"A feeling for beauty was key to all who were engaged in natural science," William Leach says. (Credit: Curious Expeditions/Flickr)

See 19th-century America through butterfly collecting

Butterfly collecting helped transform the study of natural history before there was a clear division between the arts and scientists, a new book suggests.

As a lifelong butterfly collector, Columbia University history professor William R. Leach has parlayed his experience into a book showing how butterfly collecting was at the heart of America’s enthusiasm for the natural world in the decades after the Civil War.

In Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, the cultural historian takes readers on a journey to a time before the arts and sciences were clearly separated, and when aesthetics played an important role in the pursuit of knowledge about Lepidoptera—moths and butterflies.

“A feeling for beauty was key to all who were engaged in natural science,” Leach says.

This national obsession with collecting insects coincided with America's even more ardent passion for the technology and industry—including photography and chemical colors—that would threaten the natural world and eliminate the need to go chasing after butterflies when one could just as easily find them in a book. (Credit: Yersinia pestis/Flickr)
This national obsession with collecting insects coincided with America’s even more ardent passion for the technology and industry—including photography and chemical colors—that would threaten the natural world and eliminate the need to go chasing after butterflies when one could just as easily find them in a book. (Credit: Yersinia pestis/Flickr)

Focusing on the stories of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists, Leach shows how their discoveries and observations helped transform the study of natural history. But he also demonstrates how this national obsession coincided with America’s even more ardent passion for the technology and industry—including photography and chemical colors—that would threaten the natural world and eliminate the need to go chasing after butterflies when one could just as easily find them in a book.

During the middle to late 19th century, the railroads opened up vast stretches of land teeming with new butterfly species and ordinary Americans were secure enough to venture beyond their homes to explore the diversity of the natural world.

“The railroad was an ally of collecting for all these people,” he says, adding that it would also, paradoxically, lead to the destruction of butterfly habitat.

One colorful figure who plays a prominent role in the book is Herman Strecker, an amateur collector who identified 251 separate species and created the largest and most important collection of butterflies and moths in the Americas, containing more than 50,000 specimens. Chicago’s Field Museum purchased it in 1908.

Leach writes that Strecker would urge younger collectors to visit remote parts of the world, only to take some of their most valuable finds when they returned.

“There was rivalry among all the leading butterfly collectors, which had a salutary effect on the science itself, but also led to vindictive and revengeful behavior,” he says.

With full-color inserts and black-and-white illustrations throughout, the book shows how butterfly collectors helped to bring Darwinian evolutionary thinking to America. “They led the way for other American naturalists,” Leach says.

Source: Columbia University

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