Friday, April 29, 2011


In which the blogger is taken by some things Richard Leakey said and wonders how to bring order out of the chaos of what he finds worthy of writing down.

Two weeks ago, as I futzed with a blog posting, I listened to NPR’s Science Friday where host Ira Flatow interviewed the famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey.  Though Flatow was his usual mildly irritating self, the patient, thoughtful Leakey drew me in with his responses.  I found two answers he gave particularly intriguing, and, as Flatow wrapped up the interview, I grabbed a notepad and wrote down what I remembered.  Later, after listening to the interview several times at the Science Friday website (Leakey was still brilliant the third time through), I compiled what I think is an accurate transcript of what so impressed me.

Leakey on the “Uniformity of Species”

One exchange started with a phoned-in question from “Larry,” who observed that the modern human species presents significant skeletal variability, and then asked, as I understand the question, how many individual specimens needed to be found in order to confirm that you were working with a distinctive hominid species.

Leakey’s startling and challenging answer was one.

Here’s his response as he gave it, complete with a couple of digressions and false starts:
Let’s turn it into a different sort of question on the same issue.  If you look at domestic animals, and I think humans are domestic animal[s] and have been since we developed a strong culture and different behavior patterns associated with being a cultural animal, but let’s leave humans aside for a minute and go to the plains of Africa, the national parks of Africa, or North America or Europe.  If you get a brown bear skeleton or you pick up a mandible or lower jaw or femur of a brown bear, it is going to be a brown bear and no anatomist is going to tell you it could be anything else.
The remarkable uniformity between the anatomy of different species is striking even for the poorly informed.  And so when you find a fossil that’s 2 million years old, the chances of it being abnormal and not characteristic are very, very remote indeed.
So I think when you find several skulls that are almost identical to each other at more or less the same point in time, the chances of this not being representative of that species at that time are simply discountable.  I don’t think you should be diverted by that.
And I think the difficulty is to pick up a Pekinese skull and compare it to the Great Dane in the domestic dogs and say, well, these clearly are different species.  Yet you know perfectly well they’re not different species, they’ve simply been bred by the human culture.
And I think, take modern humans out of the story for the moment, and look at wild animals and you will find that these precultural hominids were behaving just as wild creatures do today and every fossil you find is going to be distinctive and diagnostic of the species from which it is coming.
Modern humans as domesticated animals with the same anatomical variability reflected in other domesticated animals.  A “remarkable uniformity between the anatomy of different [wild] species.”  Every fossil “distinctive and diagnostic of the species from which it is coming.”

Wonderful stuff and I continue to wrestle with it.

Now For Something Completely Different – Global Warming

Later in the interview, Flatow interjected with a question, “Is global warming going to affect anything?”

Leakey took it seriously and, recognizing the centrality of this question, fashioned a response that rose above the distracting questions and issues that pollute today’s political and social discourse on global warming.  Here’s Leakey’s response:
I think global warming is going to have a huge impact.  It’s like evolution.  I think if we could accept there is evidence for climate change, forget who caused it, let’s not worry about that.  But, let’s look at the prehistoric record and recognize that climate change has happened before, and it’s because it’s happened before, we know the scale of possibilities.  And the change that we’re looking at is not unlike changes we’ve had before.
The difference is that we’re now 8 billion people.  Before, there were less than a million.  This is going to impact.  Rising sea levels today will be a very different impact to rising sea levels 500,000 years ago. . . . [Flatow comment omitted.]  It’s very clear if you look at the past record.  And when Homo sapiens appeared between 50 and 70,000 years ago, Lake Tarkana, where I work, rose 70 meters . . . in a moment.
Okay, perhaps about 7 billion, but still, that’s the essence of the issue.  The other day I heard  a paleontologist assert that we don’t know what caused periods of warming in Earth’s geological and environmental past and, so, he seemed to be saying that the contemporary issue is a MacGuffin (my term for his characterization, not his).  To Leakey, this is no MacGuffin.

Order Out of the Chaos

After creating the transcripts of Leakey’s response, I pondered where to save them.  It’s a question of long standing, applying broadly to all of the other quotations from my reading and elsewhere that I’ve written down over the years.

Where would they not be lost in the usual pile of papers, scattered notebooks, jumble of folders in filing cabinets, or jungle of computer files on my laptop?  Where could I stash them so that I would be able to retrieve them when needed?  And, perhaps most important, where might they live with the possibility that they’d bubble up unbidden to spark new thoughts or to take old ideas in different directions?

