Cape Ann Scientific & Literary Association
By previous CAM Librarian & Archivist, Stephanie Buck
In the 1870s Americans became fascinated with acquiring knowledge, driven by the discoveries being made about the world around them on a seemingly daily basis. The periodic table of elements was mapped out; Stanley met Livingston in darkest Africa; Lister was propounding his theory of antiseptic surgery; Mendel published his Law of Heredity; the first zoo opened in Philadelphia. And in 1876 America celebrated its centennial with its first World Expo, attended, it is estimated, by over 9 million people.
The year before, in late March, 1875, Dr. Herman E. Davidson invited a group of like-minded friends to his house on Middle Street to discuss forming a club dedicated to the “local and general advancement of Scientific and Literary knowledge.” By May a name had been agreed on - the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association - and so began the long history of collecting artifacts and presenting educational lectures and discussions of what is today the Cape Ann Museum. The first artifact was a cabinet of minerals; the first public event was a series of “spelling matches;” the first book was the Fishes of New England; the first lecture was “The Snail.”
Other lectures followed, apparently on any subject that sparked their interest. Dr. Conant spoke on The Blood of Animals (illustrated with the aid of a frog’s foot and a microscope); Mr. Knowlton on the Geology and Minerology of Cape Ann; Rev. H.C. Leonard on the Voices of Birds; Miss Abbey Burnham on the Eastern Question (Europe’s response to the Turkish war). They listened to dissertations on Darwin’s Theory of Coral Reef Formation, Climate Change, Sound and Musical Tones, Fish Hatcheries, Butterflies, Archaeology, and Italian Art (given by local artist Jerome Elwell). There were less formal Saturday Flower Walks, outdoor sketching parties, and a Kipling evening of recitation, songs and discussions of his work.
Beginning in 1877 more educational opportunities were offered in the form of classes, starting with English Literature and language courses (French and German). Gradually, as interest grew, others were added. Some were relatively mainstream: Art, European History, Greek, Spanish, Archaeology, Botany, Economics and Choral Music (which was very popular with 90 participants at one point). Some not so obvious: Political Economy, Sanitary Science, Geology, Ecology, and Hebrew. Local History joined the roster in 1901 as an aid to interpreting the meaning and importance of the museum’s growing artifact collections. A “practical working men’s course” (mathematics and physics) began in 1902 and was quickly joined by “Steam Fitting and Electrical Engineering.” This large slate meant that classes were held almost every evening of the week, often in the homes of the teachers.
The interests of the community were clearly broad, and while there are fewer courses offered now – as this role has been taken over by other institutions - the Cape Ann Museum continues to encourage this passion for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge through education and entertainment, especially in the fields of art and the humanities.