A Gray-backed tern, April 1965, location unknown. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 245 Box 230 Folder 40. SIA2011-1365.
On board the SS Uruguay. Page from scrapbook entitled "Argentina 1939" from the William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 007293 William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981. Box 24. SIA2011-0589.
Julia Blase, Project Manager, Field Book Project
Last week, with the arrival of many more of the field books to the Biodiversity Heritage Library web portal, I had the chance to dive deeply into the field books of Edward Chapin, entomologist and Curator of Insects at the Smithsonian Institution from 1934 to 1954. I spent the most time in his field book covering a set of travels to Cuba and Jamaica, though mostly Jamaica, in 1937 and 1941. It was a fascinating adventure “down the rabbit hole” into another era of history!
|Entry from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cuba and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, ." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.|
Several things struck me almost as soon as I began reading, the first of which was how closely
Chapin’s descriptions of the insect life of the islands were wrapped with his observations of the weather, travel conditions, car problems, dinner menus, host families and housing arrangements, and even clothing purchases. A set of observations on insect collecting might be as short as a sentence or as long as a page, depending on what caught his attention that day. The second item that struck me was how frustrating these kinds of expeditions could be! Not only Chapin deal with the usual traveler’s woes of lost luggage and poor weather, but he also faced challenges unique to the scientist – the difficulty in finding many types of insects, or one insect in many life stages, or in finding relevant insects at all. It seemed that Chapin sometimes spent days driving from one end of the island to the other, looking for abandoned homes, downed trees, fence posts and post holes, and such beetle- and termite-friendly places to explore, and often finding nothing. However, on other days he was so overwhelmed with his findings that the problem became locating additional jars to hold them all!
I also went further down the field book “rabbit hole” with items that Chapin mentioned seemingly offhand. For instance, in one of his entries, he described his visit to a sugar factory and detailed the process by which cane became sucrose and molasses, which I found fascinating. He followed that entry with one describing the tour of the banana plantations on the island, and how the banana carriers (those who took bunches from the rows of plants to spots along the road where they would be loaded into trucks) received only “three shillings a hundred bunches. The work is hard as it means tramping through mud six or eight inches deep for fifty yards or so with about 150 lbs balanced on the head.” I immediately looked online for a recording of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and began to read about its history as a Jamaican folk song – the song seems so lighthearted, compared to the work it describes. I can hardly imagine the kind of daily labor that the banana carriers endured.
Chapin even made a brief mention of Panama Disease affecting the banana plants on the island – I did a bit of research and discovered that another strain of Panama Disease is the current cause of problems with the Cavendish banana that we all enjoy at our local grocery stores. “Race 1” of the disease was the cause of the epidemic in the 1950’s that wiped out the previously farmed Gros Michel banana. Chapin’s 1941 journal was recording the disease almost 10 years before it became a widespread problem!
I fell into more research when Chapin mentioned a visit to Seville, which was
“now a large coconut walk but originally the site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral (1505). The foundations have been cleared and in the center of the floor there is a hold about six feet across and ten feet deep, carefully walled with brick, from which a passage leads away to the west. In this passage we found a dozen pieces of very beautifully carved stone, probably the remains of the altar. One piece has the coat-of-arms of the Bishop of Seville, the others are mostly angels and cherubims.”
I did a quick search for “Seville, Jamaica” and found a UNESCO world heritage website for “New Seville,” which hosted Christopher Columbus in the late 1490s and did indeed feature a Roman Catholic church of “Peter Martyr, the first abbot of Jamaica, having begun in 1525.” Someone’s dates are off…I’m inclined to think that Chapin was misled in thinking the church was from 1505, but who knows? At least I learned more about the history of Columbus’ voyages in the new world, and just in time for Columbus Day (October 13th).
|Entry from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cuba and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, ." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.|
One more historical mention led me to another fifteen minutes or so of research – Chapin’s off-hand mention that the husband in one of the families he met on the island was “at present serving at the internment camp as a guard.” The history I knew of U.S. internment camps during WWII only covered the Japanese-American internment camps in the West. I had no idea that there were internment camps in Jamaica. Who did they hold? A quick search revealed that not only were there internment camps on the islands, but that they held both plantation owners who were of German descent and thus “possibly” sympathizers, as well as the German POW’s from U-boats taken in the Atlantic (see also the one-sentence mention of the German POW barracks in Up Park Camp on this page).
