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The Edward Sylvester Morse Collection from the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem

Consultant Editors include:

Robert Rosenstone (California Institute of Technology)

Source Libraries:

The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem

Nature of the Material:

Unique manuscript material relating to Edward S Morse (1838-1925), much of which documents life in Japan before its Westernization. The papers are arranged in twelve main series:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Scrapbooks
  • Natural History
  • Archaeology Field Work
  • Ethnology (Japan, China, Museums)
  • Japanese Pottery
  • Lectures
  • Publications (Articles and Monographs)
  • Inventions
  • Materials Collected by Morse
  • Financial Records

All of the material has been indexed (with reference to people, places and topics) and there is a detailed listing as well as an index of correspondents. None of the material has been published in microfilm or digital form before.

Scope of the Collection:

“It is splendid that the Papers of Edward S Morse are now being made available in digital form. He was a crucial figure in the initial engagement between Japan and America and his papers will be of great interest not only to scholars of East Asia but also Americanists concerned with their nation's early contacts with the Far East."

Professor Robert Rosenstone,

Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology

Edward S Morse (1838-1925) is notable for his work in natural history, ethnography and art history, but perhaps is most famous for his work in bringing Japan and the West closer together.

Morse was one of the first Americans to live in Japan. He went there on a scientific expedition in 1877 and his enthusiasm and approach so impressed his hosts that he was made Chair of Zoology at the new Imperial University of Tokyo. But his interests were never limited to evolutionary theory and scientific methodology – in 1882 he turned his attention to ethnology and the documentation of life in Japan before it was transformed by Western modernization. In addition to preserving the household records of a samurai family and many accounts of the tea ceremony, Morse made notes on subjects as diverse as shop signs, fireworks, hairpins, agricultural tools, artists’ studios, music, games, printing, carpentry, the Ainu, gardens, household construction, art and architecture.

An accomplished draughtsman, his pencil and ink drawings, enliven his diaries and correspondence and make his papers a pleasure to read.

He was also a great collector – his Japanese pottery collection is still a prized possession of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and his ethnological specimens form the core of the oriental holdings at the Peabody, where he was Director from 1880 to 1916.

He published some of his findings in Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (1886) and Japan Day by Day (1916), but there is so much more material in his archive, now awaiting the researcher. For instance:

  • The original Japan diaries run to over 3,000 pages and contain over 1,300 sketches.
  • Journals of visits to England, France and Germany in the 1880s show the interest of Europeans in gaining authentic insights into ordinary life in Japan and China.
  • The correspondence includes exchanges with Alexander and Louis Agassiz, William Sturgis Bigelow, Charles Darwin, Ernest Fenollosa, Yukichi Fukuzawa, Isabella Stewart Gardner, John M Gould, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ernest Ingersoll, Hiroyuki Kato, Percival Lowell, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Charles Eliot Norton, Frederick Putnam, Hideo Takamine, Seiichi Tejima, Charles Townsend, Charles Weld and Yu Kil-chun.
  • Scrapbooks contain a wealth of rare and ephemeral material on a myriad of subjects.
  • Records of his publications and lectures reveal his interests in archaeology, art, astronomy, ethnology, religion and zoology, as well as his desire to encourage an American audience to appreciate Asian society and culture.

This collection will be of great interest not only to scholars of East Asian Studies, but also to those studying Art History, Ethnography, Natural History and the history of U.S.-Japanese relations.


The CORRESPONDENCE series consists of family, general and professional correspondence dating from 1862 to 1925. Correspondence between Morse and members of the American and international scientific community is extensively documented. Among the prominent scientific correspondents are members of Morse’s class at Harvard: Addison E. Verrill, Alpheus Hyatt, and Frederick W. Putnam. Correspondence between Morse and astronomer Percival Lowell documents their thirty year friendship and scientific collaboration on the study of Mars.

Correspondence between Morse and John M. Gould offers a rich account of their long friendship. The letters form a continuous, detailed and intimate record which is interrupted only during the period of Gould’s enlistment in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Morse was instrumental in introducing prominent collectors to Japanese art and culture as revealed in correspondence between Morse and William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa and Charles Weld. Through his influence and encouragement, Morse contributed to the systematic preservation of Japanese material culture and oriental art history.

Morse was a dedicated diarist as is evident from the abundance of material in the DIARIES series. The series covers the years 1856-1863 with brief entries for the years 1866-1867, and include travel diaries from Japan and Europe in 1877, 1882-1883 and 1887-1889. All the diaries are extensively illustrated.

