The Newport Natural History Society, 1883-1940

by Stephen S. Hale

While we are justly proud of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, it was not the first natural history organization in the state. The late 1800s and early 1900s was the Golden Age of American natural history and Rhode Islanders joined in enthusiastically. Fueled by a keen interest of both professional and amateur biologists, natural history societies sprang up around Narragansett Bay. The Carnegie Institution’s Handbook of Learned Societies and Institutions of America in 1908 listed four groups. In Providence, the Providence Franklin Society (1821-1922) put on public lectures and field trips and began a collection of plants, insects, animals, and minerals. They published books on ferns and flowering plants and geology. The Rhode Island Field Naturalists’ Club, founded in 1905, sponsored public lectures and field trips on topics such as seaweeds, shells, ferns, geology, and astronomy. They put together exhibits and workshops on seaweeds, shells, and mounting herbarium specimens. An article in Science magazine describes how the Fall River Society of Natural History in 1919 hosted a meeting of the New England Federation of Natural History Societies. They prepared a large exhibit of local fauna and flora and sponsored excursions into the surrounding country for observation and collecting. But it was in Newport where natural history societies got especially interesting.

In Gilded Age Newport, beyond the sailing yachts and summer “cottages,” an intellectual culture flourished. Thirteen natural history enthusiasts got together in 1883 to found the Newport Natural History Society (henceforth, the “Society”). The mission was to “Promote the study of natural science,” focusing on the flora, fauna, and geology of Newport “for the purposes of public instruction and entertainment.” Kathrinne Duffy’s article“From virtuous visions to rubbish and rats: A natural history society in Gilded Age Newport” in the Journal of the Newport Historical Society outlines the history of this group. Soon after founding, the Society had 71 members including doctors, professors, architects, military officers, politicians, clergymen, and merchants, “the leading scientific and cultivated men of Rhode Island.” The eminent biologist Alexander Agassiz [son of geologist and zoologist Louis], curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, who had built a marine laboratory on the grounds of his summer estate at Castle Hill, was a Vice President.

The Society began collecting specimens, holding free lectures for the members and public, and publishing their research findings. Lectures were given on plants, spiders, insects, fishes, geology, and other topics. Being near the shore, collections of pressed seaweeds and marine mollusk shells were popular. By 1887, there were 160 members.

Some of the early leaders of the Society felt strongly that natural history was morally uplifting. Botanizers wrote that “the collection of specimens serves as a virtuous form of amusement, a pleasurable but work-like hobby demanding patience and discipline, resulting in self-improvement.” Some went further: Alexander Taylor felt that nature was a revelation of divine order and the Reverend Alpheus Hervey believed that the Society had a spiritual objective to “carry the mind beyond the creature to the Creator.”

One goal of the Society was to build a marine aquarium for public display. At a Society meeting, George King argued that an aquarium would be entertaining but also educational and uplifting. He said an aquarium would exert “a higher influence than that of gratifying gaping curiosity” and would be interesting enough to “incite even sluggish minds to beneficial activity.” Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute and Director of the U.S. Fish Commission laboratory in Woods Hole, promised to donate the fish for the aquarium. The Society temporarily placed a few aquaria of marine life in the old Unitarian Church, whereupon the Providence Telegram newspaper waggishly noted that “ . . . it will be no new thing for a Unitarian church to contain queer fish.”

However, by 1886 the naturalists realized that they were not going to be able to raise enough funds for an aquarium. Even though Newport had many summer residents of great wealth, they were lukewarm about supporting a public aquarium. Apparently unmoved by the naturalists’ morally uplifting thoughts, the cottagers opted to stick with their own summer social world. The naturalists turned their energies to their other goal—a museum. One of the founding members, T. Nelson Dale, felt that natural history museums were cathedrals for the scientific age and quoted the renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz who said the “great objective of our museums should be to exhibit the whole animal kingdom as a manifestation of the Supreme Intellect.”

The naturalists opened their collection to public display in 1886 in the Newport Historical Society’s Seventh Day Baptist Meetinghouse. In 1890, the naturalists moved their collection into a new wing they had added to the building; they owned the wing, but not the land. They originally intended to limit the museum collection to local geology, flora, and fauna but found it difficult to turn away exotic specimens from elsewhere.

By the early 1900s, after a few good years of attendance, public interest in the museum dwindled. The museum became expensive to maintain, putting the Society into debt. The prevailing Newport leisure culture and summer recreation that included “dancing, yachting, tennis, sea bathing” provided strong competition. The naturalists were dismayed by a trend of the general public toward “commercial entertainment and away from the morally uplifting observation of nature.” They were troubled by the rising public taste for “other diversions and amusements” such as “Moving Pictures, and Vaudeville and Bridge Whist.” Trying to rally support, George King of the Society admonished that “Summer rest ought not to mean complete idleness.” About the same time, natural history societies and museums around the country experienced the same crisis. Daniel Goldstein, in his Isis article “Outposts of science: The knowledge trade and the expansion of scientific community in post-Civil War America” wrote that they typically had an initial surge in membership followed by a decline when they were no longer a novelty. Further, the practice of science was changing from natural history societies to an increased focus on graduate education and laboratory research. Only a few of the larger, well-endowed natural history societies and museums in cities survived.

The Newport naturalists tried a new tactic, an appeal to youth. They held a competition for local students to collect specimens from the fields of botany, conchology, or entomology. Students had a certain amount of time to gather, identify, and preserve as many specimens as they could find. Prizes of natural history books and small amounts of cash would be awarded. The naturalists felt the contests would provide “a recreation pleasurable and improving for some of the young people’s leisure hours.” Was this the first Rhode Island BioBlitz, albeit limited to a few taxa? In any event, it didn’t generate much interest although a few students made outstanding collections and were awarded their prizes.

Meetings and lectures continued but in 1906 the Society stopped publishing their Proceedings and by 1913, only 40 members were left, most of whom had not paid dues for years. The Society had not kept up with rent payments and had let their wing of the building fall into disrepair. The librarian of the Newport History Society complained of pests and maintenance problems in the natural history wing of their building, stating that “The rats, etc. are getting beyond me.” Soon thereafter the Newport History Society evicted the Natural History Society from the land beneath their museum and demolished the natural history wing. Nevertheless, the naturalists persevered, moving their museum collection to various community centers and churches. Finally, in 1940 the Society disbanded and donated the bulk of the museum collection to the local Cranston-Calvert School.

The Newport Natural History Society was a local manifestation of a widespread interest in the natural world in late 1800s America. Goldstein wrote that in the late 1800s, local and regional societies were the most widespread and accessible public scientific institutions in the country. He remarked that these local societies played a crucial role in the dissemination of scientific information and the nurturing of a scientifically literate population. They deepened public appreciation of and support for science. For the residents of Newport, the Newport Natural History Society educated the public about natural history at a time when other sources of information were scarce, stimulated curiosity about the natural world, and inspired a few young naturalists. Maybe it even improved their moral character!

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