Getting wood
March 28, 2012 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Romeyn Hough's American Woods is one of the most astonishing books of the late 19th century, a 14-volume set containing a thorough survey of the trees of the U.S., complete with thinly sliced samples of the wood of each tree. Complete sets of this mammoth undertaking are today rare and highly prized.
posted by Horace Rumpole (4 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

My library contains a book entitled What Wood Is That?: A Manual of Wood Identification, by Herbert L. Edlin (1969).

Nowhere near as comprehensive as Hough's work, but signifigantly cheaper, What Wood. . . also included a folder of (I believe) 40 wood veneer samples.

But this, this is the work of the true Victorian obsessive.

I had no idea at the time that Edlin stood on the shoulders of a giant.
posted by Herodios at 8:43 AM on March 28, 2012

$30,000 is a very conservative estimate of the value of a copy of the complete set. American Woods: Conservation of a Unique Item is an article by Tierney Lyons, Reference Librarian, which notes a set sold in 2000 for $92,100 at a Christie's auction. "Interestingly, bookplates reveal that the sold piece was gifted to a Massachusetts public library ("Romeyn" 2009)."

I first wanted to comment that this is the perfect sort of thing for digitization, allowing broader access to a product of such devotion, but there's at least one element that doesn't translate to digital formats: the samples were cut thin enough be backlit, which he spun off into a business called "Cards of Wood," which sold his thin slices of wood as holiday cards, business cards, bookmarks, and so on.

Along with the very high definition scans at the New York State University Library (2nd link in the OP), you can read a version of the complete boom on, where you can find more scanned works from Houg. Or you could be duped into buying a printed copy from BiblioBazaar, re-printer of widely available digitized works that are in the public domain.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to What Wood...? the US Dept of Agriculture's Encyclopedia of Wood is another handy edition.
posted by notyou at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2012

And for a wood book with one level of indirection, there's the Index xylariorum: institutional wood collections of the world.

For the practical purpose of finding the xylarium nearest you, an online list maintained by Kew Gardens will be more up-to-date. One wood-collecting enthusiast hasan online collection of 2100 images, and I respect the effort, but I'm sure its creator would agree it's no kind of substitute for going to the xylarium yourself.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:20 AM on March 29, 2012

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