Pressed Seaweed from the 1880s -
Rebecca Esten, Pressed Seaweed, c. 1880s, Bolinas Museum History Archives, Gift of the Esten & Waterhouse-Pepper Family, 2000.28

History Room

Pressed Seaweed from the 1880s

January 14 - August 11, 2019

Curated by Elia Haworth

“Seaweed is one of the great ecosystem engineers of our planet. It fixes carbon, generates the base of the food chain and creates habitat; it is fundamental not only to life in the sea but to all life on earth. Marine algae alone number more than seven hundred species on the Pacific Coast. The tide pools of the Pacific reefs are crowded with small and more delicate seaweeds (and yet they can withstand the punishing surf!) that range in color from reds and magentas to iridescent blues.” ~ Josie Iselin 

This exhibition brings together two women with a passion for seaweed that lived in very different eras, more than 100 years apart. In the 1890s, Rebecca Esten took great pleasure in collecting these delicate seaweeds from Bolinas shores and Duxbury Reef, artistically arranging, and pressing them–a popular Victorian Era pastime cultivated by Queen Victoria herself. Esten had no idea that her hobby in the 1890s would be preserved and shared with you, in the 21st century.

Today, Josie Iselin, a Harvard-educated photographer, author, and book designer, dramatically brings seaweeds to our attention with her large-scale, luminous scans that are exhibited in galleries and museums. Like Rebecca, she sources specimens along shorelines and carefully arranges them. However, her surface of choice is a flat bed scanner. To understand her subjects she studied their biology and ecosystems and shares this information and her highly detailed images in her book An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed and her forthcoming book, The Curious World of Seaweed: Stories from the Pacific Coast.

The creator of the pressings on view, Rebecca Esten, was instrumental in the development of the Bolinas we know today. When her husband was not well, and like many people of the day, they left the inland heat for Bolinas to be by the ocean. Rebecca and her husband were staying at the Flagstaff Inn at the edge of Bolinas lagoon when their daughter Nellie and son-in-law Frank Waterhouse came to visit. So delighted by Bolinas, the young Waterhouse couple purchased part of J. J. Briones dairy ranch and created Brighton and Terrace Avenues, subdivided the land, and allowed families to build most of the homes we see today. Nellie also designed her family home on the hill above today’s Bolinas Post Office, and named it Esten Terrace, where her mother, Rebecca Esten, lived the rest of her life. If Rebecca were alive today, she may have enjoyed talking with Josie Iselin over tea about the curious biology of the delicate seaweeds that fascinated them both.