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Edward Sylvester Morse Papers, 1858-1953, 1978-1985, 2003, undated

Identifier: E 2

Scope and Content Note

The Edward Sylvester Morse papers consist of personal and professional papers, including diaries, correspondence, research files, drawings, lecture notes, publications, scrapbooks, and manuscripts. They document the numerous and valuable contributions made by Morse to the areas of malacology, zoology, ethnology, archeology, and art history. The range and depth of his interests are reflected in the complexity of the papers. Included are diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence, research files, drawings, manuscripts, publications, and teaching materials. Morse utilized his artistic abilities to illustrate his research as well as daily observations and correspondence. The collection has been arranged into fifteen series. Materials are primarily in English, though there is a large quantity of Japanese materials, and a small amount of Chinese, German, and French material.

Series I. Correspondence consists of family, general, and professional correspondence dating from 1853 to 1925. The majority of correspondence located in scrapbooks and elsewhere in the collection has been photocopied and integrated in this series. Particularly fragile correspondence has not been photocopied and may be found in the Scrapbooks series (III).

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 is revealed in correspondence between Morse and William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, and Charles Goddard Weld. Through his influence and encouragement, Morse contributed to the systematic preservation of Japanese material culture and oriental art history.

Series II. Diaries covers the years 1856-1913, and includes travel diaries from Japan and Europe. 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 displacement 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.

Series III. Scrapbooks was compiled and organized by Margarette M. Brooks, Morse's secretarial assistant from 1878 until 1925. Items in books titled "Personal Notices" include photographs, sketches, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and memorabilia. Brooks continued to update the scrapbooks during Morse's absences with materials sent to her from Japan and Europe. Some reprints of publications not found in the Publications series (VIII) may be found in this series.

Series IV. Natural History 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 filled with his notes. Of interest is a memorandum dated January 14, 1871, in which Morse states his disagreement with Agassiz on the classification of brachiopoda and Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Series V. Archeology Field Work documents Morse's work at the Omori Shell Mound. 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.

Series VI. Ethnology is divided into three subseries. Subseries A. Japan 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. Documentation of his university tenure is sparse. 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. Much of the series is written in Japanese. Subseries B. China contains similar materials, focusing on arrow-pullers, Korea, and roof tiling observations. Much of this series is written in Chinese. Subseries C. Museums contains floor plans and notes on museums Morse visited while abroad, primarily in Europe.

Series VII. 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 masks, and information pertaining to the hereditary families of potters. Kwan Ko Dzu Setsu (Illuminated Discourse on Ancient Objects) by Morse's mentor, Noritane Ninegawa, as well as other monographs relating to Japanese pottery, have been translated and transcribed by hand.

Series VIII. Publications demonstrates Morse's prolific and versatile research on a variety of subjects. In addition to some fifty scientific papers relating to mollusca and brachiopoda, he produced numerous monographs of Asian ethnology and art, zoology, archeology, 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 at Tokyo. Observations of Living Brachiopoda from the "Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History" can be found in the library's print collection.

Series IX. Lectures includes notes and materials arranged topically. Through the popular Lowell Institute of Boston lecture series in 1882, Morse was able to introduce his American audience to 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 academic as well as popular audiences.

Series X. Inventions documents 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. Series XI. Materials Collected by Morse includes secondary source materials collected by Morse throughout his life. Topics reflect his numerous interests and include vivisection, evolution, museum arrangement, and child prodigies. The series includes newspaper clippings, monographs, pamphlets, and Morse's notes and sketches.

Series XII. Financial includes a meticulous record of Morse's financial accounts. In the 1868 account book Morse kept a thorough register of where he delivered lectures and the remuneration 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. Much of this series is recorded in Japanese. Series XIII. Noise Abatement reflects Morse's interest in urban reform, specifically in the area of the control of unnecessary noise. In addition to writing several articles on the topic, he was instrumental in the passage of a 1907 Massachusetts law restricting the use of steam whistles and sirens. Materials and notes collected by Morse for his research on noise abatement include publications of various civic organizations such as the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.

Series XIV. Biographical and Personal includes genealogical material and published biographical information concerning Morse's professional activities. Correspondence and the diaries of his wife, Ellen Owen Morse, and some letters written by his children, Edith and John, may be found in this series. Correspondence relating to the disposition of his estate is located with the correspondence of his daughter, Edith Morse Robb. Also included are transcripts of Morse's journals, and the draft(s) of Dorothy G. Wayman's biography of Morse.

Series XV. Miscellaneous offers evidence of Morse's gregarious nature through his participation in numerous social and professional clubs. Of particular interest are the receipts and invitations pertaining to the Tavern Club, an exclusive Boston men's club. Also included in this series is correspondence relating to Morse, and works that Morse was cited in, both in English and Japanese.

Series XVI. Peabody Museum contains materials produced by and relating to the Peabody Museum, including items bought and shipped by the museum, news clippings about the museum, lists of items in the museum's library, and correspondence.

Series XVII. Photographs contains photographs of Morse throughout the years, his associates, family members, and places he worked. There are other photographs interspersed throughout the collection; however, the bulk of the photographs, removed from albums are located in this series.


