Its All Crystal Clear!
Title page from Cloud Crystals: A Snow-Flake Album. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1864.
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Art and nature unite in this perfect winter holiday gift book: an ode to the snowflake. Its lithographic reproductions of various snowflake forms also make it a minor tour-de-force of American printing.
Cloud Crystals was one of the first books devoted entirely to snowflakes and its compiler Frances Chickering's cut-out method became the accepted way to depict them until later in the nineteenth century. (William Bently, who was not even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes when Chickering’s book was first published, famously began using photography to examine ice crystals in 1885.) Chickering’s introduction describes her initial impulse and the process she used to capture her images. “The present collection originated in the accidental observation of the beauty of a snow crystal upon a dark window sill.” Over the course of several long Maine winters, this minister’s wife recorded more than 200 forms of snowflakes using the following method: "The crystals are caught upon dark fur or cloth, a strong magnifier placed over them to assist the eye, and the figure immediately cut from memory." Later, lithographic plates were produced by J. F. Richardson (also from Portland, Maine) and were uniformly printed as seven white flakes on a maroon ink background. The graphic contrast of maroon and white makes the intricate snowflake shapes pop off the page.
In the accompanying text, Mrs. Chickering describes the meteorological conditions present when she observed various snowflakes. Her anthology includes scientific essays alongside literary selections and poetry from a veritable who’s who of the 19th century literary canon: Shakespeare, John Ruskin, William Cullen Bryant; John Greenleaf Whittier; Increase Mather, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A half-fanciful and half-scientific volume, Cloud Crystals makes a truly unique gift book.
The copy at the American Antiquarian Society is unique because it has a letter tipped in from Chickering's husband presenting this volume to the Portland Society of Natural History; in it, he suggests that papers earlier given at the society "had some share in preparing for the book itself."