To a literate man or woman in the 17th, 18th or even 19th century, a commonplace book offered a logical place in which to store such written treasures.  Passages from literature, poetry, and scripture, drawings, thoughts and ideas, recipes, inventories of things, financial accountings, all found their way into blank journals that became commonplace books.  Above all, they served as a necessary accessory to reading – writing indeed complemented reading, as readers copied down the passages that spoke to them.  Young students using Johann Amos Comenius’ extremely popular 1658 publication Orbis Pictus, an illustrated children’s textbook for teaching languages that came out in many translations, learned the following [from this 1887 English edition, I have omitted the numbers linking lines in the English passage with the parallel passage in Latin]:
The Study,
a place where a Student,
apart from Men,
sitteth alone,
addicted to his Studies,
whilst he readeth Books,
which being within his
reach he layeth open up-
on a Desk, and picketh
all the best things out of
them into his own Manual,
or marketh them in
them with a Dash,
or a  little Star,
in the Margent.  (p. 120)
Sound advice for interacting with a book.  Dear student, copy the passages that move you or mark them in their margins.  [I was put on to Comenius by an informative page titled Manuals for Memory at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website.]

The desire to improve the mind and the person, to bring mental order out of chaos, constituted a broad mission for many 17th and 18th century thinkers and it swept up the commonplace book.  The jumbled nature of what end up in the commonplace book challenged users.    According to Lucia Dacome, in Noting the Mind:  Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Journal of the History of Ideas, October, 2004, full copy available by subscription only),
The practice of commonplacing similarly came to be regarded as capable of bringing together the order of learning and the methodizing of one’s thoughts, the pursuit of self-improvement, and the fashioning of the polite individual.  While collecting and ordering notes and thoughts, compilers also worked on their own intellectual, moral, and social edification.  (p. 615)
How then to organize what accumulated within the covers of the commonplace book?

Users devised different strategies.  Simply dividing up the journal with a fixed number of pages per letter of the alphabet spelled inefficiency; sections with blank pages remained long after other pages were filled to overflowing.  Then, in 1686, philosopher John Locke’s A New Method of a Common-Place-Book offered a brilliant though somewhat complex solution (involving the first letter of the subject of the entry and the first vowel in that subject) that apparently came to dominate commonplace books from then on.  A flexible index (the key to his method) guided and recorded where entries were written in the body of the journal, enabled full use of all pages, and offered two pages (across which the index stretched) where related content just might be identified, and, perhaps, connections made.  [This paragraph was edited after the initial posting because I think I initially claimed more for the Lockean index than it may have actually delivered.]

Fermentation of ideas stimulated keepers of commonplace books.  It began with the rereading of their entries.  As Steven Johnson described in Where Good Ideas Come From:  The Natural History of Innovation (2010):
Each rereading of the commonplace book became a new kind of revelation.  You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches:  the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books.  But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.  (p. 66)
So, simply having the Leakey quotations somewhere I might be able to find them seems increasingly like a losing response to the issue.  I see promise in an electronic version of some sort of Lockean organized commonplace book that would foster cross fertilization among my randomly jotted down thoughts and ideas, excerpted passages from my reading, transcripts of a Science Friday interview, link to a Frazz comic strip that mentions Mary Roach . . . whatever might be dropped into my commonplace book.  My electronic holy grail.  And I haven’t found it.

It would connect the Leakey quotation on species uniformity with quotations copied earlier on how species arise, on genetic variation within populations, the genetic uniqueness of individual animals and plants, . . . .

Here is a moment where I wished I inhabited the Mac world so I could at least try DEVONthink.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson extolled the virtues of this software application that, from what I’ve read, facilitates creative linkages among the things you’ve collected.  Sadly, no true counterpart exists in the Windows world.

Though, of course, as with so much other technology, such an application may substitute for real thinking – establish myriad connections with the words of the knowledgeable and mask your own lack of thought.  Jonathan Swift would have agreed, apparently finding little merit in commonplace books.  In his scathingly satirical A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet.  Together with a Proposal for the Encouragement of Poetry in Ireland (1720), he wrote of poets and commonplace books:
There you enter not only our own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant), but such of other men’s as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.  For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit as a merchant has for your money when you are in his.
In A Tale of the Tub (1704), he was even more devastatingly wicked:
By these methods, in a few weeks there starts up many a writer capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects.  For what though his head be empty, provided  his commonplace book be full?

