Remember how much fun it was to clean out an attic and poke around some neat old stuff? Recently, the Division of Entomology did some “attic cleaning” in its collections.
To prepare for our move into the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (ESC), the Division left the 6 rooms in the Peabody building it has occupied for more than 30 years and moved into temporary quarters in the Kline Geology basement. Moving both the staff offices and the regular curated collection was pretty routine—if you can call moving over one million insects routine. The interesting part came when we started transferring the uncurated specimens—those that have yet to be formally incorporated into the main collection. See other examples below.
Above: Specimens from around the world were often stored at the Museum in the containers in which they were shipped, some now as rare and unusual as many of their contents.
Many were still in the original collecting and shipping containers used to send them to the Peabody. As we uncovered these, it became apparent that entomologists will use anything available to store and ship specimens. There were boxes and containers from all over the world: British Players cigarette tins from Uganda; 1940s wooden boxes from Iraq enscribed with the logo of the “Lion of Bagdad Date Co.”; film canisters; pill boxes; underarm dress shield containers; British cookie and biscuit tins from various African colonies; bright red boxes of Lion Brand mosquito incense coils from Canton, China; Helmar Turkish and Egyptian cigarette boxes with pithy Arabic quotes (interestingly enough, the cigarettes were manufactured in New Jersey); Lipton tea containers from Ceylon; and all manner of small ingenious wooden boxes.
By far the most common container these specimens were stored in was the cigar box, an item seldom used in this age of plastic storage containers. At last count we have amassed a collection of over 450 empty boxes. The art on these cigar boxes is worthy of an exhibit in itself; subjects range from whiskered gentlemen of historical note or industrial fame to bonneted ladies of all countries, Shakespearean plays, and pastoral scenes. Of interest are the many boxes from the several New Haven cigar manufacturers that are now long gone from the local scene; one cover shows a painting of the long-closed drive atop West Rock.
The largest group of uncurated specimens from these containers was that of the papered Lepidoptera. Papering is a technique of wrapping butterfly and moth specimens flat in folded sheets of paper; it is an excellent method for field storage that keeps the specimen remarkably intact for later processing (see the entomology display on the Museum’s second floor for an example of this technique). Butterflies and moths collected in the field can be safely stored in paper folded into a triangle until the specimen can be catalogued. Collections information is noted right on this packet. It is also the best way to store these insects in a museum collection because it saves a great deal of space compared to the usual method of pinning and spreading specimens.
After the Division moved to the ESC, all the papered Lepidoptera were stored in new, standardized, pest-proof, plastic containers in a climate controlled room. Aside from a brief descriptive label on each container, sadly there will no longer be any hint of origins in some faraway corner of the world or of the travels of strange boxes and tins to the Peabody Museum.