Collecting seaweed as a hobby might sound strange to us today, but to the Victorian women who did it, the modern trend of eating seaweed would seem strange. How did such a pastime ever get started? Like many obscure parts of life in the 1800s, it was how women made something nice and artistic out of a problem. This problem was their exclusion from scientific research.
Nineteenth century Britain was a hotbed of biological enthusiasm. “Natural history was absolutely huge,” says Dr. Stephen Hunt, a researcher in environmental humanities who works at the University of the West of England. Households filled up with painstakingly stuffed mammals and birds. So-called “gentlemen scientists” traveled the world drawing, describing, and collecting plants and animals. As railway networks grew, and labor advances led to more leisure time, ordinary citizens got in on the trend. Microscopes became more affordable, and collecting clubs popped up across Britain. “It was cross-class to some extent—working class and middle class,” says Hunt. “There was a democratization of natural history.”
Women, though, were still largely left out. The biggest natural history clubs of all, the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society, refused female members, and barred women even from their “public” meetings. Hunting animals was too dangerous, and digging up plants was, well, too sexy. “There was a taboo on botany, because Linnaean botany was based on the sexual parts,” says Hunt. “That was seen as controversial.”
Seaweed was something they could study without objection. They collected and studied different kinds of seaweed, and made scrapbooks to preserve their specimens. They wrote about the different species, and some even gave lectures on it. But there were rules, of course: one mustn't be too proud of the work, and always remember to dress properly when collecting specimens. Read more about Victorian seaweed collecting at Atlas Obscura.