Mary Snyder’s Sea Mosses

Mary Stoddard Patchen was born in Ohio in 1838 and was teaching at the high school in Carlinville, Illinois, when she married fellow teacher Edward Snyder in 1869. Mr. Snyder had been an officer in the Austrian army before immigrating to America and serving in the Union army during the Civil War. In 1870 Mr. Snyder became a professor of German and military science at the University of Illinois at Champaign, the Snyders’ home for the next 25 years. For many of these years they spent their summer vacations at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Mrs. Snyder developed an interest in botany and especially in the aquatic species that she found in and around the lake. As her interest in aquatic plants grew the Snyders’ vacation travels extended to the seacoast, where she began collecting specimens of marine algae, then known as sea mosses (and now as seaweed). She arranged her specimens in an organized collection, or herbarium, which eventually grew to include hundreds of species.    

When poor health compelled Prof. Snyder to take a leave of absence in 1894 the Snyders traveled to California, where they hoped his health would benefit from the milder climate. While visiting the San Diego area in September they stayed at the Hotel del Coronado and Mrs. Snyder explored tide pools and beaches from Coronado to La Jolla in search of sea mosses. Pleased with the San Diego area they purchased a lot on Prospect Street overlooking Seal Rock in La Jolla and also a larger plot of land in Pacific Beach.

When they returned to Illinois in September 1895 Prof. Snyder found that his health had not improved enough to resume his teaching duties at the University. Instead, the Snyders spent much of the winter of 1895-96 back in California where Mary Snyder collected specimens along the coast from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz. In June 1896 the Champaign Daily Gazette reported that Prof. Snyder had retired and that he and Mrs. Snyder had left for Pacific Beach, Cal., their new home, where he owned a small fruit farm and would devote much of his time to its care. In California, the Los Angeles Times also noted their arrival and added that Mrs. Snyder was a botanist of national reputation who made a special study of algae and marine vegetation. In September they moved into a two-story cottage built on their Pacific Beach property, a home that is still standing today at 1976 Hornblend Street.

In 1896 Pacific Beach was a small settlement clustered around the campus of the San Diego College of Letters, which opened there in 1888 but closed in 1891. Women of the former college community led by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, a world-renowned poet, had started the Pacific Beach Reading Club in 1895 and Mrs. Snyder became an active member, succeeding Mrs. Thorpe as president in 1898. She also started and served as president of a Shakespeare club. In addition to these cultural activities Mrs. Snyder spent plenty of time at the beach collecting sea mosses; from 1897 to 1902 she collected more than 150 specimens from Pacific Beach alone, plus over 40 from False (Mission) Bay.  

Although many types of marine vegetation washed ashore on the beaches or grew in the marshes near her home in Pacific Beach, the rocky coastline around La Jolla provided an even greater variety, particularly in the deeper waters that were only exposed during low tides. Mrs. Snyder made frequent collecting trips there, collecting nearly 450 specimens between 1897 and 1902, including 150 in 1898 alone. To accommodate her frequent expeditions to La Jolla the Snyders had a cottage built on their lot there in 1901. During unusually low tides in November 1901 the San Diego Evening Tribune reported that Prof. Snyder and wife were at their La Jolla cottage and that Mrs. Snyder had enjoyed every day of the Thanksgiving holiday at low tide; ‘The rocks hold secret treasures for her only to be discovered at extremely low tide’.

Many residents of La Jolla were also collectors of sea mosses and shells and some made the short trip to Pacific Beach to consult with Mrs. Snyder and view her collections. Miss Ellen Browning Scripps, a La Jolla resident since 1896 who went on to establish and support many of La Jolla enduring institutions, often visited the Snyders; according to a diary entry from 1898 she and her sister Virginia Scripps spent an hour at the Snyders ‘looking at Mrs. S.’s collection of algae’. Virginia had her own collection (she wrote in a poem ‘Many days have I spent on the seashore/Gathering sea mosses and shells galore’) and another entry in Ellen’s diary noted that Mrs. Snyder came to their home for lunch and ‘gave names to Jenny’s collection of sea mosses’.

