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COLLECTION Identifier: Herbaria Special Collections Algae R665

Mary A. Robinson seaweed album


  • 1885


Conditions Governing Access

Material extremely fragile. Please contact for additional information.


0.3 linear feet (1 flat box)

Biographical note

Mary A. McGibbon was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1826 to Thomas and Mary A. McGibbon. In 1863, she married Samuel D. Robinson in Boston, Massachusetts. Samuel was born in 1836 in County Sligo, Ireland, and was the son of George and Margaret Robinson. He and his family settled in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where it appears he and Mary also eventually lived. By at least 1897, Mary was living in Cottage City (now known as Oak Bluffs) on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It is not clear when she moved to Martha’s Vineyard, or if Samuel ever lived there. It is possible that the Robinsons split their time between Martha’s Vineyard in the summer and Providence, Rhode Island in the winter.

Samuel Robinson died in Providence, Rhode Island, on December 16, 1885. The widowed Mary is listed in the Cottage City directory for 1897 as the proprietor of a boarding house simply called "Robinson House," located at the corner of Tuckernuck and Sea View Streets, the latter street now known as Circuit Avenue.

Mary Robinson died of a heart attack (then known as apoplexy) in Cottage City on February 13, 1898. She and her husband appear not to have had any children and she did not have a will. There is no mention of heirs named Robinson in the administrative documents that settled her estate. Her estate was insolvent; there were not enough assets to cover all the claims against it, even after the auction of the boarding house.

Her obituary in the Vineyard Gazette states that "She was generous in aiding everything that was for the benefit of the town or its people." However, there is no mention of her artistic talents or her interest in marine algae.


The pages were disbound from an original scrapbook. The original boards were not retained. Plates are stored in individual sleeves by plate number and by size.


The scrapbook was found in a house owned by the Norton family in Lambert's Cove in Tisbury, also on Martha's Vineyard. It is unclear how it ended up at this house. When Mary Robinson died in 1898, her furniture and household goods were bought at auction, and brought in only about half of what they were appraised for. The boarding house in Cottage City was sold at auction and the title was transferred to Clofus L. Gonyon on October 7, 1899. It is not known what happened to her personal effects including her scrapbook; it is not listed in the extensive inventory schedule prepared by three local appraisers, dated June 11, 1899. In the list of claims against her estate, dated February 7, 1899, an entry for James G. Norton appears for medicines in the amount of $19.45. If this Mr. Norton was a close family friend, it may be that he received the scrapbook as a gift or by agreement with Mrs. Robinson prior to her death, but this is clearly a speculation.

Mrs. Constance Neelon of Southern Pines, North Carolina, donated the scrapbook to the Farlow Herbarium Archives in August 2002. Mrs. Neelon's family spent summers on Martha's Vineyard beginning in 1932 and her husband found the scrapbook around 1950. At some point, Mrs. Neelon inserted a piece of paper upon which she had written: "This seaweed book was compiled on Martha's Vineyard at Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) in the year 1885. It was done by M. A. Robinson. My husband found it in the attic of an old farmhouse which he bought and restored. The house had belonged to an old island family the Nortons. It was on Lambert's Cove, West Tisbury." In addition to the unadorned seaweed specimens, there are others that are embellished with watercolor images by Mrs. Robinson of the surrounding area, including seaside scenes, lighthouses and sailboats.

Marine algae and seaweed scientific identifications

It is unknown where Mary Robinson collected her seaweeds but it was likely in the waters near Cottage City (currently Oak Bluffs) on the northeastern coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Robinson lived in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which is not coastal, so the collecting was not done there. She later lived in Providence, Rhode Island, which is on the coast, so she may have collected there.

Mary Robinson was principally an artist so others may have identified the seaweeds for her. It is known for example, that phycologists W. R. Dudley and R. A. Esten collected on Martha’s Vineyard in 1879 and 1895, respectively. In August of 1892 and in January 1895 phycologist R. E. Schuh collected right at Cottage City and may also have done so at other times. Some of these visiting collectors may have even stayed in the boarding house run by Robinson. In addition, there were well-informed local resident algae collectors such as Marcus W. Jernegan, a professor of history at the University of Chicago; Laura Jernegan, Marcus's older sister who married Herbert W. Spear; Miss Sarah G. Colt, daughter of whaling captain Henry Colt; and Julia A. (Jernegan) King. These four people lived much of their lives in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, and experts writing in the professional literature of the day accepted their plant identifications. Any of these people could have assisted Mary Robinson with the identification of the algae that were integral to her art. In any case, the notations on the seaweed specimens make it clear that whoever made the identifications had considerable knowledge of marine algae names.

General note

In 1881, Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae by A. B. Hervey outlined how to properly press and mount various types of algae. The tools needed are a pair of pliers, scissors, a stick with a needle in the end, at least two wash bowls, some kind of blotting paper, cotton cloth, and cards for mounting the specimens. Pliers and scissors are used to handle the specimens and cut away any extraneous branches, and the needle is used to move the algae around with relative ease to show the finer details. After specimens are collected, they are placed in a bowl of salt water and the pliers are used to handle the specimen and free it from excessive sand and shells. Once cleaned, the specimen is then resubmerged in salt water and the mounting paper is brought up from under the specimen, which then rests on the paper. The drying and pressing process consists of layering the mounting papers with various types of blotting cloth and additional paper topped with weights; Hervey suggests 50 pounds of rocks found by the seashore. Most seaweed will adhere to the mounting board with the natural adhesive present in the algae. Different types of gummed paper or adhesive may be used if the natural adhesive is not sufficient.


DiNoto, Andrea and David Winter. 1999. The Pressed Plant: The Art of Botanical Specimens, Nature Prints, and Sun Pictures. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Green, Cedric. [2002]. Etching without acid [online]. United Kingdom: Ecotech Design, Green Prints. ( Accessed 20 September 2019.

Hervey, A. B. 1882. Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide and an Introduction to the Study of Marine Algae. Boston: S. E. Cassino.

Nason M. A., Rev. Elias. 1890. A Gazetteer of the State of Massachusetts with Numerous Illustrations. Revised and enlarged by George J. Varney. Boston: B. B. Russell.

Processing Information

Item titles are comprised of scientific names written on the pages. Corrected scientific names are in square brackets and were supplied by archives staff. Illustrations without written titles were described by archives staff.

Processing Information

Container list updated and verified by Catherine Adam, October 2019. Finding aid front matter revised by Gretchen Wade, October 2019.

Robinson, Mary A., 1826-1898. Mary A. Robinson seaweed album, 1885: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.
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Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany specializes in organisms that reproduce by spores, without flowers or seeds. The Archives of the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Farlow Herbarium.

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