Hidden Treasures: The Unusual Binding of “Flora Sibirica”

This article is part of our year-long “Hidden Treasures” series in which Alyssa B. Young, Special Collections Librarian, features notable works in the BRIT rare book collection.

As you look through the shelves in our rare book room, you see rows and rows of beautifully-bound books. They have bindings of leather and vellum, ornate embossed and gilded decorations on the covers and spines.

Two volumes stand out. Their bindings appear to be of tough cloth or paper, showing age more than the leather-bound neighbors. The front and back covers have no design or text. The spine is simple, with the titles handwritten in a delicate ink script: Flora Sibirica.

Flora Sibirica, Volumes 1 & 2, by Johann Georg Gmelin. Published in 1747 and 1748.

Throughout the 1700s, the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences in St. Petersburg funded a series of large-scale scientific explorations throughout Russia. Johann Georg Gmelin (1709-1755) was an esteemed member of German academic society. After receiving a medical degree at the young age of 18, Gmelin moved to St. Petersburg. He became a professor of chemistry and natural history at the Academy in 1728.

Gmelin embarked on Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition (1731-1742), which resulted in the publication of his Flora Sibirica. The expedition involved 600 people, and Gmelin was one of the three professors from the Academy leading the observations. He later explained the goal of the voyage assigned by the Russian government was “generally to learn everything that has scientific interest.” This included describing the natural and societal history of Siberia.

Title page of Flora Sibirica, Volume 1, published in 1747.

Flora Sibirica was published in four volumes, 1747-1769. The final two volumes were published after Gmelin’s 1755 death and were completed by his nephew. The BRIT rare book room houses the first three volumes.

Before the invention of bookbinding machines in the latter half of the 19th Century, nearly all binding was a custom process. Publishers sold the pages of the book to the customer directly, who was then responsible for having the pages bound together. The customer would hire a bookbinder of their choice to create a binding, the design of which was dictated by their financial and aesthetic preferences. This leads to the great variety of binding techniques and styles we see in our library. BRIT’s Flora Sibirica is an extraordinarily simple binding. We believe this is the original binding, meaning the customer who purchased this book in 1747 chose the design.

We can let our imaginations wander with ideas explaining this choice. Perhaps the customer preferred to concentrate on the contents of the books rather than the exterior. Perhaps they couldn’t afford a more elaborate design. Or maybe they enjoyed the look of this binding, beautiful in its simplicity. (If the latter is the case, I am in agreement!)

The interesting binding choices don’t stop there: the edges have been dyed a beautiful, rich blue color. This would also have been done by the binder – before attaching the cover and spine, the binder sews the pages together at the binding end, trims the outer edges, and occasionally adds edge decorations.

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Cabinet Curiosities: Botanical Specimens with a Mysterious Past!

[This is part of our “Cabinet Curiosities” series, which explores significant items in our Herbarium collection. This article originally appeared in BRIT’s former newsletter publication, Iridos, Issue 16(1) 2005.]


“Wow!” is the most frequent comment from visitors viewing the two oldest plant specimens in the BRIT Herbarium. Both specimens were collected in Mexico in 1791 by Dr. Thaddaeus Peregrinus Xaverius Haenke (1761-1817), a widely-respected Czech botanist, world explorer, and editor of the eighth edition of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1791).

Ol’ Thad. Spiffy hat, no?

BRIT’s oldest specimen, designated by Haenke as number 1564 in his collection, is a heliotrope (Heliotropium ternatum) belonging to the Boraginaceae, or Forget-me-not  family. The second oldest specimen, collection number 1666, was uncovered by Judy MacKenzie, a [former] herbarium technician who […] made it her mission to sort and file specimens BRIT has obtained from orphaned herbaria, making them accessible to researchers. The newly found specimen, in remarkably good condition, was received from the Houston Public Museum in 2001. The plant was identified by Haenke as Karwinskia umbellata, a member of the Rhamnaceae, or Buckthorn, family.