After many years spent collecting and studying sea mosses Mary Snyder was an acknowledged authority on marine algae. In 1902 she was the featured speaker at a meeting of the San Diego Natural History Society headed by Dr. Fred Baker where, according to the San Diego Union, she presented an interesting paper on ‘sea weeds’ and exhibited a large and beautiful collection of these plants ‘collected by herself’. She explained that there were three types of sea weeds; green, olive-brown and red, with the colors associated with the depths at which they grow. Green weeds grow near the high tide line, olive-brown near the low tide line, and the more delicate red weeds in deeper water. Most marine algae are of the olive-brown type, larger and coarser, including the Macrocystis pyrifera or kelp, that ‘stretches in broad fields, miles in length, just off our coast’ and is ‘thrown in heaps upon our beaches’. Mrs. Snyder added that there were about 3500 known species of sea weeds, 600 found on our American coasts and about 250 on our Pacific coast, and of these 70 have been collected in the vicinity of San Diego (the reading was followed by an examination of the exhibits and led to an animated and interesting discussion).

In 1903 Dr. Baker invited Dr. William Ritter of the University of California’s Department of Zoology to San Diego for his summer marine biology research activities, offering a site for a laboratory (the boathouse at the Hotel del Coronado) with operating expenses to be funded by subscriptions raised from private citizens. One of the citizens Dr. Baker approached for a contribution was the wealthy newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps, Ellen and Virginia’s brother, who not only contributed a substantial sum but also suggested that he and Ellen would be interested in supporting a permanent biological research station in San Diego. A meeting in September 1903 established the Marine Biological Association of San Diego and Mrs. Edward Snyder was one of the charter members (along with E.W., Ellen and Virginia Scripps).

September 1903 was also the month that Prof. Edward Snyder died, and Mrs. Snyder soon sold their Pacific Beach home and moved to the cottage in La Jolla (following Rose Hartwick Thorpe and her husband, who had moved from Pacific Beach to La Jolla in 1901). At that time residences in La Jolla were identified with names instead of numbers and Mrs. Snyder’s cottage on Prospect Street was called the Corallina (Corallina is a genus of marine algae well represented in Mrs. Snyder’s herbarium collections). In November 1903 she purchased two lots between Fay Avenue and the alley now called Bishops Lane, just across Prospect from her residence, which included an existing cottage that dated to 1894. This cottage became known as Amphiroa Cottage (Amphiroa is also a genus of marine algae) and was rented to tenants until Mrs. Snyder moved there herself in 1910. In April 1904 Mrs. Snyder also purchased lots at the east corner of Prospect and Cuvier streets where she built a rental cottage named the Ceramium after another genus of marine algae. Other named residences in La Jolla included the Thorpes’ home Curfew Cottage, named for Mrs. Thorpe’s famous poem Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight (where Mrs. Snyder went for Christmas dinner in 1904) and the Scripps sisters’ mansion South Molton Villa, named for the street in London where Miss Ellen had grown up (and where Mrs. Snyder had lunch and named Miss Virginia’s sea mosses).

La Jolla had been the source of more than half of the specimens represented in Mrs. Snyder’s herbarium but after her move there she added few additional specimens to her collections (perhaps because there were few new species to be found). Instead, she turned her attention to mounting and arranging her specimens of sea moss into artistic displays. One such display won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 and another won gold at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905. Her collections were also credited with boosting tourism to La Jolla. In March 1904 the Tribune reported that increasing numbers of tourists were visiting, particularly during low tides, and that the gathering of sea moss and shells was becoming ‘more and more a fad with sojourners’. Tourists shown collections of pressed algae prepared by Mrs. Snyder were inspired to make collections of their very own. Mrs. Snyder also led collecting trips for other collectors; in January 1905 the Union reported that Mrs. Snyder and the Misses Scripps had driven to False Bay and had a highly successful search for specimens.

After a year living in La Jolla Mrs. Snyder traveled to Texas in early 1905 to be with her mother and sister, returning after her mother died in November 1905. On her return she was ‘warmly welcomed back’ into La Jolla social life by a circle of friends including Mrs. Olivia Mudgett, Capt. and Mrs. A. D. Griffin and the extended Mills family; Madame Ellen Mills, Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Mills, her son and daughter-in-law, and their daughter Miss Ellen. These families were all relatives from Maine (Mrs. Mudgett and Mrs. A. P. Mills were sisters and Mrs. Griffin was their cousin) and they had been among the first settlers in La Jolla. Mrs. Snyder joined these families at Kennebec Lodge, the Mills’ home, for Thanksgiving dinner and Mrs. Mudgett hosted the same group at her home, Villa Waldo, for Christmas (Villa Waldo, named for her home county in Maine, is still standing on Drury Lane).

