Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker

You may have noticed that the FIFA World Cup is underway in Russia. Even if you are trying your utmost to avoid watching the tournament you’re probably aware of the current plethora of football related marketing and merchandising.

Of these, the Panini sticker album is one of the best known. First produced for the 1970 Mexico World Cup (52 pages, 271 stickers) and released for every tournament since it has become a phenomenon in its own right. The Russia 2018 edition (80 pages, 682 stickers) has been estimated to cost those wishing to complete it around £550 – but only if you swap with other collectors. Otherwise you are looking at, and a Cardiff Mathematics Professor can furnish you with the formula to prove it, £773.60.

What has this got to do with the Whitaker museum collection?

Well, this provides an ideal opportunity to talk about the many beautiful Victorian pressed seaweed pages that reside, for now, in museum storage. These are excellent examples of what was very much a collecting craze of the 19th century and allows us to acknowledge pioneering women in science.

 ‘Pressed seaweed from the Whitaker Museum collection’

‘Pressed seaweed from the Whitaker Museum collection’

Even before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859 there was considerable interest in ‘the natural world’. Bird spotting, egg collecting, fossil hunting, entomology and botany were favourite pursuits of those that could afford to add leisure to their lives. By mid-Victorian Britain this certainly wasn’t exclusive to the middle and upper classes and there is documented evidence of involvement of the working class, albeit in far smaller proportions. 

One thing that we can say about seaweed collecting however that we can’t say about many other natural world collecting crazes is that it was an almost exclusively female hobby. 

 ‘Example of an Anna Atkins Cyanotype (Wikimedia Commons)’

‘Example of an Anna Atkins Cyanotype (Wikimedia Commons)’

 

In 1841 Anna Atkins, who would become a botanist, was known to be using a camera through her family friendship with photography pioneer William Fox Talbot. She was one of the first people to use this new technology and may be the first woman to create a photograph. In 1843 she privately published the first instalment of ‘Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions’. In doing so she created the first documented use of the photograph in a book, of which only 500 copies were made and less than 20 of which are known to survive. The striking Cyanotypes she produced were the result of contact printing, where the algae was placed directly on the paper. 

 

 

 ‘Illustration from British Sea-Weeds ‘Public Domain)’

‘Illustration from British Sea-Weeds ‘Public Domain)’

So why was this collecting hobby particularly popular with women? In part this has to do with the prevalent attitudes of the day regarding ‘suitable’ activities and increased access to more serious education for women of the growing middle classes. It also had a lot to do with what women were expected to wear. Regardless of the outdoor activity the 19th century woman was weighed down with long, layered, heavy clothing. Whilst this certainly didn’t prevent a few extraordinary women climbing mountains for most it provided enough of a barrier to seek less challenging activity.
Children’s book author Margaret Gatty, a seaweed hobbyist turned pioneering Marine Biologist, published the very accessible two-volume British Sea-Weeds (1863) in which she detailed 200 illustrated specimens. Importantly, she also offered advice on what women should wear. Whilst “the necessary draperies” (petticoats and the like) needed to be worn, when it came to footwear she promoted the use of men’s stout boots:

Feel all the comfort of walking steadily forward, the very strength of the soles making you tread firm
— Margaret Gatty, Marine Biologist

Pioneering as Gatty was, she perhaps fall short of ‘feminist icon’ status as she went on to say:

A low-water-mark expedition is more comfortably undertaken under the protection of a gentleman
— Margaret Gatty, Marine Biologist

That said, maybe we can cut her some slack as, unlike you, she does have an Australian algae named after her - Gattya pinella.

We don’t know how many women participated in this hobby, less so how many purchased men’s boots, but there are sufficient surviving examples of algae scrapbooks to indicate that it was definitely a very popular pursuit. We also know that the equipment needed was stocked by many seaside shops such as the specialist Torquay one operated by Mary Wyatt, who also co-authored the two-volume Algae Danmoniensis around 1850.

Perhaps on reading this article you may have it in mind that wandering around rock pools might be a refreshing alternative to the wall to wall football on television at the moment? In that case you’ll need the proper equipment to be able to join the ranks of celebrity seaweed collectors such as Queen Victoria and George Eliot.
Fortunately, Alpheus Baker Hervey gives advice in his 1881 book:

You should have a pair of pliers; a pair of scissors; a stick like a common cedar “pen stalk,” with a needle driven into the end of it, or, in lack of that, any stick sharpened carefully; two or three large white dishes, like “wash bowls” botanist’s “drying paper;” or common blotting paper; pieces of cotton cloth, old cotton is the best; and the necessary cards or paper for mounting the plants on.
— Alpheus Baker Hervey

Sounds manageable for a trip to the beach but as James Shirley Hibberd (1872) points out you will need a specialist press that can exert around 50 pounds of pressure. Don’t let that put you off though, the results can be very rewarding…

 Detail: Pressed seaweed from the Whitaker Museum collection’

Detail: Pressed seaweed from the Whitaker Museum collection’

Seaweed Collection The Whitaker Museum

Mick Stephens
Twitter – @brownbowlerhat
Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer
Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant