The Society of American Foresters, through the auction house of Bonham's of San Francisco, is offering for sale an original set of Romeyn Beck Hough's reference classic, The American Woods, with an expected selling price of $20,000 to $30,000. These books, which feature thin veneers of 324 species of wood found in United States in the 19th century, were subscribed to and purchased in individual volumes, most often by public libraries. However, complete fourteen-volume sets are extremely rare nowadays, thus the extreme price they bring at auction.
These books have a great history history.
"This remarkable work was the lifetime achievement of Romeyn B. Hough, who devoted himself to the study of American trees, and who is best known for his Handbook of Trees of the Northern States and Canada, long a standard reference work in American dendrology. In this work, Hough sought to describe the woods found in America, with a detailed description in an accompanying pamphlet, and with thin cross-sections of actual woods mounted and labeled in accompanying stiff cardboard mounts. These provide a unique record of American wood types, arranged geographically. Generally each species is shown with wood cut on traverse section, radial section, and tangential section. The samples are so thin as to be easily translucent. The age of these specimens gives them tremendous importance from an ecological standpoint, as well as their great interest to students of American furniture and woodcrafts. The trees available to Hough at the time make such an endeavor impossible to contemplate today. Parts I-IV cover New York and adjacent states, part V covers Florida, parts VI-X describe the Pacific Slope, parts XI-XII cover the Atlantic states, and part XIII southern Florida. Part XIV contained a continuation of the work on the trees of Florida with text by Marjorie Hough, using specimens and notes prepared by her father before his death in 1924.
Hough explained the unique nature of the work thus: it is `illustrated by actual specimens, and being in this way an exhibition of nature itself it possesses a peculiar and great interest never found in a press-printed book. The specimens are....about 2 x 5 in. in size, and sufficiently thin to admit of examination in transmitted light...Looked at in reflected light they appear as in the board or log... These specimens are mounted in durable frame-like Bristol-board pages, with black waterproofed surfaces...and each bears printed in gilt-bronze the technical name of the species and its English, German, French and Spanish names. The pages are separable...and are accompanied with a full text...giving information as to the uses and physical properties of the woods, and distributions, habits of growth, botanical characters, habitats, medicinal properties, etc..., of the trees...The woods used for the specimens are personally collected by the author and are sectioned and prepared by a process of his own device'.
Complete sets of this work are very rare. The volumes were priced at five dollars each, a high price reflecting the work involved in assembling them. Since subscribers came and went over the 25-year period of publication and many only bought the volume or volumes on the areas that interested them. The rarity of complete sets can be judged from the fact that Stafleu and Cowan record the work as being complete in 6 volumes."
North Carolina State has digitized Hough's complete American Woods collection and you can view all 350 plates here.
But if you want to gain possession of the real thing, you have until September 22nd to do your research on the SAF set and settle your mind on your bid. If you win the bid, and care to share its splendor with the other readers of Go Wood, just let me know, and it will be so.
P.S. If, like me, you find the price of this set a little too steep, you can purchase a modern reprint of the set that has been released to rave reviews. Entitled "The Woodbook: The Complete Plates", it can be purchased online at Amazon.com.