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About the Prints

Mary A. Robinson (1826-1898) collected and mounted specimens of marine algae and seaweed in the waters near Cottage City, now called Oak Bluffs, on the northeastern coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Although there is no way to be certain that her seaweed specimens were collected on Martha's Vineyard, any other possible source seems unlikely. Foxboro, Massachusetts, where Robinson apparently lived with her husband for "many years," is not near the ocean. Providence, Rhode Island is a possibility, because she and her husband moved there for a time after Foxboro. In any event, Mary Robinson was principally an artist and others may have identified the seaweeds for her. It is known for example, that a knowledgeable phycologist named W. R. Dudley made collections on the island in 1879 and that another named R. A. Esten did so in 1895. In August of 1892 and in January 1895 one R. E. Schuh is known to have collected right at Cottage City and may have done so at other times. Some of these visiting collectors may have even stayed in the boarding house run by Robinson. In addition, there were well-informed local resident algae collectors such as Marcus W. Jernegan, a professor of history at the University of Chicago; Laura Jernegan, Marcus's older sister who married Herbert W. Spear; Miss Sarah G. Colt, daughter of whaling captain Henry Colt; and Julia A. (Jernegan) King. These four people lived much of their lives in Edgartown, and experts writing in the professional literature of the day accepted their plant identifications. Any of these persons could have assisted Mary Robinson with the identification of the algae that were integral to her paintings. In any case, the notations on the seaweed specimens make it clear that whoever made the identifications had considerable knowledge of marine algae names.


Plate 8


Plate 7


Plate 75

The scrapbook itself, although how it is not certain, came to rest in a house owned by the Norton family in Lambert's Cove in Tisbury, also on Martha's Vineyard. When Mary Robinson died in 1898, her furniture and household goods were bought at auction, and brought in only about half of what they were appraised for.The boarding house in Cottage City was sold at auction and the title was transferred to one Clofus L. Gonyon on October 7, 1899. It is not known what became of her personal effects including her scrapbook; it is not listed in the extensive inventory schedule that was prepared by three local appraisers, dated June 11, 1899. In the list of claims stated against her estate, dated February 7, 1899, an entry for one James G. Norton appears for medicines in the amount of $19.45. If this Mr. Norton was a close family friend, it may be that he received the scrapbook as a gift or by agreement with Mrs. Robinson prior to her death, but this is clearly a speculation.

Mrs. Constance Neelon of Southern Pines, North Carolina donated the scrapbook to the Farlow Herbarium Archives in August of 2002. Mrs. Neelon's family summered on Martha's Vineyard beginning in 1932 and her husband found the scrapbook around 1950. Some time ago, Mrs. Neelon inserted a piece of paper upon which she had written: "This seaweed book was compiled on Martha's Vineyard at Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) in the year 1885. It was done by M. A. Robinson. My husband found it in the attic of an old farmhouse which he bought and restored. The house had belonged to an old island family the Nortons. It was on Lambert's Cove, West Tisbury." In addition to the seaweed prints that stand alone, there are numerous others that are embellished with watercolor images by Mrs. Robinson of the surrounding area, including seaside scenes, lighthouses and sailboats.

A Brief History of Cottage City: Camp Meetings and Growth

The camp meeting movement in the United States began in Kentucky and Appalachia before the 1820s as religious vehicles that were also important as social gatherings. They were held annually in a particular district where participants would travel from 50 to 100 miles to attend. Camp meetings were first introduced by Presbyterians but soon included Baptists and Methodists who were newly converted by the teachings of John Wesley. In no time at all Methodists of New England began to hold their own camp meetings. The first camp meeting in Cottage City was held in 1835 and the gatherings grew as steamboats brought companies from New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island.

The development of Cottage City is credited as having the largest Methodist Camp Meeting Association in the world. For one week in August of 1835, nine men from nearby Edgartown decided to separate themselves from the comforts of the town to head into the woods to find a place where they could pray. This place, the headland of East Chop, full of tall oak trees and overlooking Nantucket Sound, is where they pitched their tents. They found that the event was so "invigorating" to the spirit that they returned the next year. Soon a few mainlanders joined them, and some fell in love with the beauty of the land and water, and the healthful saltiness of the air. They too began to come back year after year.