Monday, April 18, 2011

That's Not What I Expected ~ From Fake Cows to Edestus Sharks

In the following passage from Act V, Scene iv of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the "page" in question is fair Julia dressed as a boy.

  Valentine. And as we walk along, I dare be bold
With our discourse to make your Grace to smile.
What think you of this page, my lord?
  Duke. I think the boy hath grace in him; he blushes.
  Valentine. I warrant you, my lord, more grace than boy.
  Duke. What mean you by that saying?
  Valentine. Please you, I’ll tell you as we pass along,
That you will wonder what hath fortuned.

The Duke registered the visual cues of Julia's disguise and so assumed the page was male.  Sensory signals and language coupled with past experience build our expectations and, for the most part, we get it right.  But there are those moments when reality surprises – “Whoa, that’s not what I expected.”

This is a posting about not seeing things coming, about when reality messes with expectations.  It begins with dogs.  Paleontologist Alton Dooley recently wrote on his blog about how his dog mistook a straw-filled wire frame shaped like a cow for the real thing.  Her mental algorithm posited cow from everything seen and she reacted accordingly, that is, until her sense of smell kicked in.  As Dooley described the process,
Hypothesis: Based on visual observations, I think that’s a cow. If it is a cow, it should smell like a cow. (Null hypothesis: It’s not a cow.)
Procedure: Sniff to see if it smells like a cow.
Result: It doesn’t smell like a cow.
Conclusion: It’s not a cow (the null hypothesis is not rejected).
(Dooley's assessment of this thought process:  “My dog is a scientist!”)

Shortly after I read Dooley’s posting, an AP newswire piece caught my attention.  Run in the Washington Post (April 10, 2011) under the title “Miner Finds 300-Million-Year-Old Fossil, it described the “shark jawbone” believed to come from an Edestus shark which a Kentucky miner found a couple of months ago.

The Expectations

My expectations-generating facility kicked in, conjuring images of miners and shark teeth.  The photo below of a Pennsylvania miner in 1940 captures the essence of the “miner visual/mental template” that I created when I read the word “miner.”  (Sources for all photos are provided at the end of this posting.)

Shark teeth?  The Carcharocles megalodon teeth shown below, though much younger than the Edestus fossil mentioned in the article (roughly 4 million years old from the Pliocene Epoch, compared to the some 300 million years old for the Edestus from the Carboniferous Era) reflect what first came to my mind when I read of fossil shark teeth.

The Reality

My expectation were dashed – I was wrong on both counts, miner and fossil.  My stereotypic view of miners arises from having seen countless photographs just like the one above.  Yes, my image of a miner is defined, fairly or unfairly, by the anticipated visible impact of the job, though mining is a job that more than most may well define the person.

As for the fossil, had I been more experienced, the weirdness of truly ancient sharks, such as Edestus, would have shaped my expectations.

An article that ran in the online University of Kentucky News about the Edestus fossil (which is on display at the university) carried the images that brought me face to face with the unexpected.  (Ancient Shark Fossil Found in Western Kentucky Mine, April 5, 2011.)  Here, then, are the miner and the fossil.

Very surprising.  A new image for me of a miner.  But, even more remarkable, a wonderfully different vision of shark teeth, though not so much for individual teeth, but for the whole assemblage.  These are clearly associated teeth (i.e., coming from a single individual), all rooted in what would certainly appear to be a “jawbone” (more on that later)  The entire fossil measures about 18 inches, and the crown of the largest of the serrated teeth stands more than 2 inches tall.

Responding to the unexpected, I learned a bit more about the miner and a fair amount more about the shark.

First, the shark.  Joe Cōcke, in Fossil Shark Teeth of the World (2002), identified Edestus as bearing the common name of the “coal shark” – very apt given where fossils from this shark appear to be typically found, deep underground in coal mines.  Interestingly, they turn up slightly separated from the seam of coal – makes sense since I have to assume they lived in a marine environment different from the one of heavy vegetation that became coal.  In this instance, the miner found it four miles into the mine shaft and some eight inches above the seam.  The Kentucky Geological Survey has described a couple of other Edestus fossils which turned up in similar proximity to coal seams.

