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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.

Descriptive Guide to the Laura Hecox Collection (PDF | HTML)

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: Picturing Nature

From rediscovered family photos to contemporary takes on unprecedented times, pictures taken for all kinds of purposes illuminate our collective understanding of the changing world around us. This month we investigate and celebrate the capacity of photography to shape our relationship with nature, from our foundational collections to our current exhibits.

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: 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: Collecting Spaces

One hundred and fifteen years ago this month, the Santa Cruz Museum first opened its doors to the public. Those doors were not the ones that visitors might walk through today. Indeed, the museum has had several homes in its evolution from the city’s first public museum to our present form as the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. As we continue to provide activities and inspiration for connecting with the natural world in this moment of physical distancing, this month’s Collections Close-Up looks at how the migration of our spaces influences our evolving collections.

Santa Cruz Lighthouse, early 1880s

A familiar foundation to our story is Laura Hecox, whose lighthouse museum provided the first home to what would become our collections. In 1869, Santa Cruz’s first lighthouse was built near the site of todays’ Mark Abbott Memorial lighthouse. Laura Hecox, having taken up the post of keeper after her father Adna passed away in 1883, made her collection available to the public as part of her regular lighthouse tours. Tall wooden shelves were packed full of carefully cataloged fossils, shells, birds, curios, and artifacts, which photographs from the 1880s depict as full to bursting. Her collection was a popular and respected local attraction and, in the early 1900s, was solicited for exhibition at Santa Cruz’s first library. 

Main Library, 1904

On April 14, 1904, the main branch of Santa Cruz’s public library opened to the public. The two story building housed more than 14,000 books on its first floor, with ample space to expand into its lower level. Plans for this space were already underway, and not just for books –  on April 13, 1904, Laura Hecox had already deeded a portion of her collection to make this space a public museum. Her friend, local luminary Dr. Charles Anderson, was quoted in a contemporary newspaper praising the combined virtue of libraries and museums in providing both explanations and examples for public knowledge. 

The museum opened to popular acclaim on August 21, 1905. While Laura’s collection seeded the museum, we know that from the beginning her collection was already being expanded. Laura made sure to acknowledge friends of the library who gave additional items for the opening, from a centipede collected in Arizona to Chilean coins. Despite this variety, the collection is usually described as one of natural history, and the library noted that they generated increased demand for books on natural history. This success of the museum as an educational endeavor would influence its next home. 

Santa Cruz High School after 1915

Santa Cruz’s first dedicated high school building opened in 1897, but tragically burned down in 1913. Fortunately, the Museum was relocated to the high school after it was rebuilt in 1915. This was likely motivated by the need for space, but a place of learning seemed the right home for the collections. Echoing others, the Santa Cruz Evening News described the high school as “preeminently the place in Santa Cruz where numbers are engaged to study. It is therefore a place where a museum may do a great deal of good.”

Some years after Santa Cruz’s original public museum collections took on the role of a high school teaching collection, the community’s museum fervor was rekindled. In 1929 Humphrey Pilkington gave his collection of Native American artifacts and other items to Santa Cruz on the condition that a dedicated museum be established to house it. The Tyrrell Arts and Crafts House, a community hub in the park adjacent to the Seabright Library, was chosen as the Santa Cruz Museum’s new location. As curator Jed Scott and various hard working volunteers set about cataloging and organizing Pilkington’s collections, they also began to solicit other gifts to the museum. Significantly, the museum lobbied and was successful in transferring the Hecox collection from the high school to Seabright. As part of the transfer, many items that had lost labels and records while at the high school had to be re-identified.

Tyrrell House, Early 1950s

Thus united the Hecox and Pilkington collections, along with many other invaluable donations, that remain in Seabright to the present day. In the mid 1950s they made one final, if incremental move into what was then the Seabright Library. After the library withdrew in 1965, the museum expanded into the entirety of the building, later making actual physical expansions to the rear of the building that today constitute staff offices and collections storage.  

In these spaces we ground our present efforts to preserve the collections for the future. As complex as the past is that brought us here, we also have a rich history of envisioning remodels, relocations, and other possible futures for what the museum could look like. And while we never expected this virtual future, we are confident that, in the same way we have been an important feature of the Santa Cruz community for 115 years, we will continue to meet the challenges that face the community, with our community, for another 115 years and more.  For a deeper dive into the intersection of our collections and space, different dreams for the Museum through time, and our current conservation efforts in our Carnegie building, register for our virtual Collections Close-Up event on August 13th.