Within a generation, the annual Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting was the most famous Methodist revival meeting in the country, and gingerbread cottages were rising up on the wooden platforms where the participants first used tents during the meetings. Visitors arrived by the thousands from all over New England to watch the religious spectacle in what was coming to be known as the 'Cottage City' of America. In the summer of 1863, it was still possible to wander through this wilderness of oak and meadow on the old Camp Ground and see not a single permanent building. Ten years later the oaks and meadows were gone and soon, a village was needed in order to house the faithful.

Around 1872 the town today known as Oak Bluffs was built. The town encircled the original Camp Ground where the cottages now stood as the main street around the grounds was called Circuit Avenue. Contrary to the spiritual pursuits of the original members, the town around the Camp Grounds was quickly becoming a bustling, commercial place. The participants of the Camp Ground attempted to separate themselves by building a picket fence between them and the expanding town, and the interior remains today a place of peace and tranquility.

Before the town of Cottage City was incorporated in 1880, it was still considered a part of Edgartown. The inhabitants wanted to separate themselves legally from Edgartown, which they felt was taking tax money and offering little or nothing in the way of services in return. In 1880, Cottage City gained its independence but in 1907 the name would be changed again, this time to Oak Bluffs.

Biography of M. A. Robinson

Mary A. Robinson was born in Montreal, Canada in 1826 and married the younger Samuel D. Robinson. Robinson, born February 3, 1836, in Sligo, Ireland, was the son of George and Margaret Robinson. Mary Robinson's maiden name is unknown. Samuel and Mary do not appear to have been married in Cottage City since there is no marriage record from there. Mary's obituary in the Vineyard Gazette from February 13, 1898, states that the Robinsons were married in Foxboro, Massachusetts, but the Foxboro Town Clerk's office has no record of their marriage. It appears that Samuel Robinson's family had settled in Foxboro earlier, perhaps by the time he was born, and some family members still lived there. One Isabella Robinson of Foxboro is listed as holder of a promissory note for $200.00 in the administration of Mary Robinson's estate.

Samuel Robinson died in Providence, Rhode Island, on December 16, 1885. The widowed Mary is listed in the Cottage City Directory for 1897 as the proprietor of a boarding house simply called "Robinson House". It was located at the corner of Tuckernuck and Sea View Streets, the latter street now known as Circuit Avenue. In a transfer of a partial interest on this property in exchange for $200.00 to one John E. Look on October 24, 1896, she gave her legal domicile as Providence. This suggests that she and her former husband lived there in the winter months after moving from Foxboro, thus providing an explanation for why Samuel died there. Later, on October 4, 1897, she mortgaged the boarding house for $500.00 to one John T. Carpenter of Foxboro, possibly a relative or acquaintance. The mortgage held by John Carpenter was paid off by Mary Robinson's estate on June 15, 1899. She and her husband appear not to have had any children and she did not have a will. There is no mention of heirs named Robinson in the administrative documents that settled her estate. Her estate proved to be insolvent. There were not enough assets to cover all the claims against it, even after the auction of the boarding house.

Mary Robinson died of a heart attack (then known as "apoplexy") in Cottage City on February 13, 1898.Her obituary in the Vineyard Gazette states that "She was generous in aiding everything that was for the benefit of the town or its people." However, there is no mention of her artistic talents or her interest in marine algae.

Sun Pictures/Photograms, Cyanotypes, and Electrotypes: Varieties of Plant Pressings and Pictures

Sun pictures/Photograms
Sun pictures, also called photograms, were among the earliest examples of photography and are essentially "contact prints." They were made by placing an object, in this case a plant, directly on photosensitive paper. A glass was then laid over both the paper and the object and exposed to the sun. Uncovered areas of the paper would darken while leaving the negative image of the plant behind in the covered areas. The example here is an albumen print of a sun picture from the mid-nineteenth century. The photosensitive element in the albumen process is silver.

