Featured Items: The American Woods

Hough, Romeyn Beck. The American Woods : Exhibited by Actual Specimens and With Copious Explanatory Text. Lowville, N.Y. : [R.B. Hough,], 1888-1913.

Romeyn Beck Hough’s (1857-1924) The American Woods was a forestry manual which used actual botanical specimens to illustrate the “variety and importance of our forest trees.”Hough personally collected specimens for 329 different species of tree from across the North American continent and cut them into paper-thin segments, using a slicing device which he had invented specifically for this project. The specimens were then mounted onto individual cards, each of which contained three specimens cut from the radial, transverse and tangential sides of the timber, so as to show the grain of wood from multiple angles. As each copy of the book required its own individual specimen, every single copy of The American Woods is, itself, a unique object.

Hough’s text, printed in accompanying volumes, provides information on each tree’s botany and its commercial and medicinal uses. Each volume consists of twenty-four specimen cards and an accompanying text volume, all of which were housed in a slipcase designed to make the set look like a standard printed book. The finished publication ran to thirteen volumes, which were published over a period of twenty-five years. Copies of all thirteen volumes can be found in Special Collections.

In its day, The American Woods was advertised as a resource for “foresters, lumbermen, woodworkers, architects, engineers, and students.” In addition to these purposes, the work now also serves another historic interest: as many of the trees collected and described by Hough have since become endangered or extinct, the set allows one to view specimens of species which are now rare or entirely nonexistent in nature.

Shown in the photograph below are specimens of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), a once prolific tree which, between 1904 and 1924, was driven almost to extinction by the chestnut blight, a disease caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica.

American chestnut (Castanea dentata)

Alexander Clark Johnston

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