DURANT, Charles Ferson (1805-1873)
Algae and Corallines, of the Bay & Harbor of New York
New York: George P. Putnam ... Printed by Narine & Co., 1850. Large quarto. 43, [1,blank], pp. Title and dedication lithographed. Includes 2pp. press reviews in the rear. 41 leaves with 175 mounted specimens. Many of the specimens with numerical stamps referring to the text. With a few additional specimens, laid in.
Publisher's red pebbled-grain morocco, covers elaborately titled and decorated in gilt, flat spine gilt, silk endpapers, gilt edges. Within modern quarter morocco box.
One of no more than 50 copies, illustrated with actual seaweed specimens: the first work of its kind in the U.S.
According to the press reviews in the rear, Durant had planned 50 copies of his work, though according to a 1907 article by Elizabeth Howe in The Lamp, "the total number completed could hardly have exceeded fifteen." Better known as the first professional American aeronaut than for his algological investigations, Charles Ferson Durant (1805-1873), a native of New York City, accompanied the French balloonist Eugene Robertson on several ascents in Paris before making the first solo balloon flight by a native-born American on American soil, on September 9, 1830. After his marriage, he set up shop as a printer and lithographer and became active in Jersey City politics. His many other interests included the fabrication of the first American native silk, for which the American Institute awarded him several gold medals. He devoted the remainder of his spare time to collecting and classifying the local seaweed, "doubtless because of a business connection with the fish and oyster trade of New York City" (DAB). "In his capacity as algologist, however, Durant participated in what was actually a somewhat popular Victorian pastime. Victorians loved seaweed, which they affectionately called ocean-flowers. They would gather it from the seaside, and then dry and mount it in the pages of seaweed albums, scrapbooks kept as souvenirs or given as gifts. Yet what sets Durant apart from other seaweed enthusiasts is the sheer volume of specimens that he was determined not only to collect and preserve, but also to share with the public. For Algology is not a personal album, but rather a work issued by a well-known New York publishing firm ... 'For two years,' explains Durant in the preface of Algology, 'I lived a sort of amphibious life, paddling about the shallows when the tide was out, in quest of specimens.' On some mornings, he would rise before dawn, walk the 10 minutes from his home to New York Bay, and wade the waters in the early hours, spared from 'the business affairs of the day.' On other days, though, Durant would visit more 'distant shores of the Bay,' and spend 'several hours,' or even an 'entire day,' collecting. 'The original design was to acquire at least one of each species indigenous to the harbor,' he explains. In size, the harbors seaweeds ranged from 'microscopic to gigantic growth,' and they came in all colors, though most commonly 'olive, red, and green' (Novakis). Four copies are recorded in OCLC, held by the Botany Libraries of Harvard University, the American Museum of Natural History, Ohio State University Library, and Wellesley College Library; an additional example is held by the Huntington Library. A remarkable survival given the fragile nature of the specimens, and the very limited number of copies produced.
Novakis, "A Book Full of Seaweed", Huntington Library Frontiers (Spring/Summer 2018).