Wallace’s lost chest, circa 1848

When Bill Wallace, great grandson of famed naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, was growing up, he would put on his great grandfather’s hat and finger a cabinet that his family considered “a bit of a shrine to Wallace,” Bill recalls. By that time, the family had sold most of Wallace’s collections, but had kept the cabinet—one of two that housed the naturalist’s specimens. The cabinet depicted below, now displayed at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, may be the other.

Images: R. Heggestad

The rosewood cabinet was discovered some 40 years ago as unclaimed baggage in a customs warehouse in Philadelphia. The clear Victorian handwriting on the labels, specimens, and other objects found in the cabinet link it to Wallace, historians believe.

1. The cabinet was built to a collector’s specifications, said David Grimaldi, a curator at the AMNH. To keep unwanted...

2. The careful arrangement of specimens show the subtle variation in the wing patterns within a species, suggesting that this chest was prepared as a teaching tool. “Nice wooden [cabinets] with drawers and doors were intended for favored and special collections,” wrote Grimaldi.

3. Wallace described in detail the characteristics and range of his specimens. The swallowtail (Papilio agamemnon) is “the best example” of a species that varies so drastically that it has often been classified as separate species, Wallace wrote in one of his scholarly works.

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