Collections January 2019: Laura Hecox’s Rocks

Laura Hecox's mineral samples

January brings a new year and new opportunities for contemplation. Many take this occasion to make resolutions, though the new year is also an opportunity to reflect on the past. This month, we look to the Museum’s past to celebrate the 165th anniversary of the birth of our founding naturalist, Laura Hecox. And for this month’s Close-Up, we examine Laura’s geology specimens, their history, and how they enhance her legacy.

The three specimens include:

Stibnite sample
A smooth, gray mineral, this stibnite is composed of the elements sulfur and antimony.

[Stibnite, from Nevada], Sb2S3. An ore of antimony, stibnite often occurs in the form of long, prismatic crystals. Humans have long been aware of stibnite: it’s one of several cosmetics used by ancient Egyptians to adorn the eyes. Today, you can find it in fireworks, batteries and metal bearings. People have even found stibnite in the nearby New Almaden Mine!

[Cinnabar, from Napa], HgS. Cinnabar is a toxic ore of Mercury. Although it can be found in crystal form, it usually takes the shape of a big hunk of beautiful, red cinnabar. In the past, people often sought cinnabar for its mercury (drops of liquid mercury are sometimes bound within its crystals), which was once used to separate gold from ores and stream sediments.

Cinnabar sample
Red and rough to the touch, cinnabar is a sulfide mineral that sometimes holds liquid mercury.

Due to its characteristic bright red color, it was often used for decorative or artistic purposes; the pigments known as “vermillion” and “Chinese Red” were made of cinnabar. But it’s as poisonous as it is beautiful. Prolonged exposure to cinnabar may inflict skin rashes, and even damage to the kidneys and nervous system.

[Quartz, unknown location], SiO2. Quartz is one of the most abundant minerals found on Earth’s surface. Though generally clear and colorless, small impurities can create prized colorful specimens like amethyst. From gemstones to stone tools and glass-making, quartz has an incredible variety of uses.

Quartz sample
There are many varieties of quartz, from purple amethyst to colorless rock crystal, but they all stem from uniting silicon and oxygen atoms.

Recently, as part of the work of our Collections intern Isabelle West, these specimens were rediscovered in our geology cabinets and relocated to the dedicated Hecox Collection cabinet.

Laura Hecox was born in 1854 to Santa Cruz lighthouse keeper Adna Hecox. She was an avid collector, even in childhood. Her father built cabinets to house the rocks, shells, fossils, and artifacts she gathered from the natural world surrounding the lighthouse. She eventually became keeper and showcased these materials in a small museum during the lighthouse’s public hours, which grew quite popular.

In 1904, she gifted much of her diverse collection to the City of Santa Cruz, founding what is now our Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Her collection was sorted into the various components of the Collections: her shells became a part of our malacology department, her egg specimens, our oology department, and her rocks the foundation of our geology department.

But we now recognize that, when together, Laura’s specimens carry more meaning than the natural histories they represent individually. Reunited in one Laura Hecox Collection, they embody the unique story of a woman in science — an insatiably curious observer — who showed by example that anyone can be a naturalist.

These specimens mark a point of progress in our work to preserve and promote Laura’s legacy. As we think about her story, set against the backdrop of a Victorian-era boom in collecting natural history specimens, we might wonder what Laura would think of modern rock-collecting.

While we are big fans of hands-on learning, we have to stress the importance of researching the legality of collecting geologic specimens. Aspiring rockhounds, be sure to ask yourself: how much should I take? Who owns the land I’m on? What restrictions are in place and why?

Whether you’re hunting for fossils, rocks or petrified wood, regulations vary. Check websites for local beaches, parks, and natural spaces. For a great overview of rock-hounding and related laws, check out the comprehensive site Gator Girl Rocks.

Finally, these specimens prompt us to think about the different levels of the past: these rocks were collected over 100 years ago, which certainly feels like a long time. Yet they belong to a different scale where 100 years is more like the blink of eye — perhaps even less.

Gypsum crystals from the Cave of Crystals in Naica, Mexico, grow at a nearly imperceptible rate of 14 femtometers per second. That means those crystals would take over 3,400 years to reach the width of a penny. Though difficult to grasp at this scale, understanding deep time is important for understanding our natural world.

In their engaging review of public understandings of deep time, the British Natural History Museum notes that navigating deep time is enhanced by the use of meaningful, contextualized events like birthdates. To better situate 2019 within your personal timeline this January, come check out Laura Hecox’s rocks or join us for her birthday beach cleanup!

