Naturalists in Neptune’s Garden: Seaweed Collecting as Virtuous Amusement in 19th Century America

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During the second half of the 19th century, seaweed enthusiasts took to the shore, pulling “flowers of the ocean” from the briny depths and pressing them on paper. By transforming tangles of algae into delicate specimens, these collectors expressed their appreciation of the natural world.

Carefully preserved in albums, many dried seaweed specimens survive as curious glimpses into the lives and values of nineteenth century Americans, particularly middle-class New England women. The Newport Historical Society holds a collection of seaweed specimens that Kathrinne Duffy, the Society’s 2014 Buchanan/Burnham Fellow, has studied in detail. On Thursday April 16, 2015 at 5:30pm, Kathrinne will discuss this collection, and her research, during the talk Naturalists in Neptune’s Garden: Seaweed Collecting as Virtuous Amusement in 19th Century America.

“Unlike stuffing dead animals, preserving seaweed seemed a gentle pastime, ideal for female naturalists,” Kathrinne explains. “Their physiological forays offered fresh air, exercise and a sense of purpose. Religion also motivated some collectors. By examining algae, pious naturalists felt they could better fathom God’s creation. But around the year 1900, with the acceptance of fun for its own sake, seaweed collecting lost its popular appeal.”

Evolving from the exhibit Flowers of the Ocean: A History of Seaweed Collecting in Newport, which is currently on display at the Museum of Newport History (127 Thames Street), Naturalists in Neptune’s Garden will explore the origins of the algae trend, the lives and motivations of seaweed collectors and the changes in amusement culture that led to the decline of seaweed collecting as a hobby. Attendees can view a nineteenth century album of New England seaweeds from the speaker’s personal collection.

This 5:30pm program takes place at the Colony House on Washington Square. General admission costs $5 per person, $1 for Newport Historical Society members and active duty military with ID. Please RSVP at or call 401-841-8770.

Kathrinne Duffy is a doctoral student in American Studies at Brown University. Her areas of focus include nineteenth century America, the history of science, and material culture. She spent the summer of 2014 as a Buchanan/Burnham Fellow at the Newport Historical Society where she curated the Flowers of the Ocean exhibit.