For the Love of Trees

Our Rare Book Room holds many treasures, but not many of them challenge the very notion of what it means to be a “book.” The American Woods is a marvel of both book artistry and scientific dedication. Instead of bound pages, each of its 14 volumes holds hundreds of paper-thin, translucent samples of wood from American trees, painstakingly mounted into gilt-edged cutouts in individual cardboard plates.

The man behind this unique project was Romeyn Beck Hough (1857–1924), a physician whose love of America’s forests ran in the family. Romeyn’s father, Franklin B. Hough, was the first chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, the predecessor of the U.S. Forest Service. As a boy, young Romeyn spent hours with his father exploring the woods of upstate New York. Fittingly, he went on to study botany in college. He ultimately went into medicine, not botany, but he never lost his childhood wonder at the remarkable diversity of trees.

At age 29, Romeyn undertook the hobby project that would become his life’s work. His goal was to collect wood samples from as many tree species in North America as he possibly could. To accomplish this task, Romeyn invented and patented a special veneer knife capable of slicing wood to a thickness of 1/1200 of an inch. For each tree he sampled, he cut the wood from three different consistent angles in order to capture the quality of the grain from all sides.

The final product compiled more than 1,000 wood samples representing 354 species in a 14-volume set that he worked on until the end of his life. His daughter, Marjorie Galloway Romeyn, actually completed the 14th and final volume after her father’s death using his prepared samples and field notes. Each volume includes the mounted wood samples along with a booklet compiling detailed accompanying descriptions of each tree species and its botany, habitat, physical properties, and uses.

The masterwork of a consummate citizen scientist, The American Woods was an unparalleled contribution to our understanding of North American plant life in its time. Some of the trees it documents are extinct today. Complete sets are extremely rare, but we are fortunate to have one in our Research Library’s rare book collection. To see a selection of its volumes and wood samples, visit Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, always on view and included with general admission. 

The Hough exhibit inside the Extraordinary Ideas exhibition at theNAT.

A slide from Hough's masterworks.

Posted by Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly on March 28, 2017

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