Between 1888 and 1929, physician and botanist Romeyn Beck Hough published most of a massive multi-volume catalog: The American Woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text. After Hough died, his daughter Marjorie Galloway Hough completed as much of the project as her father’s research allowed.
An ambitious project, The American Woods eventually comprised 14 volumes. Each page of tree samples contains actual translucent slices of wood, cut in radial, tangential, and cross sections using a tool Hough patented himself. The slices rest in individual cardboard cutouts, serving as sample and illustration at the same time.
Hough priced each volume relatively high for the time, at five dollars. The auction house Christie’s wrote in an item description when they sold a 14-volume set in 2000: “Since subscribers came and went over the 25-year period of publication, and many only bought the volumes on the areas that interested them, very few complete sets were assembled.”
The series stands as a memorial to the shape and extent of American forests at the end of the 19th century. Arguing that conservators should devote time to preserving their institutions’ copies of the work, librarian Tierney Lyons writes about Hough’s project: “Some trees available at the time are now very rare, making this comprehensive American dendrological monograph even more precious.”
Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has digital versions of 274 plates from the project, and North Carolina State University offers a guide to the plates categorized by scientific and common name. While the images online are beautiful, this is one item I would really like to see in person. A photo in this New York Public Library blog post shows the sugar maple plate from the NYPL’s American Woods, held up to the light so that it glows.
I first read about this book on the art and design blog Codex 99.