The journal which he kept from 1856 to 1863 provides an excellent record of Morse’s years as a student and assistant to Louis Agassiz. Of interest are humorous sketches of members of the “Agassiz Zoological Club,” an informal organization formed by Morse and his fellow students. In his entry of January 1, 1860, Morse notes his academic improvements over the past year and dedicates the remainder of his life to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The supersedence of Japan’s feudal culture by Western modernization is documented in the journal kept by Morse during his 1882 ethnological expedition to the Orient. His copious notes and abundant sketches were used to produce books on Japanese architecture and customs, the most notable being his 1917 publication Japan Day By Day.

The SCRAPBOOK series was compiled and organized by Margarette W Brooks, Morse’s secretarial assistant from 1878 to 1925. Items in books titled “Personal Notices” include photographs, sketches, newspaper clippings, correspondence and memorabilia. Letters from Morse to his parents, drawings and scientific articles he collected as a youngster are organized in “Personal Notices, ca. 1859-1894.” Brooks continued to update the scrapbooks during Morse’s absences with materials sent to her from Japan and Europe.

The NATURAL HISTORY series includes notebooks of Morse’s boyhood shell cabinet, school essays, lecture notes from Harvard College, illustrations produced for conchologist William G Binney, extensive notes and sketches relating to mollusca and research for a proposed textbook entitled Zoology of New England. Included are secondary research materials collected by Morse and filed with his notes. Of interest is a memorandum dated January 14, 1871, in which Morse states his disagreement with Agassiz on the classification of brachiopda and Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Morse’s archaeological work at the Omori Shell Mound is richly documented in the ARCHAEOLOGY FIELD WORK series. Included are an abundance of sketches and detailed drawings of pottery fragments, extensive notes on his findings, and secondary source research materials. There is also a folder of undated sketches of aboriginal tools from Goose Island, Maine.

The ETHNOLOGY series offers documentation of the years Morse resided in Japan as Professor of Zoology at the Imperial University of Tokyo and his 1882 ethnological expedition funded by the Trustees of the Peabody Museum of Salem. Included are student papers and his teaching contract. Morse’s sketches and notes reflect his eclectic curiosity. They include examples of shop signs, fireworks, hairpins, agricultural tools and views of Noritane Ninegawa’s studio.

Morse’s numerous interests are revealed in the materials he collected. He perceived the exigency of documenting life in Japan before it was transformed by western modernization. Included are tea ceremony records, genealogies and architectural drawings.

Materials relating to the “Catalogue of Ethnological Objects” include a handwritten list of 821 items collected by Morse in Japan and shipped in 1882 to the Peabody Museum of Salem.

The series JAPANESE POTTERY documents the acquisition of Morse’s personal collection of prehistoric and modern Japanese pottery and his curatorial appointment at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Included in this series is correspondence pertaining to the publication of the Catalogue of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery, notes and sketches relating to the identification of pottery marks, and information pertaining to the hereditary families of potters. Kwan Ko Dzu Setsu (Illuminating Discourse in Ancient Objects) by Morse’s mentor, Noritane Ninagawa, as well as other monographs relating to Japanese pottery, have been translated and transcribed by hand.

Morse was a prolific and versatile researcher as is evident from the variety of subjects found in the PUBLICATIONS series. In addition to his natural history writings, he produced numerous monographs on Asian ethnology and art, zoology, archaeology, astronomy, and religion. Related correspondence is filed with the article or monograph. “Traces of An Early Race in Japan” (1879), describes Morse’s identification and excavation of the group of Neolithic shell mounds at Omori. The results of the systematic study of the Omori site were published in “Shell Mounds of Omori” (1879), the first publication of the Science Department of the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Notes and materials in the LECTURES series are arranged topically and are undated with the exception of the Lowell Institute of Boston lecture series of 1882. Through these popular lectures Morse was able to introduce to his American audience an appreciation of oriental society and culture. Earlier undated lectures may reflect his itinerant teaching and his efforts to introduce Darwinian evolutionary theory and other scientific topics to academics as well as popular audiences.

Materials in the INVENTIONS series document Morse’s patented and unpatented inventions during the years 1860 to 1886. Included are sketches, research notes and data relating to the application of solar heat for warming and ventilating living spaces.

Of note in the MATERIALS COLLECTED BY MORSE series is a group of secondary source materials apparently collected by Morse to be used as an information file. Topics reflect his numerous interests and include vivisection, evolution, museum arrangement and child prodigies. The series includes newspaper clippings, monographs and pamphlets, as well as Morse’s notes and sketches.

Morse retained a meticulous record of his financial accounts as documented in the FINANCIAL series. In “Account book: 1868” Morse kept a thorough register of where he delivered lectures and the re-numeration received during the period 1861 to 1870. This series also provides information on purchases made by Morse in Japan for the Peabody Museum as well as for his private collection of oriental pottery.

Taken together these sources will greatly enrich our knowledge of Japanese culture during an important transitional period. There is also interesting material relating to China and Korea.

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