One of BRIT’s oldest specimens. From 1791. And yes, it smells old.

Both Haenke specimens arrived at BRIT in a roundabout manner. Haenke and French botanist Luis Née (1734-1807) were invited by King Carlos IV of Spain to join Alejandro Malaspina’s expedition in 1789 to explore natural and economic resources around the world. Arriving at the harbor a few hours late, 28 year-old Haenke learned that the expedition had already set sail. Trying to catch the expedition by sea, he barely survived a shipwreck but managed to save a few personal items and his royal letter of appointment. After arriving in South America, Haenke traveled overland to Santiago, Chile, finally joining the expedition. During the voyage, he explored and collected specimens throughout South and Central America, North America as far north as Vancouver, and westward to the Philippines and the Mariana Islands. On a trip to the Amazon Basin in 1801, he discovered the giant Victoria water lily (Victoria regia) at the Mamoré River.

Victoria regia, now known as Victoria amazonica. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the expedition Haenke collected approximately 15,000 dried plant specimens; some of them were sent to Prague where they were placed in the National Museum. Toward the end of the expedition, eighty-five bundles of Haenke’s duplicates arrived in Spain with Malaspina but were never incorporated into any extant herbaria. Some of Haenke’s duplicates eventually ended up in herbaria in Europe and the United States. Haenke settled in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he started a botanical garden, published his manuscripts, and worked his own silver mine until his death in 1817 from mistakenly taking poison. After his death, his notebooks and other botanically-related paraphernalia were sent to The Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.

Puerta de Murillo, the entrance to the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (photo credit: A. Barra – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the 1960s, the Lund Botanical Museum in Sweden conducted a large-scale plant exchange program with many other herbaria. It is believed that the two oldest specimens that now reside at BRIT are the result of duplicate collections of Haenke’s that were acquired through this exchange program. Is it possible the specimens that went to Spain with Malaspina ended up in Sweden? BRIT staff are eager to learn more about Haenke’s specimens and to discover more “specimens with a mysterious past” in the BRIT Herbarium.

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Hidden Treasures: Alexander von Humboldt and the Scientific Discovery of America

This article is part of our year-long “Hidden Treasures” series in which Alyssa B. Young, Special Collections Librarian, features notable works in the BRIT rare book collection.

Illustration from the 1808 publication of Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. Sixième partie, botanique. Plantes équinoxiales, recueillies au Mexique, dans l’île de Cuba, dans les provinces de Caracas, de Cumana et de Barcelone, aux Andes de la nouvelle-Grenade, de Quito et du Pérou, et sur les bords du Rio-Négro, de l’Orénoque et de la riviere des Amazones.

BRIT Reads, our monthly bookclub, recently enjoyed Andrea Wulf’s bestseller The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. This month’s discussion was made even more special because we have a relevant item in our rare book collection: the 1808 botanical volume of Alexander von Humboldt and Amié Bonpland’s Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was drawn towards science at an early age, collecting thousands of plant specimens and insects as a young boy in Prussia. He eschewed a life of privilege to become a scientific explorer, a great disappointment to his strict mother who wished him to pursue a more respectable job as a civil servant.

His mother’s death in 1796 brought Humboldt a sizable inheritance — enough to fund the scientific expeditions he had always dreamed of. He enlisted Friend botanist Amié Bonpland as his travel companion. They secured permission from the King of Spain to travel to Spanish America and set sail for Venezuela in June 1799.

Although the New World had been discovered centuries before, Humboldt and Bonpland’s momentous five-year expedition has been called “the scientific discovery of America.” The two worked with a ferocity that baffled their Indian guides, navigating dangerous routes in the name of science. Humboldt expressed frustrations that he was unable to record everything he saw — the birds that flew too high to describe in detail, the plants that were just out of reach, the animals that scurried away quickly… Humboldt and Bonpland were both avid plant collectors, filling books with pressed specimens throughout their journey. Most specimens were given field labels or tags that corresponded to a numbered entry in their collection, which sometimes also had an early determination.

