As suggested by William Davies King, the author of Collections of Nothing, collectors know the world through collecting--and the world knows collectors through their collections.
Ever since we mounted it in the MVSEVM exhibition, a vintage collection of sand has attracted lots of interest and questions. The collection features 714 numbered glass vials containing sand from around the world. Who collected and labeled all this sand, when, and why? A 1922 Curator’s Report states that the museum received “Mrs. Sutton’s complete collection of sands gathered from all parts of the world. These in an excellent case were donated by Mrs. Martha Anderson.” That’s all we know, but there is so much more we can infer….
Mrs. Sutton typed up a list of her numbered vials, matching each with the location it was collected. One of the entries (vial #95) has a date: “San Francisco Fairgrounds, 1894.” We can further infer that she resided in Pacific Grove, since over 40 vials come from Pacific Grove and neighboring areas on the Monterey Peninsula. Perhaps she was a member of the Pacific Coast Branch of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (held in this town between 1880 and 1917), because vial #105 is from Chautauqua Lake, New York. Then again, perhaps a neighbor contributed the Chautauqua sand.
We can also infer something about Mrs. Sutton’s personality. She was careful. Not only did she maintain records of her sands, she also appears to have sorted and separated the minerals in the sands. For example, vial #140 contains only light blue sand grains from “Moss Beach, Pacific Grove.” My mental image is of her sitting at a table under a bright kerosene lamp, holding a magnifier in one hand and tweezers in the other.
Did she herself travel to all of the places from which the sand was collected? Probably not. Vial #365 is from “Sea of Japan, One Mile Deep.” And she labeled numerous sands from archaeological and historical sites around the world, such as Abu Simbel, Egypt, and railroad ground-breakings.
Mrs. Sutton appears to have had some knowledge of petrology, or at least one of her sand contributors did. Not only did she separate parent rocks’ minerals from the sands, she also labeled numerous sands with the names of the minerals contained: actinolite, quicksilver ore, chloride ore, ulexite.
One notable local sand didn’t make it into the collection. That’s the garnet sand found intermittently along the Big Sur coast. It wasn’t until 1919 that the state approved building a highway to connect Big Sur with the Monterey Peninsula, so it remained inaccessible (and unknown) during Mrs. Sutton’s sand-collecting time.
Today, if you’re interested in seeing cherry-red garnet sand grains, visit Andrew Molera State Park. Follow the Beach Trail to the ocean. The sand appears as dark purple streaks near the mouth of the Big Sur River. For me, one big question remains, what and where is the parent rock of this garnet sand?
Coda: A little online research shows that Mrs. Sutton was born Angeline Robertson in 1830. Her father was a staunch Methodist. She married W. William Sutton, who was a member of the Masonic Association, a veteran of the Mexican War, and a member of the Sloat Monument Association. Mrs. Sutton was Grand Chaplain of the Eastern Star meeting in Pacific Grove in 1893 (a year before she collected sand from San Francisco). She died in 1915, and is buried with her husband in El Carmelo Cemetery, Pacific Grove.
Annie Holdren, Exhibitions Curator