July 2018: Examining Our Legacy

Our founder Laura Hecox and clippings of her published works

Our museum was built on the curiosity of a young girl. Our founder Laura Hecox’s love of nature started when she was a child living at Lighthouse Point and continued throughout her life. Her fascination with the natural world led her to develop her collections which form the basis of our museum. These collections are a diverse assemblage of shells, fossils, minerals, cultural artifacts, and curiosities. Although we are conservers of Laura’s collections, we know relatively little about the collector herself. While she left meticulously cataloged collections notes, she kept no known diary or personal correspondence. We do, however, have her scrapbooks. These treasured books provide a glimpse into Laura’s interests and the world around her.

The Museum is currently undertaking a special project to learn more about the personal side of our founder: an online exploration called The Naturalist’s Scrapbook. Our Collections Specialist Kathleen Aston, in partnership with the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, has designed this new online participatory project featuring one of Laura’s original scrapbooks. By viewing digital versions of the scrapbook pages and identifying the topics, titles, authors and dates of its clippings, participants can help us to build a richer understanding of our museum’s history, as well as the natural and cultural history of late 19th century Santa Cruz. The scrapbook pages provide a window into Laura’s world and what was intriguing to her. Her interests on the page were just as diverse as her collections!

Over a century later, at the heart of our museum remains the same spirit of discovery and love of the natural world that Laura exemplified. All that we do through our programs and exhibits focuses on sharing the joy of discovery and growing that understanding and appreciation of the natural world that Laura valued throughout her life.

This month, we have a range of opportunities to engage your curiosity and inspire you to see nature in a new light. Tomorrow we are premiering our July exhibit in the Summer Art Series – “Brink: The Art of Conservation” by Diana Walsworth. Diana’s show explores her love of the wild outdoors, using her unusual painting process of acrylics by sewing needle. Please join us for our First Friday opening reception tomorrow, July 5, at 5pm.

On July 18, our monthly Naturalist Night will discuss Sustainable Groundwater Management in Santa Cruz County . On July 21, we are hosting “Cyanotypes of the Sea”, a photographic printing workshop focused on local algae. And on July 28, we are proud to partner with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band on a guided walk exploring “Indigenous Land Stewardship at Quiroste Valley, Then and Now.”

We hope you will join us for these great programs – whether at the Museum, out in nature, or online.

Best,
Heather Moffat McCoy
Executive Director

Collections July 2018: Laura Hecox’s Catalog Books

This July we are taking a closer look at one of Laura Hecox’s catalog books. We have several books associated with our foundational collection, and this particular one is a small leather bound volume entitled “Shell-Book Freshwater Shells 1-244”. Although it belonged to our founder, this book came to the Museum accompanied by the cabinet featured in our Naturalist exhibit, which was built by Adna Hecox for his daughter. Due to Laura’s family connections, these items spent many years at the California School for the Deaf Historical Museum before making their way back to Santa Cruz in the early 1990s.

Laura Hecox’s shell catalog

We’ve been thinking a lot about the documents in our Laura Hecox collection due to our recent project, the Naturalist’s Scrapbook. In this project, which you can find from the Collections page of the Museum’s website, participants can help us explore digitized news clippings from Laura’s late 19th century scrapbook clippings. Not only do these catalog books and scrapbooks possess historical and scientific value, they are also precious because they are the some of the few documents we have that were made by Laura. We can also use them to think about two different but complementary ways of being a naturalist.

Looking first at Shell Book 1-244, we have a plain and straightforward document with entries describing items in Laura’s collection. We have several such books, for shells, fossil shells, and a “Curiosity book” for curio artifacts of historical and anthropological nature. It is possible that more existed, but we see from the ones we have that Laura was following good cataloging form and highlighting meaningful scientific distinctions in separating her collection by type. In this vein, shell specimens are found in shell books, whereas artifacts made from shells are found in the curio book. Another thing we notice about these catalog entries is that they are succinct: entries include the specimen name, a citation for the identification, the location it was found, and the name and locality of the person who provided the specimen. One such example is specimen:

“65 Bythinella Binneyi
Tryon
Santa Cruz, Cal.
Presented by Mrs. R. H.
Rigg of Santa Cruz, Cal.”

This entry directly follows the text, which was written entirely in cursive. Following standard formatting for scientific names, we would italicize the name and make the species epithet lowercase, like this: “Bythinella binneyi”. Some items are missing information, and sometimes an item will have a name added in pencil above an ink record, suggesting a continual updating of the catalog.  

Parallel with Shell Book 1 – 244, we are also displaying a copy of a clipping from Laura’s scrapbook, which came to our attention through the Naturalist’s Scrapbook project.  Scrapbooking is a more abstract information-gathering practice than shell collecting, and Laura’s scrapbooks reflect her varied interests, with a strong focus in natural history. Entitled “California Shells. An Interesting Report on Conchology,” the featured article opens by acknowledging that the shells of California have “not as yet been fully described”, and then goes on to detail several specimens, with particular focus on their pretty colorations. It then introduces the collection of a San Franciscan, one Rev. Dr. Joseph Rowell, who had an extensive shell collection and spent several years on collecting missions up and down the Pacific coast in the employ of the Smithsonian. Rowell is quoted in the article, describing his collections, his scientific endeavors, and his opinions on the functions of shell features.  

