Historian Views 19th Century America Through Lens of Butterfly Collecting

Gary Shapiro
July 25, 2013

Columbia history professor William R. Leach’s interests cross over many fields—and meadows too. As a lifelong butterfly collector, Leach has traversed open fields, streambeds and orchards in pursuit of the flying insects whose metamorphosis from fuzzy caterpillar to beautiful winged creature has inspired generations of artists and poets. Now he has parlayed his experience into a book showing how butterfly collecting was at the heart of America’s enthusiasm for the natural world in the decades after the Civil War.

Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, the cultural historian takes readers on a journey to a time before the arts and sciences were clearly separated, and aesthetics played an important role in the pursuit of knowledge about Lepidoptera—moths and butterflies. “A feeling for beauty was key to all who were engaged in natural science,” Leach says.

Focusing on the stories of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists, Leach shows how their discoveries and observations helped transform the study of natural history. But he also demonstrates how this national obsession coincided with America’s even more ardent passion for the technology and industry—including photography and chemical colors—that would threaten the natural world and eliminate the need to go chasing after butterflies when one could just as easily find them in a book.

Butterflies have been part of Leach’s life since growing up in a modest community near New Brunswick, N.J. As a 9-year-old, he captured tiger swallowtails and spicebush swallowtails near a cemetery and grape orchard. Had it not been for his father making him a net from an old pole and clothes hanger, Leach probably would not have developed the interest.

Collecting in one’s youth, Leach says, prepares one to care for the natural world later on. “It gives you this intimate experience of nature,” he said. “When you get a powerful experience as a child, it does not go away. It can be drawn upon creatively for the rest of your life.”

As an undergraduate at Rutgers, he commuted from home in North Brunswick, N.J., where he had collected the butterflies of his childhood—the swallowtails, blues, skippers, and frittilaries only a short distance away from the campus. Later, in graduate school at the University of Rochester, he took up his hobby again, while, at the same time, writing his dissertation on the 19th-century American feminist movement, later published as a bookTrue Love and Perfect Union.

Leach’s book, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, notminated for a National Book Award, Leach chronicles America’s transformation beginning in 1880 into a nation of consumers, had a personal connection to his life. He says that 1994 work grew in part out of having a salesman father, whose protracted unemployment had a devastating impact on his family.

His butterfly book focuses on roughly the same period—the middle to late 19th century—when the railroads opened up vast stretches of land teeming with new butterfly species and ordinary Americans were secure enough to venture beyond their homes to explore the diversity of the natural world. “The railroad was an ally of collecting for all these people,” he said, adding that it would also, paradoxically, lead to the destruction of butterfly habitat.

One colorful figure who plays a prominent role in the book is Herman Strecker, an amateur collector who identified 251 separate species and created the largest and most important collection of butterflies and moths in the Americas, containing more than 50,000 specimens. Chicago’s Field Museum purchased it in 1908.

Leach writes that Strecker would urge younger collectors to visit remote parts of the world, only to take some of their most valuable finds when they returned.

“There was rivalry among all the leading butterfly collectors, which had a salutary effect on the science itself, but also led to vindictive and revengeful behavior,” he said.

With 32 pages of full-color inserts and black-and-white illustrations throughout, the book shows how butterfly collectors helped to bring Darwinian evolutionary thinking to America. “They led the way for other American naturalists,” Leach said.