Cōcke noted that Edestus teeth formed an “arch” in the shark’s jaw (the curved line along which the teeth are arrayed shows up clearly in the photo above).  The Edestus is one of several different edestoid sharks whose teeth have puzzled scientists and have led to truly bizarre hypotheses about their arrangement in the fish.  Because the teeth appear to be a single file, many have theorized that they are symphyseal – arising where the right and left sides of a jaw meet in the front of the mouth and extending out from the mouth.  An Edestus find described in 1912 by Hay (On an Important Specimen of Edestus; With Description of a New Species, Edestus Mirus, by Oliver Perry Hay, Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 42, No. 1884, 1912 ) (see photograph below) suggests why the fish earned the nickname “scissor-toothed shark.”

The “tooth-bearing shafts,” as they were described in the article, line up like the two halves of a pair of pinking shears.  Hay concluded,
The sharks that belonged to the genus Edestus must have presented a singular appearance with their straight or bent tooth shafts protruding from their mouths . . . . (p. 37)
Here’s a drawing of one interpretation of the evidence which Hay might well have endorsed.  Truly bizarre (and probably not accurate).

Edestus is but one of the edestoid sharks.  The Helicoprion offers a more extreme configuration of teeth in these kinds of shark – a tightly drawn spiral of teeth.

The various reconstructions of how these Helicoprion teeth might actually have been arranged in the living shark stretch the imagination.

I fear that these reconstructions actually do become fantastical.  In The Orthodonty of Helicoprion, Smithsonian paleontologist Robert W. Purdy has laid out the justification for a different and, to my mind, more rational (though still strange) Helicoprion dentition.  He considered such issues as the different rate of tooth replacement among Paleozoic sharks, wear on teeth, and the effects on the shark's hydrodynamics of a protruding spiral of teeth.  This different reconstruction focused on the branchial or gill-related region of the shark’s body and concluded that the spiral dentition belonged in the throat and served to “move the [shark’s] prey toward the esophagus.  This type of dentition would work well for catching soft-bodied prey.”  Purdy and other Smithsonian scientists advised artist Mary Parrish as she illustrated this different view of Helicoprion.  Purdy’s article includes Parrish’s illustration as does the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal website.  If I receive permission to post it, I will.  Look closely at her painting, the top of the spiral is just visible inside the shark’s mouth.

I’m not sure exactly how Edestus would be reconstructed under Purdy’s analytical framework, but I suspect it would be closer to reality than the drawing above.  Regardless, Edestus was certainly not what I expected.

As for the reference to the “jawbone” in this shark, it doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  Sharks are chondrichthyans (from the Greek for cartilage fish) so no true bone in their bodies, even way back then.  Each Edestus tooth had a very long root, sharply angled back.  The so-called “jawbone” or “tooth-bearing shafts” as Hay called them are thought to be those fossilized roots.  Images of Edestus fossils on the Kentucky Geological Survey’s website (scroll down to the Pennsylvanian-age shark fossils) more clearly show these individual roots lying together.

And finally, what about the miner?  From the University of Kentucky piece, we learn that the young miner found the Edestus fossil on February 24, 2011 and that subsequently the mine company allowed him to keep it.  Further, the miner “has agreed to let [Jerry] Weisenfluh [associate director of the Kentucky Geological Survey] bring the jawbone back to KGS at the University of Kentucky to be examined more closely by researchers at KGS and UK’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.”  The article concluded by noting the miner “plans to keep watch for more fossils in the mine.”

Now, that's unexpected, a heartwarming fossil-related story where everyone apparently behaved civilly.  Most encouraging, the miner embraced his role in helping to advance science.

Unfortunately, I then read an ABC news story from April 11, 2011, and it seems that even here the seamy side of fossil collecting had been exposed.  The miner, according to ABC news, said that collectors had contacted him looking to purchase the fossil, though apparently he had not yet made up his mind about what to do with it.  He was quoted as saying, “I could sell it. . . .  There are so many options.”

Nasty people those collectors, introducing a monetary component to this.

