Martha Maxwell’s Menagerie: The Story of a Nineteenth Century Woman Naturalist

Martha Maxwell

Martha Maxwell, In the Field, ca. October 27, 1876, LOT 13301, no. 307 [P&P], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

How many girls today dream of becoming scientists? In the twenty-first century, these girls can achieve their dreams far more easily than could girls in the nineteenth century. This Sunday, Reading into History book club families will learn about nineteenth century women in science by discussing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. In this book, a young girl living in Texas in 1899 struggles to explore her interest in natural science instead of assuming traditional womanly responsibilities. The book is historical fiction, but there were real women in the nineteenth century who became scientists against many odds. One of those women was Martha Maxwell, a little-known, fascinating, and somewhat tragic figure. In Calpurnia Tate, Calpurnia’s grandfather references “Mrs. Maxwell” as a woman Calpurnia might look up to. Once you know her history, you’ll understand why.

Martha Maxwell (1831-1881) was a Colorado homesteader who became a pioneer in taxidermy, the art of stuffing and mounting dead animals. Taxidermy was crucial to the study of the natural world in the nineteenth century. Through taxidermy, Maxwell could catalog the variety of wildlife in Colorado, a part of the world that most Americans knew little about. She even discovered a subspecies of screech owl! Maxwell arranged her specimens in life-like poses and groupings and placed them in settings that mimicked their behavior in their natural environment. Later, Carl Akeley and William Hornaday would adopt some of her techniques for dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo, respectively.

The New-York Historical Society library has a first edition of a book about Martha Maxwell called  On The Plains and Among The Peaks, by Mary Dartt, Maxwell’s half-sister. The book begins by discussing the diorama of Colorado wildlife that Maxwell curated at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Maxwell was commissioned to bring her collection of over 400 birds and 100 mammals to the exhibition, design an environment for them, and answer visitors’ questions. It was a rare honor for a woman to represent her state at such an important event. At this time, it was rare for a woman to even give a speech in public- it was not considered proper! Maxwell thought it was important for women to show off their talents in public.  She once said  “My life is one of physical work, an effort to prove the words spoken by more gifted women….The world demands proof of womans [sic] capacities, without it words are useless.”[1] Maxwell titled her Centennial exhibition “Woman’s Work” to prove this point.

cover_on the plains

This is the cover of the copy of On the Plains, and Among the Peaks, or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection in our Library collection.

 

In the first few pages of On the Plains, the author Dartt tells us about a time when she took over answering visitor questions at Maxwell’s diorama while Maxwell took a break. Here are some of the questions that Dartt, was asked about her sister:

Martha Maxwell Taxidermy

Martha Maxwell, In the Work Room, ca. October 27, 1876, LOT 13301, no. 306 [P&P], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA 

“How could a woman do it?”

“Did she kill any of the animals?”

“What sort of a woman is she?”

“Did she kill them buf’lo?”

“I don’t believe them critters was shot; I’ve looked ‘em all over and I can’t see any holes. Did she pisen [poison] ‘em?”

“Does she live in that cave?”[2]

Here is how Dartt may have answered all these questions. Martha Maxwell killed most but not all of her specimens herself by poisoning, trapping or shooting them. She stuffed and mounted all of them herself. This involved gutting the animals, and Maxwell reported that she often became sick doing this gross work. She was so expert at putting the animals in lifelike poses that it threw some viewers off.  Before the Centennial, a journalist  visited the Colorado museum where Maxwell displayed her collection and reported that “The first thing upon which my eyes fell was a black-and-tan terrier lying on a mat. Not until after a second or two did the strange stillness of the creature suggest to me that it was not alive….I could hardly believe it.”[3] People at the Centennial were especially astonished by Maxwell’s buffalo, posed as though ready to charge. Maxwell was likely the first woman of European descent to kill a buffalo. Are you surprised that someone asked if she lived in the cave that was part of the diorama? Well, she did. Here’s where Maxwell’s story isn’t so glorious.

calpurnia3Martha Maxwell, though respected and well known, never made much of a living from taxidermy. The museum she started in Colorado failed in one location and then another. During the Centennial, Maxwell lived in the cave that was part of her diorama because she could not afford housing. She even worked in a cafeteria on the fairgrounds to earn some money. After the Centennial, she was able to sell her collection for $600, but she was rarely able to sell future specimens. She struggled to get by until the day she died in Rockaway Beach, New York in 1881. She moved to Rockaway Beach in 1880 and tried to open a Colorado-themed resort/museum on the boardwalk. That business venture never took off. Her daughter, Mabel was with her when she died, but historians think their relationship was strained. Mabel may not have liked that her mom was so different from other mothers, always off in the woods, camping and shooting animals. Most of the world in the 1800s did not understand how a mother could want to work.  The struggle between work and family is one that women still face today.

Martha Maxwell’s life was risky, full of adventure, and full of struggle. After reading this post, pick up The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and come compare Calpurnia’s life to Maxwell’s at the book wrap this Sunday at 3 pm. We’ll be joined by Jessica Shearer, and ornithological researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. In the meantime, here’s to all the past, present, and future woman scientists out there!

 

The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Sources

Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print.

“Martha Maxwell, Colorado Huntress.” National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Dickinson Research Center, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <https://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/research/exhibits/maxwell-martha/default.aspx>.

Richard, Frances, and Emilie Clark. “Reversing the Regular Order of Nature: An Interview with Emilie Clark.” Cabinet Sloth 29 (2008): n. pag. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/29/richard.php>.

 


[1] “Martha Maxwell, Colorado Huntress.” National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Dickinson Research Center, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nationalcowboymuseum.org%2Fresearch%2Fexhibits%2Fmaxwell-martha%2Fdefault.aspx>.

[2] Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print. Pp 5-8

[3] H.H. “Bits of Travel at Home”, New York Independent, as quoted in Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print. P. 12

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