Friday, September 15, 2017

Great woman in Pennsylvania history: Martha Maxwell

Mom's possessions, handed down from previous generations, included a small collection of cartes de visite. These early "trading cards," which predated cabinet cards and were about half their size, measure 2½ inches by 4⅛ inches. The collection included cards of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, cards of named and unnamed relatives and one card featuring two little people that is simply and unfortunately labeled "midgets" on the back.

One of the cards that captured my attention the most is the one shown above, featuring a serious-looking woman holding a gun. The back of this carte de visite is blank. But, as you can see, the following is printed on the front:

Mrs. M.A. Maxwell's
Copy-right Secured.

That's Mrs. M.A. Maxwell herself pictured on the card. Her full name is Martha Ann Maxwell (born Martha Dartt in 1831 in Tioga County, Pennsylvania), and she was a naturalist, artist and pioneering American taxidermist who led a really amazing life. (Don't let the rifle fool you into thinking she was another Annie Oakley, though.) Here are some highlights from Maxwell's Wikipedia biography:

  • When she was young, her grandmother, Abigail Stanford, first instilled a love of nature in her by taking her for walks in the woods.
  • She and her husband, James, joined the Colorado Gold Rush of 1860. While he pursued mining, she did washing and mending and baked pies to earn her own income. She made her own investments, too, and bought an interest in a boarding house, some mining claims and a one-room log cabin near Denver, Colorado.
  • "In 1861 the boarding house burned down, leaving Maxwell with no way to earn an income and the family no place to live. The plan was to move to the cabin that Maxwell had bought, but when they got there, they found that a claim jumper had moved into the cabin. They took the squatter to court, and the decision came down in favor of the Maxwells, but the man living in their cabin refused to move out. Maxwell waited until the man finally left the cabin on an errand. She removed the door from the frame and she entered the cabin and found among the man's possessions perfectly preserved stuffed birds and animals. The claim jumper was a taxidermist by training. Maxwell proceeded to put everything out on the prairie and reclaim her property. She soon wrote to family members requesting a book that would help her 'to learn how to preserve birds and other animal curiosities in this country.'"
  • "She made trips into the Rockies, where she gathered chipmunks, various species of squirrels and birds. By the fall of 1868 Martha had prepared almost 100 specimens, ranging from chicks to hawks, and hummingbirds to eagles. She was asked to display her work at the Colorado Agricultural Society exhibition. Attendees particularly admired that Maxwell created an entire natural habitat for each species, making it appear as if they were still alive. Her work was acknowledged with a $50 prize [about $915 today] and a diploma."
  • "Maxwell developed her own way of preserving the animals by molding them in plaster and then covering these molds with the animals skin which she had preserved. She later used iron frames over which to stretch the skins, rather than sewing the skins together and stuffing them, as most other taxidermists did."

By Centennial Photographic Co., photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  • She opened her own Rocky Mountain Museum in Boulder, Colorado, in the 1870s. Also during that decade, she produced a wildly popular exhibit for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 — the first World's Fair held in the United States. The large natural-habitat diorama (pictured above) that she constructed for her taxidermied animals might have been the first of its kind. Press coverage was immense and the exhibition's official photography firm was unable to keep up with demand for images.
  • "After Maxwell's death [in 1881, at age 49] her daughter contracted with a man in Saratoga Springs, New York, to exhibit and/or sell the collection. The collection was exhibited several times but was then placed into storage. Unfortunately it was not put away carefully and pieces began to disintegrate. In 1920 Maxwell's sister, Mary, tried to retrieve the collection and planned to donate work to the University of Colorado. However, the pieces had aged badly and there was nothing worth preserving."

Additional reading about Martha Ann Maxwell

Finally, here's a closer look at Maxwell and her dog.

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