Though perhaps that’s not really where the idea of capitalizing on this actually arose.  I found a message posted on March 6th on the online Fossil Forum suggesting that the mercenary aspect of this saga might have originated remarkably early.  Easy to tie this message to the miner since the fossil shown in the photo displayed below the message on the Forum is clearly the same one that has just now attracted news coverage.  (I’ve reproduced the message just as it appeared.)
I'm told this is from an edestus shark ... whats something like this worth? I found it in a western ky coal mine and Ky Geological blah blah wants to display it on a yr or two loan. try to figure out if i should risk loaning it, any info would be helpful.
Yes, the message raises a legitimate concern about the risks of letting the fossil go out on loan, but I’m struck by the crassness of its opening move – “whats something like this worth?”  That’s cutting to the chase.  And then there’s the snarky reference to the Kentucky Geological Survey as “Ky Geological blah blah.”    Perhaps all's not well in the land where scientist and lay person join forces.

Is this closer to what I expected?  Let's just say I'm not surprised there's some tension here.

Sources of Photos and Images
1) The first coal miner photograph is from the Library of Congress and was taken by Jack Delano, August, 1940.  It is titled Miner at Dougherty's mine, near Falls Creek, Pennsylvania.
2) I took the photograph of megalodon teeth in the Aurora Fossil Museum, Aurora, North Carolina.
3) The pictures of the contemporary miner and his Edestus fossil are reproduced with permission of the University of Kentucky.  Mike Lynch of the Kentucky Geological Survey (affiliated with the University of Kentucky) wrote the article and took the photos.
4) I copied the photograph of the two files of Edestus teeth from Hay's 1912 article.
5) The illustration of Edestus is from Wikipedia Commons, created by Dmitry Bogdanov.  It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
6) The Helicoprion fossil is from the Smithsonian Institution and was collected by W. W. Rubey in 1942.  It is USNM number V22577.
7) The fanciful reconstruction of Helicoprion is from Wikipedia Commons, created by Dmitry Bogdanov.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Jefferson’s Botanist and Whitman’s Photographer ~ A Two-Part Exploration Prompted by a Coincidence

Part II – Frederick Gutekunst and a Philadelphia Story

Tracy:  Is this your first visit in Philadelphia?
Liz:  Just about.
Tracy:  It’s a quaint old place, don’t you think?  I suppose it’s affected somewhat by being the only really big city that’s near New York.
~ The Philadelphia Story, a play (set in 1939) by Philip Barry

[I]ndustrial Philadelphia was one of the first of the world’s truly big cities, something new under the sun, an agglomeration of people that made inherited notions of a ‘community’ obsolete, for it was too populous and widespread to be truly a community.
~ The Border City in Civil War:  1854 -1865, by Russell F. Weigley in Philadelphia:  A 300-Year History (1982)

In which the blogger considers how complex an organism a city can be – quaint and inbred while at the same time an evolving massive entity.  Though the blogger becomes mired in names and addresses, he does find, buried in the sediment, a small, saving connection to paleontology.

On August 7, 1889, Walt Whitman enjoyed a rare outing from his Camden, New Jersey home.  For several years, his steadily deteriorating health had kept him largely house-bound.  He journeyed across the Delaware River to the Philadelphia studio of photographer Frederick F. Gutekunst, Jr.  An uplifting cadence marks the description of the trip the poet penned in a letter the next day.

Am feeling pretty well for me – good weather here – was yesterday over to Phila:  to Gutekunst’s to sit for big picture (at vehement request) – went in large easy cab – every thing, river, ferry, Market & Arch streets & the vehicles & people look’d so well & bright & prosperous & even gay . . . .
~ Letter to Mary Smith Costelloe, August 8, 1889,  The Correspondence:  Volume IV:  1886-1889, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller (1969) (emphasis in the original)
Whitman’s specific destination for his foray into Philadelphia was 712 Arch Street (the studio and the photographer are shown below).

Whitman (1819 – 1892) liked the photographic outcomes of his journey into Philadelphia that day.  Inordinately fond of being photographed (I suspect he realized that his likeness spoke of wisdom and time), he had sat for Gutekunst on earlier occasions.  The photograph below was taken by Gutekunst; apparently it dates from a year later when the poet was about 71.

The convoluted path that led to the composition of this two-part posting began when I was first introduced to Gutekunst (1831 – 1917) through the acquisition of a carte de visite (front and back shown below) produced in his studio sometime between 1864 and 1866.  (A bit of background on the interesting photographic phenomenon of cartes de visite is provided at the end of this posting.)