For a woman like Laura, herself known as an avid conchologist, one wonders what information she was collecting with this article. Perhaps she was acquainted with Rowell, given that her collection was popularly known and her lighthouse was in his expedition area. Perhaps his observations on various shells confirmed or contradicted her own. The clipping also alerts the reader to the latest list of California shells published by the Smithsonian, noting that

“. . . this list is probably the latest contribution to our knowledge of California shells. It would, however, scarcely interest the amateur, as most of the additions to shell-lore consist in alternations in scientific nomenclature, or notes of the localities for species rarely found. Still this same list is of value to the general public, as it includes descriptions of two new California species  . . .”

Perhaps this article alerted her to the publishing of a new list of shells – given her interest in updating her catalogues for nomenclature, she many have found this to be just the thing. Or perhaps it put new species on her collecting or trading radar – for many of her shells were presented by folks from beyond California to New York and England. Whether Laura considered herself an amateur or a member of the general public, whether she was collecting shells or clipping news, her work reflects two of the many different ways that you can be a naturalist and observe and gather information about the natural world.

February 2017: Honoring Our Founder and Knowing Our History

Natural history museums are as much about the past as they are about the future.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate the present or contemplate the future without an understanding of our history. That’s one reason among many I was so grateful for the community’s participation in a day of remembrance and service in honor of our founder, lighthouse keeper and naturalist Laura Hecox.

On Sunday, January 29th, on what would have been Laura’s 163rd birthday, two dozen community members and Museum supporters joined Hecox relatives to celebrate her memory by dedicating a new headstone at her final resting place. Bill and Brigid Simpkins of Santa Cruz generously donated the headstone depicting the lighthouse and crashing surf where Laura spent most of her life.

Cynthia Chase honors our founderAt Santa Cruz Memorial Cemetery, Mayor Cynthia Chase read a proclamation from the City of Santa Cruz designating January 29th as Laura Hecox Day. And I had the opportunity to talk about the love Laura had for the natural world, collecting shells, and other specimens and artifacts that formed the basis of our Museum, which opened in 1905 while she was still our city’s lightkeeper. Laura’s life served as inspiration for the Santa Cruz Naturalist exhibit that opened in June 2016, the first new permanent addition to the Museum’s galleries in over 20 years.

Clean-up in Lighthouse FieldAfter the graveside ceremony, the Museum led a clean-up project in Lighthouse Field. Laura moved to Lighthouse Field at age 15 when her father assumed the role of the first lightkeeper of the then-new Santa Cruz Lighthouse. She took over her father’s position after his death and continued in that role through most of her life, living in the original lighthouse. Today, in its place, the Mark Abbott Lighthouse now guides vessels around Lighthouse Point. But the field across from West Cliff Drive remains open space full of opportunities to explore. About three dozen volunteers collected over 100 pounds of trash from the field, which was a particularly fitting way to honor Laura and her commitment to stewarding the natural world.

The curiosity and appreciation of nature that defined Laura’s life also informs our desire to be forward-thinking about the future of our environment. Just 10 days before Laura’s birthday, the Museum was delighted to host a sold-out event at the Rio Theatre featuring renowned UCSC geologist Gary Griggs, whose riveting presentation titled “Perils in Paradise” explored Santa Cruz County’s history of and vulnerability to natural disasters.

Doctor Griggs lectures on the geology of Santa CruzDr. Griggs captivated the 550-member audience with an engaging overview of geological processes and a historical look at the most impactful natural disasters of our region, one where earthquakes, landslides, floods, fires and other calamities are an ever-present danger. As several storms wreaked havoc across the county on local cliffs, tributaries and roads, Dr. Griggs’ presentation served as a timely reminder that landmark events such as the 1955 and 1982 floods, or the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, have long shaped our region and that we cannot control nature. That’s a key reason the Museum exists — to share an understanding of the awesomeness of nature and inspire stewardship of it.

Looking ahead to the spring, we have many opportunities to connect our community to nature in innovative, meaningful ways. In February and March, we will offer several events celebrating the natural history of food. And in April, we will launch our first-ever Spring Camp and welcome back the popular The Art of Nature scientific illustration exhibit. More can be found about our upcoming programming and exhibits on our website.

I hope you will join me at some of these exciting opportunities in the coming months.

Thank you,

Heather