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dried seaweed pressed in an album

The Beauty and Narrative of Seaweed in 19th Century Albums

Enchant, Inspire

The art of arranging marine algae into designs, bouquets, and even sometimes intricate little scenes, was surprisingly popular in the 19th century.

Dried seaweed in the shape of a manor house in an album

Arguably amongst biologists, our oldest ancestor, our first breath, our first movement and our first physical form, undoubtedly beautiful, was the algae. Specifically, a blue-green Cyanophyta algae. “From the algae came oxygen and from oxygen came all of us,” wrote Jose Emilio Pacheco. Millions of years after being bacteria, protozoans, fish, reptiles, birds and who knows how many animals, we continue to share the world with algae, who is still responsible for providing and determining oxygen and nitrogen within marine ecosystems. We have for ourselves that the first sentence of the molecular chronicle of life on this planet is still around, still moving in submarine meadows by a silent wind.

The 19th century, in which the best and most extravagant obsessions flourished (where, if not then, was the poetic experience of naturalism truly invented?), saw a wave of fascination with seaweed. Testimony to this is a series of albums that not only inventoried species with taxonomy and descriptions but also accompanied them with a bookish narrative, as if to tell the essential history of an organic aesthetics that humans had hitherto overlooked.

Dried flowers in an album

The layout of each algae on the page, framed with lace of paper or fabric, solicits the wonder and exploratory gaze of the beholder. The particularly fine examples presented here are from an album dedicated to Augustus Graham, a member of the first board of directors of the Apprentices’ Library of Brooklyn. This later became the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences at the Brooklyn Museum. The album was created by a woman named Eliza A. Jordson in recognition of Graham’s work.

The album contains, in addition to specimens of algae, an essay on the transference of algae to paper, and a poem entitled Flowers of the Sea.

Ah! call us not weeds —
We are flowers of the sea
For lovely and bright
And gay tinted are we —

We are quite independent
Of culture and showers
Then call us not weeds
We are ocean’s gay flowers.

Dried seaweed in an albumDried seaweed in an album


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