During the latter half of the 19th century, Gutekunst ranked among the best known photographers in the nation, with a reputation that extended internationally as well.  Referred to as the dean of American photographers, he practiced his art in Philadelphia for six decades, producing precise, classical photographic images until his death in 1917.  His reputation rested in part on the many photographs he’d taken of prominent Americans – presidents, generals, artists, and, yes, poets, among others.  Known also for photographs taken on the Gettysburg battlefield shortly after the guns went silent, he garnered international attention later in the century with a ten-foot long photographic panorama (made from a series of negatives) of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

Beginning in 1856, Gutekunst ran a studio at 706 Arch Street.  In short order, he added the upper floors of 704 to his establishment (McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directories for 1864, 1865, and 1866, listed him at 704 & 706).  Then, the prosperous business outgrew those premises and Gutekunst moved his entire operation a bit westward up Arch Street to 712 and 714, combining the two buildings and taking the address of 712 Arch Street (this is where the directory for 1867 located him).

[An aside:  I thoroughly enjoyed researching for this posting as it took me into the arcane world of early 19th century city directories for Philadelphia.  At the end of this posting, I provide more information about the fabulous Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network site that aggregates links to these online resources.  I recognize that city directories were not necessarily current, that is, any changes in residence or place of business reflected in the directories that I discuss in this posting might well have actually occurred before the year of a particular directory.  Heck, they may even have been wrong.]

So, what’s the link between Whitman’s photographer and the previous entry in this blog on Benjamin Smith Barton, whom I labeled Jefferson’s botanist?  That connection, what I’ve termed a coincidence, is what I stumbled over when I went to Google Maps to see how Gutekunst’s studio/galleries at 712 Arch Street had changed in the nearly hundred years since the photographer’s death.

What had happened was the Federal Detention Center; it now occupies a big chunk of the south side of Arch Street beginning at 7th Street.  But, as I played with the Google street view, I spotted an historical marker standing on Arch Street in front of the Detention Center.  Ah, I initially thought, recognition of the great Frederick Gutekunst.

The image below of that marker is reproduced, with permission, from the website.

Not Gutekunst at all, Benjamin Smith Barton instead.  Wait, that means that Benjamin Smith Barton also lived on this site in the early 1800s??!!  The ExplorePAhistory webpage on this marker identifies the address as 712 Arch Street which, indeed, is where Gutekunst had his studio.

Not unexpectedly, my first reaction was
What an amazing coincidence!  These two important figures, pursuing vastly different fields, lived or worked in the same location.  Philadelphia is truly a small town.
Though, I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed that the marker bore no mention of the photographer.

Well and good, and there it might have rested, until I realized that none of the addresses I had for Barton squared with 712 Arch Street.  Apparently, in 1803, when he tutored Meriwether Lewis in botany, at Thomas Jefferson’s request, Barton lived at 44 North Fifth Street.  The next time he met with Lewis, in 1807, when the explorer sought his assistance in preparing the scientific volume of the expedition’s report, Barton lived at 184 Mulberry Street.  Shortly, thereafter, he relocated and resided at 241 Chestnut Street when he died in 1815.

So, how do we get from any of those Barton addresses to 712 Arch Street?  Cities are dynamic places, even aspects seemingly fixed are actually mutable, including street names and the numbers assigned to buildings on those streets.  Deciphering the changes in that flux made the challenge of taking 44 North Fifth Street or 184 Mulberry to 712 Arch particularly interesting.  I think I’ve made some sense of it.  And, if I’ve got it right (a big if), the marker has it wrong.

The address at 44 North Fifth Street appears to me to be a non-starter – much as I tried, I couldn’t get there (to 712 Arch Street) from here.  Fifth Street did not morph into Arch Street.  In contrast, Mulberry Street actually did.

From the city’s earliest days, the street carried the official name of Mulberry, but Philadelphians commonly called it Arch Street.  In his Annals of Philadelphia, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, & Incidents of the City and its Inhabitants from the Days of the Pilgrim Founders, published in 1830, John F. Watson asserted that the effort to extend Mulberry Street eastward all the way to the shoreline of the Delaware River required cutting through a hill where it intersected Front Street, the latter running along the shoreline.  For a time, Front Street apparently spanned Mulberry on a bridge, commonly referred to as an “arch.”

In 1853, Philadelphia officially renamed Mulberry as Arch Street (others changed as well, including High which became Market, Sassafras became Race, and Cedar became South) which, I think, takes care of the nexus between Mulberry and Arch for Barton’s home address of 184 Mulberry.

