& Digitization Project
Martha Maxwell’s exhibit at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876
Even among the seemingly endless rarities and exotic delights from around the world, Martha Maxwell’s exhibit at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 created quite a stir. Displayed in the Kansas-Colorado Building rather than the Women’s Pavilion, Mrs. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain display fascinated both visitors and the press. Using “paste, pulverized ore, water, lime, gravel and evergreens” as her construction materials, Maxwell built a realistic natural landscape in which to place wildlife specimens. Maxwell herself had killed many of the specimens and all had been transformed by her considerable taxidermy skills. Library Company Trustee Lisa Baskin donated several stereographs of Mrs. Maxwell’s display this year and we purchased another stereograph from a local dealer.
As a child in rural north central Pennsylvania, Martha learned a love of nature from her grandmother. The family moved west to Wisconsin, and later Martha continued her westward journey into Colorado after her 1854 marriage to James Maxwell. While in Colorado, she wrote to family members requesting a book that would help her “to learn how to preserve birds & other animal curiosities in this country.” During an extended stay in Wisconsin in the mid-1860s, Maxwell studied taxidermy and upon her return to Colorado focused her attention on building a collection of native birds and mammals. Maxwell used plaster molds and later iron frames over which to stretch the skins, rather than sewing the skins together and stuffing them, as most other taxidermists did. In mid-1874, she opened her Rocky Mountain Museum in Boulder, Colorado to display her specimens for both education and entertainment. Hoping to find more support in a larger city, Maxwell moved her museum to Denver a little more than a year later.
[William Chamberlain, photographer] Mrs. M. A. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Museum, albumen print stereograph, 1875. In this stereograph, Martha Maxwell poses with her specimens at her Boulder museum. Click image for larger view.
In an attempt to improve her precarious financial circumstances, Martha Maxwell arranged to display her specimens at the Centennial Exposition. The Colorado commissioners agreed to pay for the packing and transportation of her specimens to and from Philadelphia and her living expenses while at the Centennial. To compensate Maxwell for her time, she would be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of any duplicate specimens and photographs of herself and her display. Maxwell’s exhibition proved so popular that the fair’s official photographic firm, the Centennial Photographic Company, was unable to keep up with the demand for images. When Maxwell had photographic copies of their images made and began selling them, however, officials forced her to stop. “I was never so annoyed in my life about a little thing as about these pictures,” Maxwell complained in a letter to her sister.
Many Centennial visitors apparently wanted a keepsake of Maxwell’s amazing display. Maxwell arranged mammals and birds from both the plains and mountain regions into a realistic natural setting. Buffalo and elk roamed across the plains while bears, mountain lions and smaller creatures were posed among the rocks, each at an elevation suggesting the altitude in which they were naturally found. Like her Colorado museum displays, Maxwell’s Centennial exhibition featured both taxidermy specimens and small live animals.
Centennial Photographic Company, [Mrs. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Exhibition], albumen print stereograph, 1876. Martha Maxwell, sitting at the cave entrance, is almost invisible among the abundance of wildlife. Click image for larger view.
[Centennial Photographic Company], 999. Mrs. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Series, albumen print stereograph, 1876. Click image for larger view. Click image for larger view.
[Centennial Photographic Company], [Mrs. Maxwell’s Rocky Mountain Exhibition], albumen print stereograph, 1876. Click image for larger view.
In the years following the Centennial, Martha Maxwell continued to struggle financially. Other exhibitions of her specimens failed to garner much attention. Both Maxwell and her collection met sad fates. She died in 1881 shortly before her fiftieth birthday. Through neglect and mismanagement subsequent owners of her collection allowed it to deteriorate beyond any usefulness. Martha Maxwell today is primarily remembered as the first woman to have a subspecies she discovered named after her -- a small screech owl given the scientific name Megascops asio maxwelliae.
Sarah J. Weatherwax
Curator of Prints and Photographs