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panel showing different types of wood grain

How to Fit an Entire Forest Inside a Book


The American Woods: Exhibited by Actual Specimens and with Copious Explanatory Text fits all the trees of the 19th century United States, and each page includes a real wood sample to compare.

How many species of trees grew in the American forests of the 19th century? The answer to this fantastic question could not be more beautifully and rewardingly answered: The American Woods: Exhibited by Actual Specimens and with Copious Explanatory Text. It’s a collection of books written between 1888 and 1929 by physicist and botanist, Romeyn Beck Hough. Each volume contains real samples of sliced wood to depict a transverse, radial and tangential cut of each wood sample, and cut by a machine the author himself had patented. The wafer-thin slices of wood on each page are thin enough to be translucent with a backlight.

The 14 volumes of the collection contain over 1,000 wood samples representing more than 350 varieties of North American trees. In addition to the wood samples, Hough provides information on each tree’s characteristics, growth habits, medicinal properties and possibilities for commerce. Many of the trees presented in the collection are no longer present in North American forests and others are exceptionally rare, an added value to the already exquisite work of the author.

Not a few people have become infatuated with trees, and the woods have left invaluable aesthetic works to attract still more. Hough’s work, until recently almost unknown, is definitely among them. The work stands as a memorial to nineteenth-century forests in the United States, and more so as the pages have been scanned. But this is one of those books that should be held in the hands, especially to see the cuts of each timber with backlighting. In 2013, Taschen published a new edition: Romeyn B. Hough: The Woodbook – unfortunately without the slices of wood. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library digitized 274 pages of the original work (of which we publish a selection, here) and the entire collection can be seen in the Internet Archive.

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