by their mutual friend Frederick A. Ober, discusses and compares the descriptions and habitats of the species, and references the exact pages of a source book to support his research.

Letter from Robert Ridgway to Lawrence, September 20, 1872

In another letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast, a naturalist and collector, a list of bird species is included in dense letter written completely in French. References are made to small differences between scientific names and other ornithologists like Baird are cited in his discussion. Lawrence’s correspondence with John Grant Wells, an ornithologist, contains more of the same highly specialized talk.

Letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast to Lawrence, April 6, 1874

Letter from John Wells Grant to Lawrence, February 22, 1881

But not all of the correspondence in this collection was so serious. In one of many letters to Lawrence, John Porter McCown shares his love of “wandering through the woods and making the acquaintance of the birds.” He talks about eliminating potential predators from his property– “I allow no cats about my shanty and I extend protection to the feathered tribes…The result is that my premises abound in birds – quails raise their young in my yard” — and goes on to note that he refrained from starting a collection of birds as he had “seen none but old friends.”

Letter from John Porter McCown to Lawrence, April 17, 1877

Letters like these display the dual-nature of ornithologists like Lawrence. Fascination with birds, often cultivated from a young age, led many to pursue the science and partake in the rigors of studying, naming and exhibiting species found all around the world. But, when possible, these men also protected birds in their natural habitats and resisted the compulsion to kill and collect for the advancement of science.

Hello everyone! After working through the spring semester with Claire and Becca in Invertebrate Paleontology, I’m two weeks into making my way through the George Newbold Lawrence Correspondence Collection. Lawrence was a nineteenth-century amateur ornithologist and author. His collection of over 8,000 bird skins and 300 new bird species was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in May 1887. The correspondence collection for which I’m currently creating a finding aid was given to the museum in 1929 and comprises hundreds of mostly handwritten letters by Lawrence and his friends and colleagues.

George Newbold Lawrence

Lawrence was born on October 20, 1806 in New York City, but spent a good portion of his childhood at his father’s country home along the Hudson River. As a young man, he enjoyed observing and studying avifauna in their natural habitats across the wooded areas of Manhattan including Fort Washington Point and Manhattanville. Lawrence eventually went into partnership with his father in the wholesale drug business and became head of the firm in 1834. But after being introduced to Spencer Fullerton Baird who would become the first curator at the Smithsonian Institution in 1841, he devoted his life to the study and classification of birds.

Spencer Fullerton Baird and John Cassin

Lawrence used his wealth and business background to finance several Smithsonian expeditions, and in 1842 published his first scientific paper on the Black Brant (Bernicula nigricans). This began his nearly fifty-year-long career of contributing ornithology papers to natural science periodicals. Together with Baird and American ornithologist John Cassin, Lawrence worked on the ninth volume of the Pacific Railway Reports, government-funded explorations, studies and surveys of the American West intended to discover the best route for the trans-continental railroad. The volume was eventually revised, expanded and republished in 1860 as The Birds of North America encyclopedia.
Throughout his life, Lawrence was an active member of the New York Lyceum of Natural History as well as the New York Historical and Geographical Societies. He eventually also became an Honorary Member of both the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Linnaean Society of New York.  His knowledge of New World ornithology is widely celebrated: one genus and twenty bird species are named after Lawrence in recognition of his contribution to the science. He forms, together with Baird and Cassin, the great triumvirate of the Bairdian Epoch of American Ornithology.
The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology published by the American Ornithologists’ Union
I’m excited to continue working with and learning from the Lawrence collection.  It’s incredibly well-organized with neatly labeled and alphabetized folders. Despite the fact that the majority of letters are from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, moreover, it’s amazing that the collection is in excellent condition. I’ve only just begun constructing its container list, but I’ve already become well-acquainted with Lawrence and his associates. In the coming weeks, I’ll describe some of the most interesting letters in the collection to provide a better sense of this businessman with a real passion for ornithology. Stay tuned!