  • Creation: 1858-1953, 1978-1985, 2003, undated


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Biographical Sketch

Edward Sylvester Morse was born to Jane Seymour Beckett and Jonathan Kimball Morse on June 18, 1838, in Portland, Maine. As a child, he exhibited a precocious artistic talent and an enthusiastic interest in nature. Morse's skill for scientific observation and classification was recognized and encouraged by his headmaster at Bethel Academy who introduced him to members of the Boston Society of Natural History. Impatient with his academic routine, Morse left school at age sixteen and pursued his independent studies. In November 1856, his first scientific paper was read before the Boston Society. The subject was Helis astericus, a minute land snail discovered by Morse in his native Maine woods.

During the following three years he worked for the Portland Company Locomotive Works as a mechanical draftsman. In 1859, Morse was recommended and accepted as assistant to zoologist Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard College. Enrolled as a special student, Morse spent the next three years developing his scientific investigative skills.

Morse left Harvard in 1861 due in part to the divergent opinions he and Agassiz held in regards to Darwinian evolutionary theory. He occupied the following five years as a freelance scientific illustrator and lecturer. His informal and witty presentation combined with a talent for executing rapid blackboard illustrations with either hand made him a popular speaker. In 1863, Morse married Ellen Elizabeth Owen with whom he had two children, Edith Owen, born December 1864, and John, born August 1870.

In 1866, Morse was appointed Curator of Mollusks at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. Arrangements were made in 1867 for the permanent deposit of the Institute's natural history and ethnological collections with the East India Marine Society. Morse resigned his curatorship in 1871 to accept the appointment of professor of comparative anatomy and zoology at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. He retained this post for three years while concurrently employed as a lecturer at Harvard.

In 1860, Louis Agassiz used the primitive brachiopod as an example of the immutability of animal forms. Conversely, Morse hypothesized that a comparison of modern brachiopoda with fossil species would demonstrate the veracity of the theory of evolutionary development. Morse's research produced a major scientific paper in 1873 in which he theorized that brachiopoda were, contrary to traditional taxonomy, marine worms with shells, not mollusks. To support his hypothesis and substantiate the Darwinian theory of natural selection, Morse began an ambitions and systematic investigation of brachiopoda.

Due to the scarcity of specimens of Atlantic seaboard, Morse traveled to Japan in 1877 where it was believed thirty or forty varieties of brachiopoda existed south of Tokyo in the Sagami Bay. The Japanese Meiji government, impressed by Morse's scientific knowledge and enthusiasm, granted him permission to establish a marine laboratory at Enoshima and persuaded him to accept the chair in zoology at the recently established Imperial University of Tokyo. Morse briefly returned to the United States before undertaking his university assignment.

During his tenure from 1877 to 1879, Morse introduced significant scientific methodologies and doctrines to the nascent Japanese scientific community. His preeminent contributions include modern methods of collecting and classifying objects of natural history, the Darwinian theory of evolutionary development, and archeological methodology as a result of his discovery and excavation of the Neolithic shell mounts at Omori.

During the autumn of 1878, Morse purchased a common ceramic dish shaped like a pecten shell. This chance acquisition sparked his interest in Japanese pottery and was the catalyst for his subsequent major ceramic collection. In 1890, his extensive pottery collection of more than 5,000 pieces was deposited on loan at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and was purchased by the museum two years later. At that time, Morse was appointed Keeper of Japanese Pottery, an office he held until his death. In 1880, after having returned to Salem, Massachusetts, Morse was made Director of the Peabody Museum, a position he held until 1916, when he was named Director-Emeritus. A liberal leave of absence enabled Morse to return to Japan in 1882, and devote himself to the observation and description of Japanese culture. His ethnological investigations produced Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (1886) and Japan Day by Day (1917). Additionally, Morse assembled a major ethnological collection documenting the vanishing feudal Tokugawa civilization for the Peabody Museum of Salem. Morse's participation in the Lowell Institute lecture series of 1881-1882 and 1883-1884 provided an additional forum from which he spoke on all aspects of Japanese culture to the American public.

During the last twenty-five years of his life, Morse became involved in a myriad of subjects which were peripheral to his earlier scientific work. In addition to Asian art and ethnology, his interests included the observation of the "canals" on the planet Mars and their implication for life, the study of arrow release among different cultures, and the suppression of unnecessary noise in the modern urban environment. Morse died December 20, 1925, in Salem, Massachusetts, at the age of eighty-seven.