And finally, there were two mentions of animals that I found fascinating. The first was a mention of the mongoose, an invasive species introduced to the islands to prey on the rats that destroyed large amounts of sugar cane. As in many other places, the non-native species proved far more destructive than imagined and became more of a problem than the rats themselves even in 1941. The mongoose lives on the islands to this day, and has contributed to the possible extinction of at least four native species. And second, a mention by Chapin of his journey home, where he was off the coast of Cape Hatteras and recorded being
“in the midst of the heard of bottlenosed dolphins headed north on their annual migration. As far as one can see, in every direction, there are thousands of dolphins moving steadily northward. On either side of the bow, our boat is convoyed by groups of from three to ten animals…we first sighted them at four in the afternoon and they were still with us at dark.”
Today herds of dolphins are recorded as numbering only in the hundreds during their winter migration – nevertheless, what a lovely image with which to conclude my research adventures in the field notebooks of Edward A. Chapin, entomologist, traveler, and recorder of both scientific and humanist history.
For more information about Edward Chapin, and to see the full records for his field books held at the Smithsonian Institution, please see his records in the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.
As of this blog post, three field books by Edward Chapin have been fully digitized and are available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library site.
Each of the three field books in BHL has been fully transcribed by volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center. You can find them at the following three links: Cuba and Jamaica, Colombia, Chile.
|Letter from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cuba and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, ." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.|
Ellsworth P. Killip's Adirondack Travelog, page 62. Description of the summit of Mt. Marcy. Photos of M.E.W. and E.P.K. on the Summit of Marcy, August 1914. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 007375, Ellsworth Paine Killip Papers, 1914-1950; Box 2, Folder 10. SIA2012-8804.
Many of our digitized field books are sent to the Smithsonian Transcription Center to help make the text more accessible to a wider audience. We’ve been thrilled with the response, and the excitement and dedication of Smithsonian’s Transcription Center volunpeers! Transcribers do more than convert handwritten text to machine-readable, searchable text. In fact, one of the most satisfying alternate aspects of their work has been the way in which they have increased communication about the field book materials within and between Smithsonian Staff and other volunpeers. The Transcription Center is not only making the field book content increasingly searchable, but also opening fascinating dialogues with new audiences!
We’d like to share just a few examples from the conversations we’ve been following through the transcription and review of William Healey Dall’s Diary 1865-1867 during his work in Alaska. Curious to have a look yourself? Check out the field book PDF now available through at: https://transcription.si.edu/project/6828
|Volunpeers working to discover which Dr. was Dall discussing.|
|Curators and Personel develop relationships in naming specimens.|
|Volunpeers highlight their discoveries while transcribing.|
|Volunpeers uncover literary delights (Dall’s personal book club).|
Mountain range in Montana with geological annotations, 1905, from fieldwork of Charles D. Walcott. Smithsonian Instution Archives. SIA RU 7004, Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated. Box 30, Folder 11. SIA2014-06929.
By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
|Inside covers of "Field notes, Mexico, July-August, 1965." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA RU007316, Box 15, Folder 13.|
It’s not uncommon for specimen collectors to write about how they deal with the stresses, successes, and social gatherings with colleagues. These frequently include passing references to the sharing of libations. In honor of Oktoberfest we want to highlight a particularly well-documented love of a good brew, found in the field book of Robert Silberglied (1946-1982).
What do you expect to find in a field book? Specimen numbers, sketches, photographs…and beer labels? Open Silberglied’s field book from 1965 and that’s exactly what you’ll find. He removed and carefully pasted beer labels from Ballantine Brewery, Dos Equis, and Cerveceria Moctezuma across the inside covers of the volume.
