Hough's American Woods

By Jessica Pigza, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Rare Book Division
March 12, 2012
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Romeyn Hough (1857-1924) was single-minded in his devotion to trees. He was also a New Yorker, and when he embarked on The American Woods, he turned to the trees of his state first in what would eventually grow to be a 14-volume masterwork. The American Woods remains invaluable today due to the range and age of the tree samples Hough included, and the Library's Rare Book Division holds a complete set of this delicate and beautiful work, as part of its George Arents Collection.

What sets The American Woods apart from other tree studies is the presence of samples of each and every North American tree that Hough surveyed. Each tree’s entry includes a cardboard plate with three cutouts into which Hough mounted translucent slices — transverse, radial, and tangential of the tree’s wood. Accompanying descriptions cover each tree’s characteristics, growth habits, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities.

Here are some pictures of his samples of New York’s state tree, the sugar maple, which he called “one of the most useful trees of Canada, New England, and the Middle States,” producing, “in the tastes of many, the most delicious of sweets.”

Here is the plate with the wood slices laid flat:

And here is the same sugar maple plate, lit from behind:

Hough patented the device he invented to make the translucent wood slices for this project. And, recognizing the commercial potential that these slivers of wood had in other arenas, he marketed and sold them for use as magic lantern slides, trade cards, and invitations. This advertisement for his business is pasted inside the first volume:

After releasing Part I in 1888, Hough spent the rest of his life working on the volumes that followed. And although he died before he could finish, his daughter Marjorie completed this work after his death. Want to see more of Hough's American Woods? The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has digitized their copy, and you can find it by searching for the call number "zc10 888ho" on their digital collections site.