So, I'm inclined to believe the historical marker doesn’t stand at 44 North Fifth Street where Barton lived in 1803 and where he tutored Lewis in botany.  Might it flag where Barton dwelt in 1807 (184 Mulberry)?

If so, how did 184 become 712?  Well, unfortunately, it probably didn’t.

In 1856, the city Councils “regularized” the numbering of buildings in the city which prompted wholesale renumbering of homes and establishments.  Numbers now increased to the next highest 100s as one moved from one block to the next, going west from Front Street.  (For more on this, see Weigley's Border City in Civil War, in Philadelphia:  A 300-Year History.  Link provided above.)

To gauge what impact this had on 184 Mulberry (Arch), I searched through many city directories to trace that address forward from the first decade of the 1800s (figured I might as well go all the way while I was at it) until 1867.  To confirm what I found, I traced Gutekunst’s 712 Arch Street address backward from 1867 through the 1850s, when the changes in name and numbering occurred.  Based on my geometry, these address arcs do not intersect.  I cannot square this circle.

But, even if my bit of research threatens to separate Gutekunst and Barton, it provides glimpses of a fascinating web linking people and families across these decades.  According to the city directories, merchant Isaac C. Jones lived at 184 Mulberry from 1808 (Barton is last listed there in 1807) until 1822.  By 1828, physician Caspar Wistar occupied the premises.  After a bit of digging, I learned that Wistar was Jones’ son-in-law, having married Lydia Jones in 1826.  Caspar and Lydia lived at this same location until 1867 when he passed away.  A bit more on Wistar in a moment.

The changes in 1853 and 1856 affected Wistar’s street address which became, when all was said and done, 726 Arch Street.  Hmmm, not 712 Arch.

So much for the coincidence that precipitated this whole shaggy dog story.  I suspect that the historical marker is misplaced; more appropriately, it should probably be located further down the block toward 8th Street where it would mark where Barton lived in 1807, not 1803.  Even if I’m wrong about this, I’d love to see another marker added right at the current spot commemorating photographer Frederick Gutekunst.

As for the paleontological component of all this, that’s another of those neat connections that reach back over time.  For this, I have the good doctor Caspar Wistar, who lived for so long at 184 Mulberry (726 Arch Street), to thank.  Amazingly enough, his namesake, his uncle Caspar Wistar was, in fact, another of the preeminent Philadelphia scholars that Jefferson charged with teaching Meriwether Lewis in 1803.  Wistar, the uncle, was

. . . the foremost authority on fossils in America.  He talked with Lewis about that anomalous beast the Megalonyx [an extinct giant ground sloth], which he and Jefferson had discovered, and about the mastodons he and Jefferson believed might still inhabit the prairies.  (Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 91)

Small world, wonderful city.


Cartes de visite (CDV), which originated in France, were a paper photograph mounted on a small card.  An immensely popular item in the U.S. for a couple of decades in the middle the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War years, CDVs were made possible by the development in the 1850s of a reliable process to produce good paper copies of photographs from glass plate negatives.  The date of the CDV shown above can be determined with some precision because of the revenue stamp affixed to it.  In an effort to raise funds to finance the Civil War, the U.S. government, beginning in 1862, required that taxes be paid on various documents and luxury items – the stamp proved the tax had been paid.  In 1864, these taxes were extended to photographs, and then the taxes were repealed in 1866.  (Tax Stamps on Antique Photography, an eBay guide, provides a nice overview of the subject.)

Selected Sources

My obsession with street addresses in early Philadelphia was fed by a wonderful website, Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.  This is a “pilot project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) to develop a web-based repository of geographically organized historical information about Philadelphia, its geography, its buildings, and its people.”  The Resource Browser on the site gives the user access to a wealth of information about Philadelphia.  I particularly made use of the city directories (from 1785 to 1867) and the maps.  All in all, an amazing resource that helps realize the promise of the Net.

Some of the other sources I’ve used are listed below.

Jordan, John W., Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania (1978).  This has genealogies for the Wistars.

Peacock, Charlene, entry on Gutekunst in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy (2007), p. 629.

Philadelphia’s Share in American Photography, from Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, June 1903.

An interesting website on the Gutekunst family genealogy, with a focus on the photographer, can be found at this link.

The photograph of Whitman was copied from The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass (1902).

The photograph of Gutekunst's studio was copied from Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians, by The North American (1891).

The photograph of Gutekunst was copied from The Photographic Journal of America, edited by Thomas Coke Watkins (1917).
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