A few days ago I found part of an interesting set in closed stacks (NOT special collections), which was incomplete. I promised myself I’d follow up on it later (I make this promise almost hourly, to the point where I’ll be here for the next 30 years following up on fascinating little mysteries). I went back up and took a closer look, opening up the volumes, and as I looked I had that feeling you get when you Know You Have Something Here.
What we have is not one, but TWO sets of a very rare work by Romeyn Beck Hough (1857-1924), a graduate of Cornell (1881) who was a prodigy as a naturalist, working for both the Smithsonian Institute and Cornell in curatorial capacities before he was twenty. In the course of his work on this set, entitled The American Woods, Hough devised a machine that could make cuts of wood in thicknesses from 1/10 to 1/1200 of an inch, which he used to manufacture and sell business cards and other novelties made out of wood.
From 1888 to 1924 he produced thirteen volumes designed to contain specimens (in transverse, radial, and tangential sections) of all the native and naturalized species of woods in the united States and Canada. The Special Collections of North Carolina State University has provided an online version of the plates, which are extremely fragile and amazing to behold:
Each volume is geographically arranged: I-IV covers New York and adjacent states, V is Florida, VI-X covers the pacific states, XI and XII cover the Atlantic states, and XIII and XIV revisit Florida.
Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous.