Tag Archives: Botany

Salem’s Spider Man

Obviously I am shamelessly exploiting both popular culture and alliteration with my title, but nevertheless James Henry Emerton (1847-1931), one of Salem’s most successful commercial artists, did indeed love spiders. He was a self-proclaimed “zoological and botanical draughtsman” who illustrated some of the most popular natural history publications of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emerton was of that generation of Salem boys (and maybe Salem girls, I’m just not sure) who could and would flourish in the natural history network of the city, where and when both the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum (which was the Peabody Academy of Science until 1915) had missions of advancing scientific understanding as much as cultural appreciation. The son of a prominent Salem apothecary, he was a self-taught artist and naturalist, beginning his collection of his favorite object of study, spiders, in his teens and expanding it right up until his death. He was not university-educated, though he did spend a year in Germany at several universities, at the same time as his younger brother Ephraim, who became a very prominent medieval historian and professor at Harvard. James returned to Salem in 1876, and was employed as a curator and instructor in natural history at the Peabody Academy, all the while collecting his spiders and illustrating the natural world around him. Throughout his career, he seemed to operate in three different intersecting worlds, working with prominent naturalists to illustrate their research in publications and exhibitions, as a creative artist, and as an active arachnologist. The illustrations in one of the most beautiful and authoritative botanical books of the later nineteenth century, Daniel Cady Eaton’s Ferns of North America, first published in Salem in 1879 by the prolific Samuel E. Cassino, placed him very confidently on the first path.

Emerton had several productive and lengthy academic collaborations which inspired him to expand his creative and reproductive skills from illustration to modeling with papier mache and plaster: consequently he is sometimes referred to as both a sculptor and an illustrator. Following the Ferns book, he began to work with Yale professor Addison Verrill, who was also employed by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries and the Smithsonian. After some hardy Newfoundland fisherman hauled up a giant squid in 1873, Verrill and Emerton worked together to produce the first illustrated scientific study of that wondrous creature, and the latter produced a 40-foot-long model that was displayed with great fanfare at the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883. A decade later, Emerton made a life-sized model of a giant octopus for the World’s Fair in Chicago, and both creatures were showcased in the Smithsonian afterwards.

Emerton’s giant squid on paper and at the London International Fisheries Exhibition, 1883; The giant octopus at the World’s Fair in 1893 (from Photographs of the World’s Fair, 1893), in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the Field Museum, Chicago (present); Crab and lobster from George Brown Good’s Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States: Section I, Natural History of Useful Aquatic Animals, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

I’m not sure if the marine modeling took Emerton away from his preferred entomological illustration, but while working with Verrill in New Haven he met his wife, Mary, and they moved to Boston in 1885: this remained his residence for the rest of his life, though he traveled continuously and of course I’m still claiming him for Salem! In the 1890s he branched out, yet again, to produce anatomical models for Harvard Medical School Parkman Professor of Anatomy Thomas Dwight: apparently these models were used at the school throughout the twentieth century. Throughout this busy period Emerton was still collecting spider specimens and also engaging in some pastime painting, mostly of coastal landscapes. He supplemented his first spider book, The Structures and Habits of Spiders (1878) with numerous academic papers and also a more general (and obviously more popular) book entitled The Common Spiders of the United States (1902) and also turned his attention to butterflies and wasps. Both before and after his death in 1931, James H. Emerton received the highest honors for any naturalist: several taxa are named after him, including Agelenopsis emertoni, Emerton’s Funnelweb Spider.

Emerton’s Common Spiders, and illustrations from Wasps Social and Solitary by George W. and Elizabeth G. Peckham (1905); the great naturalist on one of his many travels.


Fiddleheads in the Forest

We walked through the Salem Woods on this past Saturday and saw fiddleheads along the trail, the prelude to a carpet of ferns. I am embarrassed to admit that I reached this relatively advanced age without realizing that fiddleheads are in fact only a stage of a plant’s development rather than a completely independent full-grown plant. I know of course that nascent ferns (principally Ostrich and Cinnamon in our region) look like fiddleheads, but I thought that fiddleheads were another plant altogether! This was the weekend’s big revelation. I seem to have false childhood memories about fiddleheads too: my mother loved them and loved to cook them, and I have a hazy memory of bowls of buttered fiddleheads all summer long, but that can’t be true, as there are only a few months (chiefly April and May) when they are available. I’ve never been a big fan of fiddleheads on the table, but I like the motif, and I currently have a subtle fiddlehead pattern on my back-parlor couch—I found several artists who were inspired its signature curved form. For this May Day, fiddleheads seem like a very appropriate plant—or frond—to spotlight.

Fiddleheads SW2

Fiddleheads SW

Fiddleheads SW3

Fiddleheads SW4

Fiddleheads SW5

Fiddleheads Forest

Fiddleheads in flesh in the Salem Woods above, and on fabric below, on my couch and on screen-printed silk fabric by Georgina von Etzdorf, 1991, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Fiddlehead fabric 

Fiddlehead 1991


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