I was first exposed to the writings of Theodore Roosevelt last year when his book African Game Trails was required reading for a history class on American naturalists. While I didn’t have high expectations of it to begin with, I was definitely surprised to find myself particularly engrossed by the description of his expedition to east Africa. Perhaps Roosevelt’s work simply satisfied a submerged desire for action amidst the tide of academic publications I’m subject to at school, but nevertheless, I felt as if I had discovered someone who genuinely, and unexpectedly, piqued my interest in natural history writing. Therefore, when Iris informed me that my next assignment was to create a finding aid for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and Exhibition collection, I was obviously thrilled.

The collection’s ten boxes ended up comprising two separate themes and subjects. The first of which revolved around the decades long creation of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which now serves as the museum’s main entrance. Although progress on construction was slow, it was ultimately successful and certainly worth the wait. Also prominent in this series was information detailing the construction of the monumental equestrian statue of Roosevelt which has greeted museum visitors since its unveiling in 1940. The second half of the collection, however, was the true gem and I would be shocked if has not already been utilized by various historians. This portion of the collection is made up of various correspondence between Roosevelt and well know AMNH President Henry Fairfield Osborn and AMNH ornithologist Frank M. Chapman amongst others. Both men were extremely well respected in their time for their contributions to the sciences, and based on their letters, they each maintained great friendships with the former president. The correspondence ranges mainly from the turn of the 20th century up until Roosevelt’s death in 1919, and the subjects range from discussions about Roosevelt’s special interest in animal coloration patterns, to the details of various expeditions Roosevelt undertook for the museum, especially his notoriously dangerous exploration of the Amazon from 1913 through 1914. After slowly working my way through the carbon copies of these letters in the first few boxes, I was shocked to find the stained, but well preserved, originals (many of which were signed, if not handwritten) in the last box I opened. Clearly this collection is nothing short of a treasure for anyone interested in Roosevelt, it not only illustrates his amazing intelligence (his knowledge of the natural sciences was impressive), but the AMNH’s central role in scientific research (which Roosevelt publicized through the numerous articles he wrote for magazines detailing their collective work). I’m honored to have been given an opportunity to work with such rare and important documents, and I hope others find the collection as fascinating as I have.

In addition to our assignment of exposing hidden collections and performing risk assessment in the Invertebrate Zoology departmental archive, we are also helping to facilitate a shift of the materials. That is, the research library here at the museum will be accessioning the IZ archive and incorporating it into its archival holdings, with OPAC records and all. Given that, we spent a good portion of the day re-housing the correspondence collections we’ve previously cataloged from the filing cabinets where they used to live into 10x12x15 Paige miracle boxes, and labeling the contents. The only portion of the archive that will remain in the IZ department is the New York Entomological Society papers, which is a hitherto unprocessed collection.

The curious, aspiring archivists that we are, we couldn’t help but peek into some of those unorganized boxes that will be left behind. To our delight and amusement, we came across the liveliest item of any collection yet, a scrap album of the centennial celebration (1892-1992) of the New York Entomological Society. Among photographs and newspaper clippings about the event, the album contains a dinner menu…and what an appetizing menu it is. Among some of the savory dishes listed are plain, wax worm, and mealworm avocado; wild mushrooms in mealworm flour pastry; cricket and vegetable tempura; mealworm balls in zesty tomato sauce; mini fontina bruschetta with mealworm ganoush, wax worm fritters with plum sauce; roasted Australian Kurrajong grubs, sautéed Thai water bugs; assorted cricket breads with butter…and for desert, assorted insect sugar cookies. Yum yum.

Today was our first day in Invertebrate Zoology. We were greeted by our nice new friends: tarantulas and hissing cockroaches.

At first, we tried to get a sense of the collection’s scope and order. Some items were in banker’s boxes, while others were neatly arranged in file cabinets. To get our feet wet, we decided to work on the correspondence collections in the file cabinets. At first the process was a little slow, but we soon caught our rhythm which made things go much more smoothly. For the most part, nothing terribly interesting jumped out to us; however, there were a number of envelopes with photographs in the Pedro Wygodzinsky collection that appeared to span his personal and professional lives. We hope to examine these closer when we enter Phase II of the project; as well as several bundles of field notes, drawings, and diaries scattered throughout this selection.

