In 19th-Century New England, This Amateur Geologist Created Her Own Cabinet of Curiosities
A friend of Henry David Thoreau, Ellen Sewall Osgood’s pursuit of her scientific passion illuminates the limits and possibilities placed on the era’s women
On Christmas Day in 1839, 17-year-old Ellen Sewall received gifts from two suitors who happened, unfortunately, to be brothers. From John, she received a pale pink opal. From Henry, she received a collection of poems. Within a year, she had rejected both men’s offers of marriage—but she kept their gifts.
Sewall (later Osgood) had crossed paths with the Thoreau brothers that summer while visiting her aunt in Concord, Massachusetts. She would remain friends with the younger sibling, Henry David Thoreau, for the rest of her life and the elder, John Thoreau Jr., until his sudden death three years later from tetanus. At some point around a decade after they first met, Henry, who would go on to become a Transcendentalist philosopher and the author of Walden, sent Osgood another gift: an intricately built box designed to hold rocks and minerals. Now housed at the Concord Museum, this box—and the collection of specimens within it—has long been classified as the property of Osgood’s husband, Joseph, a minister and education reformer. In truth, however, the collection belonged to Ellen. It was the product of her lifelong interest in geology and her friendship with the now-famous Henry.
Intriguing in its own right, Osgood’s romance with Henry also offers an unexpected glimpse into how middle-class women pursued their passion for science during the 19th century. Henry’s own interest in geology has been well documented by scholars such as Robert Thorson and Laura Dassow Walls, who have highlighted his work surveying the depths of Concord’s Walden Pond and collecting specimens. But Osgood’s comparatively overlooked collection reveals how she developed her own distinctive scientific practice, offering a tangible record of how women of the period found ways to pursue education beyond the classroom.
Nineteenth-century women were rarely able to participate in professional scientific communities or contribute to natural history museums. (This trend even applied to such figures as Jane Kilby Welsh, who published a popular textbook on geology, and Orra White Hitchcock, who illustrated her husband’s geology textbooks and produced enormous classroom drawings for his Amherst College lectures.) Instead, most women found alternative ways to study science, creating collections at home or participating in informal networks centered on obtaining and exchanging objects.
Osgood became interested in geology as a teenager. At the age of 13, she began attending the Roxbury Female Academy in Massachusetts, where she studied a wide range of subjects, from Latin and German to geography, natural history, astronomy and chemistry. This curriculum was common for middle- and upper-class women at the time. While young men often received a classical education, young women were more likely to receive basic training in science; then considered a “girl’s subject,” according to historian Kim Tolley, these educational practices would shift a few decades later to make science a more male-dominated field, much like STEM today. In letters to her parents,now housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Osgood shared her growing enthusiasm for her scientific studies. Taught by Benjamin Kent, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, she studied astronomy with “magic lantern” projectors—a popular form of entertainment in Victorian parlors. Osgood described “a very pleasant and quite instructive evening” spent viewing slides of lunar and solar eclipses and the transit of Venus. She also wrote enthusiastically about the “interesting experiments” she’d observed in her chemistry class.
It was natural history, however, that especially interested Osgood. Like many other young girls of her generation, including the poet Emily Dickinson, she began keeping a collection of dried and pressed flowers known as a herbarium. Osgood delighted in both the outdoor excursions to find plants and the careful process of pressing flowers, telling her mother, “[W]e place paper between the leaves of the book and the flower, to prevent the flowers staining the book.”
In addition to making her own collection, Osgood spent hours browsing the academy’s cabinet of geological, botanical and zoological specimens. (Precursors to modern museums, cabinets of curiosities displayed eclectic artifacts and wonders of natural history.) Much like the Philosophy Chamber at Harvard, where Kent had studied, the school’s “philosophical room” functioned as the academy’s museum: a teaching collection that allowed students to work directly with specimens. The cabinet exhibited both the process and product of preservation. Osgood noted with anticipation that Kent was “very busy cleaning and preparing” a taxidermied skeleton of a horse to display during their lessons—an eerie example of the tangible methods of assembling a collection.
Despite the strangeness of the skeleton-in-progress, the academy’s cabinet appears to have especially piqued Osgood’s interest in geology. Her first impression of the field was through textbooks that left her somewhat unimpressed. But her interest was piqued when the pupils began examining specimens for themselves. “I used to think Geology must be a very uninteresting study, but I [now] find it quite the contrary,” she wrote to her mother. Inspired by the school’s cabinet of minerals, she decided to start her own collection. Suitors, including the Thoreaus and Osgood’s future husband, sent specimens for her cabinet to demonstrate their continued interest and admiration.
