Witmer Stone gave hundreds of public talks over the years, beginning with a “pinch-hitting” appearance at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) in 1892 after the scheduled speaker had to cancel at the last hour. He spoke frequently at Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and American Ornithologists’ Union meetings, and was a regularly featured speaker for 40 years at the Ludwick Institute’s meetings at ANSP.
In the spring of 1899, Stone delivered a series of five talks in a non-typical setting: the Acorn Club, an exclusive, aristocratic women’s club with a membership comprised of “Proper Philadelphians.” When I first came across a reference to the talks, I surmised, with equal parts humor and cynicism, that Witmer – a 33-year old bachelor at the time – was there looking for a wife. The probable real reason is a little less interesting: some of the members of the club were active in the recently-formed Pennsylvania Audubon Society, which was sponsoring the talks. (Some of the same women would soon form the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club, a ladies-only counterpart to the all-male DVOC.)
The talks included “On the Delaware Meadows in Midwinter,” “Some Trips into Southern New Jersey,” “Why We Study Birds and How to Study Birds,” and “A Day in the Mountain Forests.” The latter talk was about Stone’s recent trips to the Lopez, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania region. A notice in a local newspaper said the talks would feature stuffed specimens of local birds, which sounds a bit macabre for a patrician women’s club until you remember that wealthy women – including, no doubt, some members of the Acorn Club – were contributing to the drastic decline of a few species by indulging in the fashion craze of the day of wearing stuffed birds in their hats.
Time marches on; the interests and social activism agendas of the Proper Philadelphians change. It’s probably been a while since someone gave a talk at the Acorn Club featuring bird skins. Unlike the skins, the Club itself is alive and well. It’s been at its current location at 1519 Locust Street for the past 50 years, and as the ladies chat over their crème brȗlèe these days, you can bet that none of them are suggesting they get an ornithologist to bring in a bunch of dead birds and tell them all about the Delaware meadows in midwinter.