Mrs. Snyder had also joined the La Jolla Woman’s Club and in March 1906 she was elected president, serving until 1908 (Ellen Browning Scripps was elected vice-president; Mrs. Mudgett was treasurer). In April the papers reported that Mesdames Snyder, Mudgett and Thorpe, the Misses Scripps and other members of the Woman’s Club went by tally-ho to Pacific Beach to attend the county federation of Women’s clubs (a tally-ho was a large open coach usually drawn by four horses). Mrs. Snyder was also a member of the Social Club, where in March 1906 the once-president of the Pacific Beach Shakespeare Club led a group of ladies in the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice (she was Lorenzo, Mrs. Mudgett was Antonio, Mrs. Thorpe was Shylock and Miss Mills was Gratiano).

The Marine Biological Association of San Diego had hosted Dr. Ritter and his summer research projects in Coronado in 1904 but for 1905 they arranged for a research station to be built at the Cove in La Jolla. A subscription by La Jolla residents raised nearly $1000 to build the station (Mr. Thorpe gave $25, Mrs. Mudgett $15, Mrs. Mills and Mrs. Snyder each gave $10), and scientists from Berkeley and other institutions came to La Jolla to work there. During one visit in 1906 Dr. and Mrs. Ritter were entertained by Mrs. Snyder at the Ceramium and spent the afternoon delightfully examining her beautiful collection of sea mosses.  In his history of the Marine Biological Station Dr. Ritter wrote that in addition to laboratory rooms the building included a public aquarium-museum with a fair exhibit of preserved specimens, including a collection of mounted specimens of the local sea-weeds, the gift of Mrs. Snyder, a resident of La Jolla. The biological station remained at the cove until 1912 when, after additional contributions from E.W. and Ellen Scripps, a new research facility that became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography was built at La Jolla Shores.

Since her return from her mother’s home in Texas in 1905 Mrs. Snyder had been living in her original La Jolla cottage, the Corallina, to which she reportedly added a room in May 1907. The Union’s weekly account of social life in La Jolla in 1907 noted that Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Mills and Mrs. Mudgett were dinner guests of Mrs. Snyder at the Corallina and the Ladies’ Aid of the Union church had another pleasant social at the Corallina, home of Mrs. Edward Snyder (delicious cocoa and cake were served by the hostess). In 1908 Mrs. Snyder sold the Corallina and moved to the Ceramium Cottage at Prospect and Cuvier before traveling to Texas again in 1909 to spend another year with her sister. After her return in November 1910 she also sold Ceramium Cottage to Dr. Edward and Eliza Howard. In 1914 the entire block east of Prospect and Cuvier was cleared to become the La Jolla Recreation Center (funded by Ellen Browning Scripps) and the Howards moved the cottage to property they owned at 830 Kline Street where it is still standing, a City of San Diego Historic Landmark with a plaque identifying it as ‘Geranium Cottage’. Mrs. Snyder then moved to her Fay Street property, Amphiroa Cottage. While repairing and enlarging Amphiroa Cottage she built an herbarium for her ‘splendid collection of sea mosses and for arranging and mounting new specimens’, according to the Union.

Mary Snyder moved one more time, although this time her house may have moved with her. When she purchased another pair of lots on the east side of Fay near the intersection with Kline Street in 1912 (from Charles Norris) the lots were vacant; city lot books showed no ‘value of improvements’. In 1914 and thereafter the lot books showed an improvement assessed at $160 on these lots, and also showed no value of improvements on the lots where Amphiroa Cottage had been, and which had been assessed at $250 a year earlier. This may have been because Amphiroa cottage, her home since 1910 (or at least a major portion of it) had been moved down the street, a fairly common practice in La Jolla at the time. Fay Street became an avenue in 1913 and La Jolla had adopted street addresses so her new home was listed at 7725 Fay Avenue. She sold the then-vacant lots on Fay near Prospect in 1914.

Mary Stoddard Snyder lived the rest of her life, until 1926, at 7725 Fay. She remained active in the Woman’s Club; a meeting in 1916 was ‘in the hands of’ Mrs. Mudgett and Mrs. Snyder and featured Dr. Ritter speaking about ‘Science vs. Nature’. Those years were also spent supplying more preserved specimens of sea mosses to the herbaria of prestigious institutions around the country, including the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and a number of universities, particularly the University of California at Berkeley. Her own herbarium was given to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is now housed at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Many of these institutions have made images of their collections available online and they can be accessed via the Macroalgal Herbarium Consortium portal. The home at 7725 Fay Avenue, where many of these specimens were arranged and mounted, was destroyed by fire in 1954.