During Osgood’s two weeks in Concord in 1839, she rekindled her childhood friendship with the Thoreau brothers, joining them on boating excursions. She also visited a traveling menagerie with Henry, enthusiastically telling her parents about seeing a giraffe: “I was very glad to have an opportunity of seeing this famous animal. It answered my expectations completely, or rather it was even more remarkable looking than I supposed.” With both brothers, she collected Native American arrowheads and various specimens from the neighboring woods. When she accidentally left the items behind, John seized the opportunity to send them to her and strike up a correspondence.
Over the following months, the friends continued to exchange objects and writings—as well as flirtations. John sent Osgood the remains of an ill-fated grasshopper, prompting her reply via a letter to her aunt: “The insect arrived safely and amused me much. Please present my grateful acknowledgements to Mr. John and assure him that the absence of one of the grasshopper’s legs was very excusable.” After John sent her “some Opals, from South America, for her Cabinet” at Christmas, she once again sent her thanks for the “beautiful specimens,” writing, “They are the prettiest specimens of any kind that I have & I value them much.” Henry, for his part, sent her poems and caricatures, including a copy of the collected poems of Transcendentalist poet Jones Very and some of his own verses.
Pleased with the specimens sent by his brother, Osgood initially ignored the poems sent to her by Henry. In February, she wrote to her aunt with a sheepish apology: “My neglecting to thank Henry for his original poetry was entirely unintentional and I regret it exceedingly.” In addition to the opals gifted at Christmas, John also sent a “beautiful crystal,” which she described as “quite an addition to my small collection.”
Both their rivalry and their Transcendentalism doomed the brothers in the eyes of Osgood’s father, Edward Quincy Sewall. John proposed first during a surprise visit in the summer of 1840. Taken aback, Ellen accepted but immediately regretted the decision and reneged, realizing that she actually preferred the younger Thoreau. Unaware of his brother’s temporary good fortune, Henry subsequently proposed by letter. Her father ordered her to refuse Henry. With great remorse, she turned down the proposal in November 1840, writing to her aunt that her father “wished me to write immediately in a short explicit & cold manner to Mr T.” and noting, “I never felt so badly at sending a letter in my life.”
Eventually, Ellen and Henry revived their friendship once again, this time through objects. After marrying Joseph Osgood, she continued to stay in touch with the Thoreau family. The Osgoods hosted Henry on a visit in 1850, and she asked after him occasionally, inquiring of her aunt, “What is Henry’s hobby now?” just prior to the publication of Walden in 1854. At some point—perhaps during an 1850 trip—Henry gave the family a handmade box made of mahogany, with individual compartments carefully crafted to hold Osgood’s collection.
Still filled with specimens today, the box provides evidence of Osgood’s ongoing interest in geology and her collection’s growth throughout her lifetime. Each compartment houses at least one rock or mineral labeled with a name, location and—occasionally—the initials of the person who collected it. The handwriting varies on each label, suggesting gifts from numerous collectors.
In a scrapbook of memorabilia now housed at the Huntington Library, Osgood’s descendants recalled that in addition to the opal from John, “most of the other mineral specimens in the box were given ... by her children or friends.”
Most are fairly ordinary specimens, perhaps picked up along the shore or near the family’s home in Scituate, Massachusetts. The collection includes numerous examples of quartz, granite, porphyry and other kinds of minerals commonly found around New England. Several examples of quartz are labeled with “J.O.O.,” “G.O.,” and “W.S.O.”—the initials of her husband, or possibly their son, also named Joseph, and their sons George Osgood and William Sherborne Osgood. While not particularly rare specimens, these examples of quartz and granite were potentially prized by a young mother who delighted in sharing her interest in geology with her children. Taken as such, the labels transform the specimens into artifacts of family and friendship: both a scientific collection and a collective family enterprise.
At some point, either Osgood or her descendants separated the pink opal from John Thoreau from the other rocks and minerals. It now rests, along with the family letters related to their thwarted courtship, at the Huntington.
Osgood clearly treasured the opal. The label, which reads “Opa J.T.,” is missing the final letter of “opal,” suggesting that she and other relatives often picked up and inspected the object. The story of the rejected marriage proposals was frequently repeated in Osgood family lore, particularly as Henry’s fame grew in the late 19th century.
The fact that Osgood’s collection survives intact—or at all—is notable and perhaps inseparable from her lifelong friendship with a famous writer. Both the opal and the wooden box have long been characterized by their connections to Henry, but they also provide a rare and tangible record of how Osgood herself studied natural history and maintained her own collection. By rethinking these objects in relation to their owner, modern observers can more clearly see the informal methods and social networks through which she managed to pursue her interests in science—and imagine how many other women did the same.
Quotations from Ellen Sewall Osgood’s diaries and letters come from the Thoreau and Sewall Families Papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California