Three volumes of Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries. His extensive original recordings are housed in Germany and have recently been digitized through an effort of the University of Potsam and the German State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. © Carola Seifert, SBB-PK

Humboldt kept a fastidious diary throughout the expedition that totaled over 3,000 pages, which today is being studied and was recently digitized at University of Potsdam in Germany. (You can read more about that project here. Note: the website is in German!) Upon returning to Europe in 1804, Bonpland published 34 volumes outlining his discoveries, titled Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent (English translation: Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent). The final volume was published in 1834, 30 years after the expedition ended. Although his diaries formed the basis for his writings, the magnitude of information and detail show that Humboldt had exceptional memory.

Recently digitized, this page from Humboldt’s diary shows a botanical illustration. This image appeared in the third diary he used on his expedition between 1799-1800. You can see more images from the digitization project here: http://humboldt.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werk/

The publications covered the multitude of sciences Humboldt studied on the trip, and two of the volumes are dedicated to botany. The BRIT rare book collection houses the first volume of the botanical book, published in 1808. It is rich with detailed copper engravings, most of which were created by artist Pierre Jean Francois Turpin. The engravings were likely produced based on the authors’ drawings, memories, and dried plant specimens. The illustrations are particularly noteworthy for the focus on scientific information, especially the dissection details.

All engravings are towards the back of the book, while the front half contains descriptions of the plants, with additional details about the dissection figures. The book was intended for a scholarly, specialized audience of botanists. It’s interesting to compare this with other books of the time, such as another BRIT treasure, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. These two publications are both composed of fairly straight-forward plant descriptions, but Curtis’s descriptions are succinct and easy to understand. Plant descriptions in Humboldt’s books can go on for several pages and also touch on family characteristics.

The book shows extremely detailed scientific illustrations.

Humboldt’s book has no color illustrations, and the text is set simply with very few woodblock decorations. The book is printed as a large folio to show the scientific detail of the illustrations rather than to serve as a piece of artwork.

Thanks to the BRIT Reads books club, the list of Humboldt appreciators has grown! And with one of his important publications in our rare book collection, we’re able to provide access to the work that so filled him with passion.

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Recycling Rocks!

Mixed-stream recycling is pretty amazing. We get to throw all of our recyclables into one bin, and then — POOF! — they magically get taken away and sorted elsewhere. No more icky sorting of paper from soda cans, milk jugs from mason jars! But have you ever wondered how the sorting ACTUALLY HAPPENS and WHO DOES IT?

Back in July of 2016, BRIT was invited to tour Republic Services’ North Texas Complex located in Fort Worth. They graciously allowed us to take some photos and video of their sorting plant so we could come back and share their awesomeness with you.

BRIT junior intern Parker Boyce took our raw files and created the video below, set to the song “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott and performed by Carl Stalling.

So here’s the rough breakdown of the process. (For those in the know, I apologize if some of this is out of sequence or not technically exact. Feel free to suggest corrections in the comments!)


Trucks dump all the stuff they collect onto a big warehouse floor.


Little tractors scoop up the stuff and start it onto the big, complex, super-awesome conveyor belt system.


Not everything is automated. Humans do an initial pre-sort along the conveyor belt, pulling out “plastic film” (bags, wrappers, etc.) as the stuff rolls by. They hold the film up under those big blue vacuum tubes, and it gets sucked away to a separate bundling machine.


The paper gets shaken out of the mixed stream early and sets off on its own path, the end of which is being compressed into a giant rectangular “worm.” The worm gets cut up and bound into big bales that are measured by the ton. This step looked a lot like a slow, Play-Doh factory or extruded cheese or pasta. Fun!


At some point the mixed stream goes up a belt and passes over a magnetized drum at the top, which pulls out all the ferrous metals.


