Historical Perspective: Specimen to souvenir, seamoss on the Sound

The Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute in Oak Bluffs. The main building was named “Agassiz Hall” in honor of the famed naturalist’s work on Penikese. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

“Ladies of the Sea: Tull, Treat, and Jernegan,” an exhibit on display through August 17 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, showcases artwork inspired by the ocean that surrounds us. Shells and seaweed are the focus of watercolors and collages by Nan Tull, Rose Treat, and Laura Jernegan. The work spans more than 100 years and the earliest comes from the hand of Ms. Jernegan. Her seaweed pressings belong to a surprising, almost forgotten, world of “seamosses,” science, and the hidden Vineyard sound.

The mystery of seaweed, and the art drawn from it, begins on Penikese Island. Seven miles northwest of Martha’s Vineyard, Penikese is one of the Elizabeth Islands. Just 75 acres in size, it has a unique history as the site for a leper colony, a correctional school, and a scientific institute at various times over the years.

In 1873, famed Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz and New York philanthropist John Anderson founded the “John Anderson School for Natural History.” Here Agassiz, along with his students, undertook the first formal survey of plant and animal life throughout Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. The aging scientist soon discovered that a remarkable diversity of species, previously un-studied, could be found within Vineyard waters. Encouraged by Agassiz’s discovery, naturalists and academics of all kinds flocked to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Just five years later in 1878, also inspired by Agassiz’s work on Penikese, Col. Homer B. Sprague of Boston founded the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute in Cottage City.

The institute offered classes at the college level to adults throughout the summer. One class that was offered over the institute’s history was the “Course on the Algae.” The Summer Institute’s 1881 brochure described Martha’s Vineyard as “furnishing the richest marine flora and fauna” as well as the “best collecting grounds for zoologist or algologist.” (Algologist is an antiquated term for phycologist or algae researcher.) The biological diversity of Vineyard Sound would convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to permanently move to Woods Hole in 1881, where it was joined by the now world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in 1930.

While the scientific world was investigating the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard, so too were many amateurs inspired to explore and collect their own algae specimens. Oftentimes these algae catalogs were pressed into card-stock booklets, accompanied with scientific names. Souvenir shops along Circuit Avenue offered pressings of “Sea Mosses” as a reminder of Martha’s Vineyard’s fascinating ocean life. The store Stchi Ban (a corruption of the Japanese “Itchi Ban” or number-one), located on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, was considered the premiere source for sea moss enthusiasts. The co-owner of Stchi-Ban, Florence Hicks, even published a booklet, “Amateur’s Guide Book to Seamosses,” in which she gave tips on identifying and cataloguing algae.

Collecting sea moss extended far beyond the bounds of the Stchi Ban storefront. Though sea moss collections could be found throughout the world in the 1880s, Martha’s Vineyard was considered a center for the hobby, drawing collectors from across the country. Noted child-adventurer and artist Laura Jernegen Spear spent the later part of her life working with sea moss. Though hardly a professional naturalist or botanist, Laura Jernegen possessed a knack for art and the acumen for business. In 1912, she began to sell decorative souvenir pressings out of her house in Edgartown. This hobby of collecting sea mosses soon proved popular, and profitable. Several years later Laura moved her small business from Edgartown to a storefront in Oak Bluffs where she continued to sell souvenirs and sea moss along with her algae-inspired artwork.

Souvenirs today often seem tacky or frivolous, but to Laura Jernegan’s contemporaries such items held a great deal of significance. A souvenir was a precious thing. Not merely a trinket, a seaweed pressing speaks to a much deeper desire — to hold a piece of Martha’s Vineyard in the palm of one’s hand. Not simply a facsimile of Vineyard life, but life itself pressed onto card-paper sheets in the hopes that one’s memories would be preserved along with this small flower of the ocean.

Tye Stien is a research and writing intern at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Visit www.mvmuseum.org for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is dedicated to furthering an interest in, experience of, and appreciation for the history and culture of the Island and its environs. The Museum is open year-round. Summer hours are Monday-Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday 12 noon to 5 pm. Admission is free to Members; admission for non-Members is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15 and free for children under the age of 6.