Tag Archives: Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club

Witmer Stone’s Personal Library

We all splurge a little sometimes on something that has a value to us beyond that of a strictly pecuniary consideration. I did that recently and am now the happy (if slightly more impoverished) owner of 10 books that used to be part of Witmer Stone’s private library. The tale of Stone’s library is a woeful one. It reportedly consisted of 2,500 books, hundreds of journal sets, and thousands of author offprints (or “separata”). Here is a 1938 newspaper photo of Stone at his Germantown home in front of a portion of his library (with shelves built by him), reading Bird Studies at Old Cape May:

IMG_5001edAfter Stone died, his widow, Lillie, wanted to sell the library intact. It was eventually purchased by the Reading Public Museum (RPM), whose director, Earl L Poole, was an old friend of Stone’s. Reading philanthropist Henry Janssen supplied the funds for the purchase. Unfortunately, after Poole and Janssen were no longer around, a later administration, with no appreciation for some of the treasures in its care, deaccessioned Stone’s library over the years and sold it off piecemeal in what were, essentially, annual flea markets. Stone’s library has been scattered to the four winds, but turns up in bits and pieces at booksellers. Here is one of the RPM bookplates:

IMG_0364Here are the books I purchased:

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Some of them were owned by Julia Stockton Robins, who was very active in both the Pennsylvania Audubon Society and the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club (a Philadelphia women’s birding club). When she died in 1906, her books apparently went to Stone. Robins, like Stone, is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and knowing how much work she did with him, and how highly he regarded her, it’s neat to see their two signatures together:

IMG_0362Edward H. Forbush’s classic Game Birds, Wildfowl, and Shore Birds was included:

IMG_0365John Dryden Kuser’s turbulent life story is featured in The Fascination of Nature, and his The Way to Study Birds (illustrated by the great Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as are – to my delight – some of the other books) was also in the lot:

LAF collageIt is a crying shame that Stone’s library, which was thoughtfully purchased and preserved by Poole, Janssen, and the RPM, met with the fate that it did. I now have a little slice of it, and I can feel Witmer standing in the spirit at my elbow as I sit and peruse the very same books that he did as he sat in the den of his Germantown home.

Witmer Wows ‘em at the Acorn

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.)

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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.

Acorn Club-1