Then the stream passes by a bar with an electric current (or a spinning magnet). This induces a magnetic field in NON-ferrous metals such as aluminum (google “Lenz Effect” to see how this works). The non-ferrous metal items get yanked up over the bar to one bin while the remaining stuff drops under the bar into another bin.


Now we’re left with just plastics. These are sorted by type as they pass under lasers that each fire a beam that is able to read the type of plastic (e.g., #2, 4, 7, etc.). If the plastic type matches, a puff of air shoots at that plastic piece, propelling it off down another path.

There are more intermediate steps where tiny pieces of things are shaken out over grates and a step where all of the glass shards are collected in a bin together, but there was so much going on in this place that I’m lucky I got as much as I did.

What I really took away from this trip was that (1) this giant Rube Goldberg machine is very clever and was probably very fun to design, and (2) all of this machine-based ingenuity serves to automate on a large scale a task that is very simple for humans: sorting recyclables. But if you want people to do something, it helps if you make it EASY. If we as a global community want to recycle as much as we can, then we need to make recycling take as little extra effort and time as we can. Studies show that communities that offer mixed-stream recycling report much higher participation rates than communities that only collect pre-sorted recyclables. Businesses such as Republic Services and machines such as the ones seen here are making recycling EASY. They sort our recyclables for us, so we don’t have to do it ourselves, and in the end, more recyclables are kept out of the landfill. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s certainly an idea worth supporting.

P.S. Here’s a neat video explaining the Lenz Effect (the one that allows us to automate non-ferrous metal sorting).

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Cabinet Curiosities: Frontera, Texas

This is the first of our “Cabinet Curiosities” series, which explores significant items in our Herbarium collection. This article was written by Joe Lippert, Digitization Coordinator.


Cryptantha oblata, collected on 12 May 1852 in Frontera, Texas.

In 1852, the former Republic of Texas was two years past the Compromise of 1850 that solidified the state borders we are all so familiar with today. The portions of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming once connected to our state were very sparsely held by any form of government because of raiding parties by hostile Comanche warriors from the nearby Comancheria. And one of the places raided by those fierce warriors was a tiny trading post named Frontera, the same name written in flowing cursive on the original collection label of our specimen. To the left of the primary label is another, smaller note that reads “Coll. Charles Wright”.

Cabinet-Curiosities-FronteraTX_email-croppedLocated 8 miles northwest of present day El Paso, for a short time this small outpost established in 1848 was the first custom house on the recently established international border between Mexico and the State of Texas. The newfound importance brought with it surveyors to delineate and parcel out the open and boundless land of the Southwest, and included on a survey in 1849 by the U.S. Army was a young Yale graduate and botanist by the name Charles Wright. Promised nothing more than transportation of his baggage during the 673 mile trip, he arrived on foot in El Paso 104 days later but flush with collections of wildflower seeds and botanical specimens. Wright lived in El Paso for the next four years, surveying the US-Mexico border and discovered 50 new species of plants in addition to collections of avifauna such as Empidonax wrightii (American Gray Flycatcher). Then in 1853, Wright left West Texas for a spot on an expedition to the North Pacific via Asia, and never returned to the high deserts of the Southwest.


Frontera did not exist much longer after Wright’s time, remaining a small frontier trading post and later a ranch until 1855, when the spot was abandoned for too many Comanche raids and not enough military protection. One can still find evidence of the post on mail delivery maps until the 1860s, but today only paved streets and quiet neighborhoods remain of that outpost.

Unlike the forgotten town of Frontera, we retain a tangible memory of the region’s botanical history that can never be lost as long as we preserve these irreplaceable specimens. In the process of digitizing BRIT’s collection of specimens from Texas, to date we have uncovered almost a dozen specimens by Charles Wright from this period of his life. With the help of Herbarium staff and volunteers, we have now preserved the life’s work of a lesser known but no less important Texas botanist who worked tirelessly to explore and collect plants from the unfilled places on a world map.

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