Solander boxes are used for the storage of drawings and other works on paper. They are hard shelled cases, made of basswood and covered with acid-free boards and treated pebbled cloth. Their rigidity is important and allows them to be stacked. A pair of metal latches keep them tightly shut and they can have a handle or not. They are also lined with acid-free paper. The box opens so that the top of the box can lie flat, flush with the deeper section of the box. Nowadays, the more descriptive name “clamshell case” is often used, but this is a shame because it distances them from the 18th century Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, who devised this storage box for dried plants and who worked at the British Museum.
Solander was a student of Carolus Linnaeus, one of Linneaeus’s apostles, who traveled from Uppsala to England in 1760 to help others understand Linnaeus’s system of classifying plants and animals, where, simply put, the genus and species names are paired. As he had not finished his degree before going to London, he probably meant to return to Sweden.
Solander was very social and had an easy time inserting himself in London–James Boswell said of Solander “Throw him where you will, he swims.” He became Assistant Librarian at the British Museum in 1663, working on cataloging the herbarium of Hans Sloane, a founder of the museum. (The British Museum’s plant and animal collections were transferred between 1880 and 1883 to the Natural History Museum.) He interrupted his work at the museum in 1668 when he traveled with Captain James Cook and his good friend and patron Joseph Banks across the Pacific. For Cook the main purpose of the trip was to study the Transit of Venus from Tahiti, something the French had done a few years earlier. For Banks and Solander, it was to collect plant specimens and to a lesser degree animal subjects. Their most significant work was done in New Holland or Australia. Botany Bay was named for the great variety of plants Banks and Solander found there, most of them completely new to them.
Two draftsmen were hired for the voyage, Alexander Buchan who worked mainly on recording views, people, and artifacts and Sydney Parkinson who worked on the scientific drawings of flora and fauna. Buchan died early on. The crew of the ship Endeavor collected plants during the day and Parkinson would produce rough sketches with color notes. In the evenings Solander and Banks studied, described, named and recorded where their specimens were collected, while Parkinson worked further on the drawings, following Solander’s instructions, highlighting which parts of the plants should be recorded with the most care for classification purposes. Over 500 of Parkinson’s drawings can be seen on the Natural History Museum’s website here. Parkinson died on the way back to England in 1771. Whether solander boxes were used on this trip or whether they were developed later at the British Museum isn’t known. Solander assumed his old post at the British Museum in 1771 and was then promoted to Keeper of Natural and Artificial Productions.
Daniel C. Solander 1733 – 1782
1733 Born in Piteå, in northern Sweden on 19 February 1733.
1750 Enrolls in Sweden’s University of Uppsala, with the idea of studying law before meeting Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus (1701 – 1778) whereupon he begins studying natural history and becomes one of Linnaeus’s top students.
1756 Edits Linnaeus’s Elementa Botanica.
1760 Linnaeus, asked in 1758 by English naturalists to send a student to aid their work, recommends Solander and he arrives in London in June 1760.
1762 Linnaeus recommends Solander for professorship in St. Petersburg, but Solander prefers staying in Britain.
1763 Appointed Assistant Librarian at the British Museum to catalogue nautral history collections (BM founded by Act of Parliament in 1753 and first exhibits and reading rooms open in 1759).
1764 Meets Joseph Banks and become lifelong friends. Elected Fellow of Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science.
1768 – 1771 Sails on the Endeavour to New Holland or Australia with Captain James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson and crew. Sail from England to Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tuamotu Islands, Society Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Batavia (Java), Cape Town and back to England.
1771 Becomes Banks’s Secretary and moves in with Banks.
1772 Travels with Joseph Banks to the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkneys, and Scottish Highlands.
1773 Reinstated at the British Museum and then promoted to Keeper in the Department of Natural and Artificial Productions.
1782 Suffers a stroke on 8 May 1782 and dies on 13 May 1782.