Interpretive Theme: World Knowledge

The notions of an Independent America preached by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were not based only on a system of government. Like other influential thinkers of their day, both Jefferson and Franklin were committed to the development of a scientific tradition in their emerging nation. Science could provide both theoretical and practical knowledge, and could help Americans understand the landscape in which they lived and the wider world beyond. In the half-century following independence, a number of institutions were founded to organize and disseminate scientific information. Franklin was one of the founders of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1785, and a number of similar institutions sprang up in Massachusetts soon after.

“Natural History,” the most prominent field of scientific study in the 19th century, depended on the observation and comparison of specimens from nature, a practice that required the accumulation of large collections of prepared plants, animals, rocks, and minerals, and representations in two and three dimensions of geological formations and phenomena. Sailors had a long tradition of collecting souvenirs of their voyages, and a number of “cabinets of curiosities” with roots in the maritime trades had already become the nuclei of scientific collections. In the “cabinet,” ethnological artifacts were exhibited side by side with rock and shell collections, mounted birds, butterflies, and small animals, and even items produced on shipboard by whalemen. “Natural Curiosities,” were distinguished from “Artificial Curiosities,” the latter being those things made by humans.

Because whalemen traveled to distant and exotic locations in the course of a voyage, it was logical that interested individuals and institutions turned to them to help develop their collections. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, for instance, actually published a broadside guide to making collections especially aimed at mariners. New Bedford whaling Captain Phillip Howland collected for the Boston Museum of Natural History, and Captain George Comer had a relationship with the Smithsonian and with the Anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University.

Information on distant locations was also brought back to a curious government, poised to make diplomatic connections to nations in the newly expanding world and curious about the potential of expanding national borders across the continent. The American annexation of Hawaii, Alaska, and the Pacific coast states can be traced in part to the whalemen and traders who formed an active American presence in those places and in the adjacent waters long before an overland route to the west was feasible.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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