Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The World's First Tackle Collection

The World's First Tackle Collection

A book could be written on early collectors and collections. It could cover everything from individual collectors from the 1920s and 1930s, including those chronicled a decade ago by collector and historian Dan Basore, to now-defunct museums like the Gladding Museum in New York state, to collections tragically destroyed, such as the bombing of and subsequent fire in the New York Angler's Club back in the early 1970s that destroyed many irreplaceable pieces of tackle.

But who was first?

I'd like to offer up as my candidate for the first fishing tackle collection the one put together by the National Museum of Fisheries that opened in Washington D.C. in 1884. It was, to put it bluntly, a spectacular collection, beautifully arranged.

We get a glimpse of what the displays looked like from an article published on The Juniata (Pa.) Sentinel and Republican 11 June 1884, about a month after the exhibition was opened to the public.

The exhibit opened with a model of an Ancient Greek netting boat, complete with a "vestige of the ram which adorned the prows of the Roman triremes two thousand years ago." Other nation's marine architecture were depicted as well, including Scandinavian, lateen boats from the Mediterranean, junks of Asia, "piratical craft" from Malay, but all were dominated by the model of the three-master schooner Lizzie W. Matthewson. This model won the gold medal at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, which was the impetus for much of this display.

From the exhibit entrance with its commercial fishing boats one entered the larger room, festooned with fishing nets hanging from the ceiling and life-sized figures of fishermen in action. As the reporter declared, "the plaster cast of the cuttle-fish, looking like a huge spider suspended from a mammoth cobweb, together with many other strange and grotesque objects, all meet the eye at once, presenting a novel spectacle, which is greeted by exclamations of surprise and pleasure."

Within the great room, cases were crafted that contained the history of fishing through tackle. "Beginning with the rude club of the savage," the article noted, "one can gradually trace the successive steps of improvement up to the most complex traps of civilized ingenuity." An expansive collection of wood and bone hooks, some dating back 5000 years or more, were put beside hooks of the iron age and tempered steel hooks of the modern era. A complete display of the process of making modern fish hooks was on display--likely the same one John Court donated to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

But this was just the beginning. The collection was as complete as one could hope for. "The rudely sculptured float of the Alaskan Indian can be contrasted with the brightly-painted bob from the factory of a Yankee manufacturer," the article noted. A display case adroitly detailed the history of the fishing (fillet) knife. Artificial flies "of a thousand delicate shades" were in another case. Yet another contains "filmy shells and shimmer spoon hooks [that] recall to the angler hours passed in casting for the greedy bass or trolling for the lively pickerel. Another case contained fishing lines. Several displays were necessary to display the nets from around the world, including one made from human hair from the Fiji islands. "It is not stated whether the hair is from the head of a missionary or not," the article dryly commented. There was even a display of fish traps from around the globe.

But the two displays of greatest interest to me are as follows. "In another case is the collection of reels, and the spectator can almost hear the familiar click, click of the snap as the line is drawn by the frightened and struggling fish." This case was followed by an ornate one made for fishing rods. "On a large drum covered with a beautiful shade of blue plush," the article breathlessly described, "is arranged the collection of fishing rods, from the eight and ten ounce split bamboo, bass and trout fly rods to the heavy grades used in capturing gamey salmon."

The paper took the time to editorialize on the state of American tackle making. "American workmen excel the world in the manufacture of fishing rods, and since the London exhibition [of 1883] the export trade in this branch has been multiplied several times. The superiority of American rods consists in the combination of the lightness and flexibility with tenacity and strength, and in the international contest our representative not only made the longest cast, but the flies were never snapped from his lines, although the contestants lost many."

So I offer up the National Museum of Fisheries Exhibition of 1884 as the first true collection of fishing tackle permanently displayed in history. I don't know when the collection was disbanded -- I do know that large parts of it were put in storage in the Smithsonian Institute -- but it was likely in the late 1880s or early 1890s, when the Smithsonian was making a major expansion.

The tackle included in this exhibition was supposed to be archived in the Smithsonian, but I have been told by those who have tried to access it that the majority of it "was lost." What that means, I do not know. The only person I know who has successfully viewed any tackle at the Smithsonian is Steve Vernon, and that was over three decades ago.

I'll write more about this collection at a later date…

-- Dr. Todd

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