Green Sponge Balls

I heard this story on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Next”).

Many of you know that there was a huge Victorian craze for collecting things and scrap-booking. The biggest of these crazes was autograph collection, which we hear about all the time. However, there was also an enormously popular type of collection and scrap-booking that we almost never hear about: seaweed collection.

It was an especially popular pastime amongst wealthy women (as were most collections, really) and even Queen Victoria had a seaweed collection. Despite the fad’s brief popularity, it had an enormous impact. Some species of seaweed, like the green sponge ball, were so coveted and over-collected that it completely damaged the species. As far as I’m aware, there are no longer any green sponge balls anywhere near the UK to this day, as that species in particular never recovered from its Victorian popularity.

Somewhat tangentially, it was around this time that the very first book of photographs was  published. In 1843, Anna Atkins (who is often thought to be the world’s first female photographer), published Photographs of British Algae. It was privately published and quickly overshadowed by William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, which was published commercially eight months later.

Only 17 copies of Atkins’s book are known to exist today (and some of those are in various states of completeness).

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