A Teenage Emily Dickinson's Careful Collection of Dried Flowers

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
June 4 2013 1:45 PM

A Teenage Emily Dickinson's Careful Collection of Dried Flowers

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These are pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, or homemade book of pressed plant specimens. Assembled when Dickinson was a 14-year-old student at Amherst Academy, the book holds 65 pages of plants—400 total.

As Judith Farr writes on the website of the Academy of American Poets, Dickinson’s affection for collecting and identifying plants was one that many young girls and women of her time would have shared. Young Emily saw the hobby as a way to collaborate with a long-lost friend. Farr cites an 1845 letter that Dickinson wrote to her friend and former classmate Abiah Root, who attended Amherst Academy for only a few terms before moving away:

Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here.
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Dickinson became a lifelong gardener and often included dried flowers in her correspondence. And, of course, natural history and botany were important subjects for her poetry. Just a few examples of later Dickinson poems featuring flowers and plants: “May-Flower,” “The Bee,” “As Children Bid the Guest Good-Night,” “Death and Life.”

Dickinson’s herbarium, held by Harvard’s Houghton Library, has been digitized. The book is searchable by plant name. For each page, the reader can click on the “view text” tab to see transcriptions of Dickinson’s plant identification labels, along with their modern equivalents.

The digital edition also notes corrected identifications when Dickinson got the plants' names wrong. That wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Fair enough—she was only 14.

The Houghton Library holds many more Dickinson items, some of which are also digitized.

Specimens 1

MS Am 1118.11. Gift of Gilbert H. Montague, 1950. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dickinson2Final2

MS Am 1118.11. Gift of Gilbert H. Montague, 1950. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dickinson1Final

MS Am 1118.11. Gift of Gilbert H. Montague, 1950. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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