Robert Silberglied, an entomologist, was an Assistant Professor of Biology at Harvard University and Assistant Curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). His field book from 1965 is part of a collection at Smithsonian Institution Archives and documents field work completed during his days as an undergraduate student at Cornell University. It is an excellent example of one of my favorite types of field books – those from collectors new to the field.
|Example of postcards and other ephmera found in "Field notes, Mexico, July-August, 1965." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA RU007316, Box 15, Folder 13.|
I love these types of field books because they not only document new collectors developing their field book style (what they will record and how) but also the personal thoughts and impressions that are frequently left out of later books as collectors become accustomed to the challenges and peculiarities of field work. These field books can contain passages discussing the value of the work as well as extended descriptions of what may be a collector’s first professional travel abroad. One can feel the enthusiasm and energy of the collectors as they document the beginning of their scientific career.
|Envelope pasted into Silberglied's field book, holding postcards sent to his family during his field work in Mexico.|
Silberglied’s field book is an interesting example of this type; he doesn’t comment in the text about the novelty of the trip, but instead demonstrates the travel and social side of the work with his choice of inserts and ephemera. Each item is carefully attached, and even after nearly 50 years, these items are well affixed. Items include news clippings, beer labels, postcards showing accommodations and tourist spots, and even the letter signed by his parents giving permission for him to take part in the trip. In his notes, he took the time to list each member of the collecting trip (including those that appear to be family members) and which vehicle they are taking. He describes travel enroute:
[July 12, 1965] 2 bees flew in car window in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and were collected. At gas station in Livingston, Alabama, I noticed some very territorial butterflies: Nymphalid on gas station pump, Libytheid at mud puddle.
Postcards are carefully pasted in and sometimes cut along the gutter so the pages completely close. Perhaps most telling is the envelope pasted in the back labeled “postcards sent home from Mexico.”
|Page from Silberglied's field book with a list of participants (per vehicle) for collecting trip in Mexico.|
|Article from The New York Times, July 7, 1965, pasted into Silberglied's field book describing field work to be completed.|
The beer labels bring forward the social aspect of field work. Unlike life in the office, life in the field means spending 24-7 with people; social and professional life must be able to blend. This is one more challenge for a new scientist. Somehow, seeing his field book, I imagine a young scientist, sitting back, having a beer, and taking a moment to appreciate the new and unknown with his colleagues.
So to all who are in the field or yearning to be, cheers! And Happy Oktoberfest.
For more Oktoberfest stories from the field, see Smithsonian Institutions Archives' post about the importance of the legend of the beer machine.
Curious to learn more about Silberglied?
Illustration documents M. Moynihan's observations of cephalopods (squid), 1981. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Acc. 01-096, Martin H. Moynihan Papers, 1952-1996. Box 4, Folder 3. SIA2014-03712.
We’re excited to announce our latest Flickr set from the field work of Charles D. Walcott in Montana during the summers of 1904 and 1905. This set of images highlights the work of Walcott who was the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and perhaps best known for his discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada.
|Mountain range in Montana with geological annotations (2). Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 7004, Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated. Box 30, Folder 11. SIA2014-06931.|
Walcott was unique in the way he utilized photography in his field work. He not only used photos to document his finds, but eventually used them to choose field sites. By the time he discovered the Burgess Shale, Walcott was utilizing panorama photographs that he took with a specially built camera for the purpose.
Images in this set provide a unique overlap of his field note format choices (text, photograph, sketch) for specific sites. We encourage you to compare the photos, their annotations, the caption details, and his narrative descriptions and sketches.
|Field notes of Charles D. Walcott for June 29, 1905. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 7004, Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated. Box 30, Folder 11. SIA2014-06933.|
To learn more about Walcott, explore his field book records now available on Smithsonian Collection Search Center, field book content on Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, the finding aid for his personal papers in Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 007004, or his publications in Biodiversity Heritage Library.