Notes on collections at the RIHS
“To the attention of travelers, sea faring men, and all lovers of nature and nature’s handy works, who are willing to lend their aid in promoting the cause of science, and advancing the progress of the arts.”
If this sounds like you, then the Providence Franklin Society may have been the place to be!
In the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century, scientific societies began forming in America. From Philadelphia and New York, to Boston and even Providence, men came together (yes, primarily just men) to hold scientific discussions, lectures, and nature excursions to explore the natural history of the area. These societies “performed a highly useful role by organizing and promoting research, providing avenues for publication, disseminating information through lectures, writings, and natural history collections”.1
The Providence Franklin Society originated in 1821 under the name of the Philosophical Society, and on January 28, 1823, they petitioned the General Assembly to incorporate and became the Providence Franklin Society. Their objective, stated in the October 10, 1826 resolution was “to embrace the whole range of the sciences and of general literature”.
Meetings included lectures on nearly any topic worthy of scientific review. The Society would also arrange excursions or “field meetings” around New England. The society began an extensive collection of all sorts of scientific specimens including minerals, fossils, shells, plants, seeds, skeletons, etc. Members of the Society encouraged public involvement in attending lectures and field excursions, as their goal was to inspire “a taste and love for the things and phenomena of nature”.
Horace Carpenter, a Providence Franklin Society member, gave a multi-part lecture series on the Conchology (the study of mollusk shells) of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds an interesting volume which consists of clippings from the lecture series and lithographic plates of shells from various publications. Some of the shells have been annotated to correlate to Carpenter’s descriptions found in his lecture series.
Here is Carpenter’s description of a particular specimen (#121 in his series) along with the lithograph plate that includes an image of this beautiful, little shell.
In addition to lectures, the Society put out educational pamphlets such as this one which consisted of instructions for how to collect and preserve specimens found on field excursions. For 100 years, the Providence Franklin Society contributed to the scientific conversation and promotion of public knowledge in Providence.
As with many nineteenth century scientific groups, the Providence Franklin Society declined in attendance and support by the turn of the twentieth century. Disbanding in 1922, the Society left their vast scientific collection to the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History.
The Rhode Island Historical Society holds the records of the Providence Franklin Society,MSS 162, as well as several publications by the Society.
~ Michelle Chiles, RIHS Research Center Coordinator