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Laura Hecox Collections

historic photograph of Laura Hecox standing along the coast

Laura Hecox was an extraordinary woman and a brilliant amateur scientist who even had species named after her. Laura was the Santa Cruz lighthouse keeper from 1883 to 1916, and a renowned collector whose lighthouse museum was known far and wide. Contemporary descriptions in newspapers, correspondence, and other publications describe a stunning collection that occupied a room’s worth of cabinets on subjects from marine life to gems and minerals to ethnographic collections. Her collection of natural history specimens, artifacts, and curios was gifted to the people of Santa Cruz in 1904 and is the foundational collection of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Over the years, as Laura’s museum found homes in different community locations, portions of the collection were lost to time. Today, we strive to reconcile this loss with the honor of preserving what we still have, and the responsibility of making it available to our community. Laura’s tireless curiosity about the world around her continues to inspire our organization, even as we continue to learn more about her legacy.


Laura Hecox Scrapbook

While Laura meticulously cataloged her collection, she kept no known diary. Contemporary authors reference her scientific correspondence, yet none of these writings is known to have survived. Laura was, however, an avid scrapbooker. We are excited to provide complete access to the largest of Laura’s surviving scrapbooks. The scrapbook featured below is one of the few means by which we can learn more about Laura’s private life and the historical context in which she lived.

Her interests on the page were just as diverse as when collecting physical materials. In her scrapbook, beginning with an 1895 article on women lighthouse keepers, you will see articles on topics ranging from shell identification to women’s suffrage. We are always eager to learn more about Laura, as well as the natural and cultural history of late 19th century Santa Cruz.

We are proud to represent Laura’s legacy. However, the content reflected in these clippings is historical in nature. The views and opinions expressed within are not necessarily those of the museum itself. 

This project is indebted to the ongoing research legacy of Frank Perry, and is made possible by a partnership with the Santa Cruz Public Libraries.

To learn more about the Laura Hecox collection or set up a research appointment, email collections@santacruzmuseum.org

Laura Hecox Resources


A selection of items from the Laura Hecox Collection

Collections Close-Up: Foundational Photographs

Laura Hecox: lighthouse keeper, collector, naturalist. 

Photographer. 

Historic image of 3 people on the steps of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse.
Image courtesy of Frank Folwell, relative of Margaret Hecox

This January we piece together a richer picture of our founding collector by taking a new look at an old photograph. The image above depicts matriarch Margaret Hecox standing on the steps of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse in November 1887, accompanied by W.J. Morton and T.H. D’Estrella. We borrowed this picture from a descendent of Simon Hamer, Margaret Hecox’s nephew, who received it years after having spent time living with the Hecox family in Santa Cruz. It is similar to an image the Museum already has, except for one critical difference: it is captioned.

In addition to providing the exact date, and clearly identifying the individuals in the photo, including “Mother’, the final note of the caption, partially obscured by damage, reads “I took this photo”. 

We celebrate Laura’s legacy and steward her personal collection, yet there is little documentary evidence of her life. Previous Collections projects have explored some of the precious few materials we have that were actually created by Laura – these include her catalog books and one of her scrapbooks. Our primary source of visual information about her life is a small collection of photographs. 

Consisting of two sets of albums, these photographs depict various people and places around 1887 or 1888. These albums are where we derive most of our iconic images of Laura, tidepooling in petticoats beneath a natural bridge, or sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean. 

One album is inscribed “with Christmas compliments” from Hecox family friend and photography enthusiast Theophilus Hope D’Estrella. D’Estrella was a teacher at the California School for the Deaf, where he got the nickname “Magic Lantern Man” for sharing magic lantern slides of his travels into the Sierras and along the California coast with his students. The D’Estrella album includes pictures of parks and buildings in the Monterey and San Francisco bay areas, as well as the sculpture studio of D’Estrella’s good friend and Laura’s nephew, Douglas Tilden. 

The other album, contained within the same type of mass produced “Album of Photographs” folio, is more Santa Cruz focused. Its many images include rocky coast and crashing waves, the lighthouse, and local park scenes. Few images depict Laura herself. Some of the images are explicitly attributed to specific photographers, many are not. For the most part, they are all captioned in the same elegantly looped handwriting that we find in Laura’s catalog books and lighthouse paperwork. It also appears to be the same handwriting on the caption to Simon Hamer’s photograph. In this caption then, we find Laura not just collecting specimens, corresponding with scientists, and keeping up with the current events, but also engaging with emerging technologies. 