Sir John Herschel, who coined the word photography which literally translates as "light writing", also invented the cyanotype process in 1841. It is a variant of the photogram and commonly understood to be "blue prints." It is a simple process that gives a continuous-tone image of an intense blue color using a sensitizing solution of ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide, otherwise known as iron salts. These iron salts, when exposed to natural or artificial ultraviolet light, are reduced to their ferrous state, producing a high contrast blue image when oxidized. Oxidation is hastened by immersion in running water, which also washes away the unused iron salts. The example here from British Algae, 1843-1853, is by Anna Atkins who produced the first botanical work on seaweeds that was entirely illustrated with photographs.

Electrotype Print
Electrotyping is a style of engraving in relief by means of voltaic electricity. This process was invented in 1839 and is a method of making a duplicate plate from a mold. It is an intermediate step in the copperplate printing process, commonly used in high-quality, high-volume printing, for embossed stationary, for example. The process involves first taking a wax mold of the object to be duplicated in soft metal. The wax mold is then coated with a substance, such as graphite, that acts as a conductor of electricity, and then immersed in an electrolytic chemical bath containing copper. An electrical charge causes the mold to be coated with a thin shell of copper. The shell, with its delicate relief impression, is removed from the mold and reinforced with a backing of lead alloy. This becomes the duplicate printing plate. The example here is by Alois Auer in 1853.







The Seaweed Pressing Process

In the late 19th Century, the book Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae by A. B. Hervey outlined how to properly press and mount various types of algae. The tools needed are a pair of pliers, scissors, a stick with a needle in the end, at least two "wash bowls," botanist's "drying paper," or some kind of blotting paper, cotton cloth, and finally cards to mount the specimens on. Pliers and scissors are used to handle the specimens and cut away any extraneous, "superfluous" branches, and the needle is used like a pencil so that the plant can be moved around with relative ease to show the finer details. The far right image is an example from an album of "sea mosses" from the nineteenth century. The process begins with, of course, collecting specimens. With the seaweed in a bowl of salt water, the pliers are used to handle the specimen and free it from excessive sand and shells. It is then resubmerged in salt water while the mounting paper is at the same time, brought underneath and the specimen is allowed to rest on top. The drying and pressing process consists of layering the mounting papers with various types of blotting cloth and additional paper topped with weights; in this case the weights suggested by Hervey are 50 lbs. worth of rocks found by the seashore. Most seaweed in this case will adhere to the mounting board via gelatinous materials emitted from the plant itself. In the case that the plant does not contain enough material, different types of gummed paper and adhesives are used.





1. DiNoto, Andrea and David Winter. 1999. The Pressed Plant: The Art of Botanical Specimens, Nature Prints, and Sun Pictures. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

2. Green, Cedric. [2002]. Etching without aid [online]. United Kingdom: Ecotech Design, Green Prints [cited 9 June 2003]. Available: []

3. Hervey, A. B. 1882. Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae. Boston: S. E. Cassino.

4. Nason M. A., Rev. Elias. 1890. A Gazetteer of the State of Massachusetts with Numerous Illustrations. Revised and enlarged by George J. Varney. Boston: B. B. Russell.

5. Stoddard, Chris. 1980(?). A Centennial History of Cottage City. Oaks Bluff, Massachusetts: Oaks Bluff Historical Commission.

6. Welcke, Robert A. "Cottage City, Martha's Vineyard, Mass. 1890." New York, 1890. Map Collection 1500-2003. [Library of Congress American Memory Historical Collections] [Digital ID: g3764o pm003170 ] (9 June 2003).

7. [July 2002]. Historic Photographic Processes, The Cyanotype [online]. New York: Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Andrew Dickinson White Architectural Photograph Collection [cited 9 June 2003]. Available: []

8. [January 2003]. Alternative Processes [online]. United Kingdom: Silverprint Ltd. [cited 5 June 2003]. Available: [].

9. [June 2003]. History of Oak Bluffs [online]. Vineyard Gazzette Online [cited 19 May 2003]. Available: []

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