One major perk we came across in the second file cabinet we opened was a set of inventory sheets prepared in 1986 as part of a New York Historical Document Inventory project. This was an enormous help to us in while we were creating records for the larger collections. For example, the dates on these forms were a huge time saver because they saved us the effort of getting a selection of dates from the files.

Stay tuned for what treasures we come across next week.

The Archival gods have smiled upon me on this day in the form of an acid free box full of treasures. At present I have been set with the task of creating a finding aid for these long lost items but its has been a stop and go process because of what I keep finding. The collection in question is from the Department of Preparation and Installation and I must tell you they lived up to their name. The correspondence of requests and affirmations are so specific that I can testify that in the creation of the North American Mammal Hall no detail was left to chance. Of course the exhibits speak for themselves but the letters of correspondence set the tone for a back story of formal yet gracious language. For me the letters have been a little window to the past that have helped me to appreciate the efforts of James L. Clark and George Sherwood in a new way. The other pearl of the day came to me as a glass mounted slide that I uncovered among some photographs. The slide is of an early set up for a wildlife diorama. Multiple letters were sent to experts in several fields to make sure every aspect of these mounted depictions were authentic. Let me know if you can find a blade of grass out of place!

Yesterday, I revisited a few collections to help clean up some records and try to rearrange or combine like materials. This meant spending more time and looking more closely at records that in the first run through could not be treated in such detail. One of my favorite examples from Phase I appeared again yesterday: the field notes of Frank Watson, lepidopterist. Frank’s field notes ranged from 1896 (when he was 19 and exploring the wilds of Ramapo, New Jersey) to the time of his death in 1947, eight years after his retirement from the Museum. From the start, Frank’s interest was butterflies and his long career took him on numerous collecting trips to the West Indies. By the end of his life, however, his attention more and more turned to birds and his observations of higher-order winged creatures became nearly as astute as those of butterflies.

Stuffed in with Watson’s field notes were also those of Fred Rindge, another bug collector who toured the United States from 1955 until 1970. While Watson’s notes were written in more of a “telegraph” style, Rindge’s notes were more refined journal entries with more of a focus on the narrative of his travels (including lots of asides devoted his always-breakin’-down cars).

And, in honor of baseball’s return (and perhaps in light of recent labor disputes in the NFL), here are some papers from the short-lived “Headhunters” softball squad.

It seems that the members of the Employee’s Benefit Association were having trouble getting reimbursed for the expenses of the Museum’s softball. Umpire fees, new mitts, and clean jerseys were the requests that were made. But, it took months before the team was fully reimbursed. Luckily, it seems, a players’ strike was averted.

And, as one final item in the “Softball” folder showed, what would a softball squad without a functioning beer cooler!

In surveying the Department Records today, the remarkable breadth of activities the AMNH has engaged in over its history became readily apparent. We encountered early 20th century materials related to the AMNH Journal, an early Museum publication, including subscription forms from many prominent persons and institutions, and a wealth of materials that bear high research value in the history of the United States Postal Service and magazine publishing in New York.

Additionally, we came across materials related to the Museum’s centenary celebrations. Included were several letters from institutions and individuals congratulating the President on the centenary of the Museum, in the early 1970’s. National and international universities issued fancy proclamations for the event, and there are letters from Mayor John Lindsay, US President Richard Nixon, as well as a letter from Buckingham Palace offering Prince Charles’ personal regards. It was interesting to consider these correspondents in light of the numerous entries preserved from a 1968 public school essay contest, called Windows of the World. There are entries from students in grades 3-11, and in addition to the wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful entries are drawings and other student art works.

A truly sweeping range of engaged patrons have been served over the decades by the variety of offices and employees of the AMNH, and the Department Records demonstrate this in often surprising and unexpected ways.