The first modern photographic image was Joseph-Nicephore Niepce’s 1826 picture of a barn. Although the subsequent decades witnessed various innovations in the photographic process, it wasn’t until the 1888 release of the handheld Kodak camera that the process was simplified enough for photography to become a widespread hobby. So in this photograph we are seeing Laura use a camera during a time when most photography was still the province of professionals. Prior to the context provided by this caption, we had no way of knowing that any of the photographs might have been taken by Laura herself.

It is exciting to understand Laura’s active role in creating the materials we have in the collection, especially in light of the history of how her collection has been described. While today we often place her story front and center, historical accounts often attributed her collection to her father Adna, despite Laura herself deeding the collection to the city. Of course, we have many accounts of family collaboration – of Adna building cabinets and of Margaret organizing and sorting specimens – and we wouldn’t want to exclude them. Yet, as late as the 1930s we see reports of the relocation of the “Adna A. Hecox collection” to its new home in Seabright. Being able to attribute things like the taking of a photograph or the collecting of specimens to Laura herself allows us to participate in broader movements to recognize the role of women in the history of science and to celebrate diverse connections with nature.

The surfacing of this photograph enriches our understanding of Laura Hecox’s story, but anyone who has taken a closer look at the changing landscapes of the Monterey Bay knows that photographs have a lot to say about the story of the natural world around us. This is just as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, and you can see the evidence in our upcoming virtual exhibit 2020 Vision. For more on photographs as a tool for understanding of the world around us, and the interrelated worlds of photography and natural history, check out this month’s Collections Close-Up event: Picturing Nature on the January 14th at 5:30 p.m.. 

Collections Close-Up: Tide Pools and Touch

Take the plunge into the interactive world of our intertidal touch pool exhibit, which has provided visitors with an intimate look at the interior world of the sea outside our doors for decades.

Museum staff explore the history of these hands-on exhibits, from beachside Victorian tubs to today’s collecting permits. We further investigate the care of these seaworthy collections, including the practical challenges of creating intertidal conditions, and their special capacity to connect people to nature.

Resources


About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: The Interwoven History of Baskets and Museums

Ohlone Basket

Spend an evening unraveling the complex ways in which consumer trends and museums influenced early 20th basketry collections and craft. Collections Manager Kathleen Aston will elaborate on these trends and how they relate to our collection. Joining us will be Julie Sidel, Interpreter 1 for Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, to share how the intersection of museum artifacts and interpretation illuminates daily life at the Santa Cruz Mission.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Curiosity Cabinets

A cabinet full of natural history pictures and objects

Peer into the wonderful world of wunderkammers — otherwise known as curiosity cabinets. Often filling full rooms, these pre-modern museums favored the eccentric and the esoteric. We’ll explore how our museum’s history is rooted in the Victorian versions of the curious trend, as well as more contemporary takes on cabinets.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on the fossils and fossil collectors of Santa Cruz.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Santa Cruz Fossils and the People Who Dig ‘Em

Frank Perry works on a cast of a fossil sea cow skeleton.

Dig into the fossil record of Santa Cruz through the eyes of locals who find themselves captivated by these windows into the past and who made it their work to share this passion with others. One of these important contributors, Wayne Thompson, will share his history with the Museum and the unique potential that fossils have to engage students with science and the natural world, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on preservation policies in Museum collections.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Preserving Our Past

The Museum opened its doors to the public 115 years ago this month, and though the doors have changed over time, the task of stewarding our collections has always been an inherent part of our mission. Explore the journey of our collections over the past century and gain a deeper understanding of what preservation looks like today.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on malacology and the life of Hulda Hoover McLean.

Not yet a member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Malacology

From curiosity cabinets to catalog cards, abalone pendants to olivella beads on baskets, the stories of our seashells are vast like the ocean and rooted, like our museum, in the history of women in science.

Stroll with us into the malacology collections, where we look at the legacy of local naturalist and seashell collector Hulda Hoover Mclean. In the 1970s, Hoover McLean wrote one of the first shell identification guides for this area, based on a lifetime of seaside sojourns. Alongside her story we will highlight various collections specimens and the creatures who formed them.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on kelp and conservation.

Not yet a member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Kelp and Conservation

This month’s Collections Close-Up explores two kinds of conservation: the preservation of biodiversity records in the form of marine algae specimens and the fight to save the kelp forests of the California Coast.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a member? Join today!

Resources: