Some of us carry around images or a sensibility of the 19th century, often for no other reason than to be able to see or hear something and to instantly be able to say, “Ahh, that’s soooo 19th century.” OK, maybe not many of us. For one friend of mine, the slow-moving Connecticut River on a summer day and away from the sound of traffic was 19th-century perfection. We’re not talking nostalgia here, just the satisfaction of a fitting image. Perhaps nobody has offered a more fitting and memorable image of that century than Theodore Adorno, when he said, (in one of my most favorite quotes about anything):
“In the nineteenth century the Germans painted their dream and the outcome was invariably vegetable. The French needed only to paint a vegetable and it was already a dream.”
Don’t I wish I’d said that! My own images of the 19th century include a movement towards—if not culmination of—classification and encyclopedism, as well as the invention of complex or specialized mechanical devices. The dynamic of these two trends rush over the beginning of the 20th century the way a huge post-romantic symphony might be understood to have already overflowed its orchestral banks . . . but without yet doing serious damage to anything.
Romeyn Beck Hough (1857–1924) was a 19th-century American botanist and son of Franklin Benjamin Hough, the first chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, a man routinely noted as the first leader of the American forestry movement and, sometimes, as the “father” of American forestry (along with Gifford Pinchot). The son’s work, The American Woods, pictured above, is the subject of this post because it seems, to me, at least, emblematic of these two trends.
The full title of the work pictured above is The American Woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text, and for Hough it was his life’s work. Although he didn’t do the classification himself, he was very keen on comprehensive exhibiting and explaining based on the classification. He began working in 1883 on this project, which had as its goal nothing less than the representation of all American woods. Photographs, of course, would not be an adequate means for representing the wood, so in fine late 19th-century style, Hough provided actual samples of each . . . in three different sections, transverse, radial, and tangential. These specimens, thin enough to be translucent when lit, were, as Hough explained, “mounted in durable frame-like Bristol-board pages, with black waterproofed surfaces . . . and each bears printed in gilt-bronze the technical name of the species and its English, German, French and Spanish names.” As Hough said of the work, it is “illustrated by actual specimens, and being in this way an exhibition of nature itself it possesses a peculiar and great interest never found in a press-printed book.” In Hough’s obituary, William Trelease wrote of the use of the woods themselves as illustrations,”[they], unlike texts and drawings, never can become out-of-date nor be found to contain untruths except as the names applied in his day to the trees he sectioned undergo change with progressing knowledge.” (Science, Vol. LX, No. 1557, October 12, 1924).
The project was planned as a 15-volume series to be arranged according to geography and released over a number of years. The first three volumes, first made available in 1888, represented the woods of New York, Hough’s home state. Each volume contained, in addition to at least 25 mounted and framed sets of samples, a booklet that offered the “copious explanatory text,” including a “systematic study” of the woods represented in the volume. This material described each tree’s physical characteristics, growth habits, habitat, medicinal properties, and commercial uses.
So, that’s the “classification/presentation” part. What about the mechanical? In order to exhibit samples at the required thinness, Hough had to invent the means to produce them! Of course. In 1886 he received a patent for a device that could cut wood to a thickness of 1/1200th of an inch, far thinner than required for The American Woods project. In fact, ever the entrepreneur, Hough’s purpose for the device as stated in the patent materials was, “to provide flexible wooden cards suitable for use as business or fancy cards, or cards for use in photography, the arts, &c. . . .” The following advertisement could be found inside early editions of The American Woods:
In another ad, also for the same “Wooden Cross-Section Cards,” the text reads, “It was found in the early experiments in sectioning and preparing specimens for AMERICAN WOODS, that the transverse sections of certain woods were of surprising strength and smoothness, and suitable for cards for commercial purposes.” Not the least of which was advertising The American Woods itself.
These were not the only uses for Hough’s wood slicing device. Back in the realm of botany and biology, Hough produced slides that could be used by magic lantern projectors allowing the fine detail of the woods to be seen and studied by groups of people. Lastly, using the capacity of the device to produce the thinnest sections, Hough also prepared slides for use with a microscope.
At the beginning of his project, Hough is said to have personally selected each tree that provided his samples. At least with regard to the 27 sets of sections that comprise the first volume, he writes in a November 1887 prospectus seeking subscribers:
“The author has been scrupulously careful about the identification of each tree, selected for the specimens, in the field, before felling it, while the leaves, flowers or fruit (one or all) have been obtainable, and he can vouch for the authenticity of every species represented.”
In 1889, The American Woods was awarded a grand prize at the Paris Exposition. By 1909, it had won medals at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago, Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle and the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. It was recognized as an essential resource and was reviewed as such.
Between 1888 and 1913, thirteen of the projected fifteen volumes were published in three editions at an initial price of $5.00 per volume. Extra or replacement specimen cards were available at $0.10 apiece, as announced inside the cover of several volumes. Hough’s aim was to “carry constantly a supply of such specimens.” Of the thirteen volumes, the first four covered the trees of New York and adjacent states, specimens in volume five were collected in Florida, parts six through ten represent the trees of the Pacific slope, eleven and twelve present the species of the Atlantic and Central states, while volume thirteen continued the collection of species from Florida.
Romeyn Hough died in 1924 before he could finish the project. What turned out to be the last volume in the series, the fourteenth, was completed by his daughter, Marjorie Galloway Hough, and published in 1928. It contained additional specimens from Florida. In all, the work presents 354 species and 1056 wood samples.
Special Collections has the first twelve volumes of Hough’s work. It is, for the most part, in fabulous shape. The fourteenth volume is particularly rare and we would like to complete the set, if we can.
But if The American Woods had a 19th-century genesis, its life and significance continued through the 20th and into the 21st centuries. In 1954, Robert Speller and Sons, publishers, determined that a large supply of Hough’s original samples still existed and were in the possession of Hough’s daughter, Marjorie. She supplied the specimens for a new edition of the work, published in 1957 and titled, Hough’s Encyclopaedia of American Woods. Eight new volumes of descriptive text was provided by Ellwood Scott Harrar, then Dean of the School of Forestry at Duke University, along with 16 volumes of samples. The samples were presented in much the same manner as the originals, three different sections of a single species mounted on individual cards.
This newer edition may be found in Newman Library’s general collection. Though perhaps lacking the charm of the original edition, it includes 385 varieties of trees and 1161 separate samples, thus including examples that Hough had not been able to present in the original editions, but for which he had specimens. In fact, as recently as December 2011, Jon Speller, son of the publisher, posted a website on which he offered a collection of nearly 1.2 million individual wood specimens comprising the remainder of Hough’s own collection!
I have had the pleasure of showing the set in Special Collections to students, researchers, and woodworkers alike. The American Woods is a remarkable achievement. An unparalleled resource of its time, it remains an exquisite thing of beauty. It should then come as no surprise that in this century—in 2002 and again in 2013—Taschen, an art book publisher came out with The Woodbook, a volume that contains high quality photographic reproductions of all the original specimen plates from Hough’s original volumes, along with selected drawings and text.
Neither vegetable nor dream, of this century and each of the prior two centuries, and representing a lifetime of work, Hough’s The American Woods remains a testament to the beauty and utility of a fine piece of wood.