Chronology of Life Events

1838 Born, June 18, Portland, Maine

1856 Discovery of Helix astericus reported to the Boston Society of Natural History

1859-1862 Special student and assistant to Louis Agassiz, Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard College

1863 Marriage to Ellen Elizabeth Owen

1866-1871 Curator of Mollusks, Essex Institute

1870-1871 Lecturer, Maine State College at Orono

1871-1874 Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Zoology, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

1872-1873 Lecturer, Harvard College

1873 Publication of The Systematic Position of the Brachiopoda

1873-1874 Instructor, Penikese Island Summer School

1876 Elected member of National Academy of Sciences 1877 Established first marine biological laboratory in the Pacific at Enoshima, Japan

1877-1879 Professor of Zoology, Imperial University, Tokyo, Japan

1878 Begins extensive collection of Japanese pottery; becomes a student of Noritane Ninegawa

1880-1916 Director, Peabody Academy of Science, Salem, Massachusetts

1882-1883 Travels to Japan with Asian art collector William Sturgis Bigelow; continues to China, France, and England

1885 Publication of Japanese Homes and their Surroundings

1886 Elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

1898 Receives Order of the Rising Sun from Emperor Meiji

1901 Publication of Catalogue of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery

1892-1925 Keeper of Japanese Pottery, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

1916-1925 Director-Emeritus, Peabody Museum of Salem

1917 Publication of Japan Day by Day

1922 Receives Order of the Sacred Treasure from Emperor Taisho

1925 Died, December 20, Salem, Massachusetts


55.25 linear feet (111 boxes)

Language of Materials



The Edward Sylvester Morse papers consist of personal and professional papers, including diaries, correspondence, research files, drawings, lecture notes, publications, scrapbooks, and manuscripts.

Series List

SERIES I. Correspondence

  • A. Incoming
  • B. Outgoing
SERIES II. Diaries
  • A. Miscellaneous Diaries
  • B. Japan Diary
  • C. European Diaries
SERIES III. Scrapbooks

SERIES IV. Natural History

SERIES V. Archaeology Field Work

SERIES VI. Ethnology
  • A. Japan
  • B. China
  • C. Museums
SERIES VII. Japanese Pottery SERIES VIII. Lectures
  • A. Miscellaneous Lecture Materials
  • B. Lowell Institute Lectures
SERIES IX. Publications
  • A. Articles
  • B. Monographs
    • 1. Miscellaneous/Unpublished
    • 2. "Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings"
    • 3. "Catalogue of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery"
    • 4. "Observations on Living Brachiopoda"
    • 5. "Mars and Its Mystery"
    • 6. "Japan Day by Day"

SERIES X. Inventions

SERIES XI. Materials Collected by Morse

SERIES XII. Financial Records

SERIES XIII. Noise Abatement

SERIES XIV. Biographical and Personal

SERIES XV. Miscellaneous

SERIES XVI. Peabody Museum

SERIES XVII. Photographs

Physical Location

Phillips Library Stacks


The Edward Sylvester Morse Papers were given to the Peabody Museum in 1926. One box of material related to Kil-Chun Yu was donated in 1883 (accession #1,560). One letter from Kil-Chun Yu was donated (accession #1509). One album of newspaper clippings was donated by M. M. Brooks (accession #8421). A book, Conchologia Cestrica by William D. Hartman and Ezra Michener, was donated (accession #8244).An honorary diploma from the Governor Dummer Academy to Kil-Chun Yu was donated by the Governor's Academy in 2003. Materials relating to Charles G. Weld were removed from the collection and put into E 55.

A number of items were donated by Mrs. Peter Whyte on November 2, 1962 (Acc 16,016). Items with accession number 2009.024 written on them were returned to the library in July 1997, after being on loan to the Museum. Correspondence from Morse to Mr. Bailey, donated April 17, 1883, was donated by Whitman Bailey on July 19, 1948.



Barnes, Robert D. Invertebrate Zoology. Philadelphia: Saunders College, 4th ed., 1980.

The Boston Society of Natural History, 1830-1930. Boston: Printed for the Society, 1930.

Chisolm, Lawrence W. Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963. Dexter, Ralph W. "The Cuvier Natural History Society of Salem." Essex Institute Historical Collections. 96(2). 149-155, 1960.

Gould, Augustus A. Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts. Boston: Wright and Potter, 1870.

Hickman, Money and Peter Fetchko. Japan Day by Day: An Exhibition Honoring Edward Sylvester Morse and Commemorating the Hundredth Anniversary of His Arrival in Japan in 1877. Salem: Peabody Museum of Salem, 1977.

Museum of Fine Arts. Asiatic Art in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982.

Wayman, Dorothy G. Edward Sylvester Morse. A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Whitehill, Walter Muir. Museum of Fine Arts Boston: A Centennial History. 2v. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970.

Related Collections

Anna B. Shepley Omori Papers, 1904- circa 1940, E 1

C. G. Weld Papers, E 55

Dorothy G. Wayman Papers, 1939, E 49

Margarette W. Brooks Papers, 1870-1890, E 10

Stephen Willard Phillips Papers, 1893-1950, E 3

Processing Information

Collection processed by Jessica Goldzweig, Elizabeth Craig-McCormack, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, March 1986. Updated by Catherine Robertson, Hilary Streifer, September 2014, July 2019.

EDWARD SYLVESTER MORSE PAPERS, 1858-1953, 1978-1985, 2003
Processed by: Jessica Goldzweig, Elizabeth Craig-McCormack, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall; Updated by: Catherine Robertson, Hilary Streifer; machine-readable finding aid created by: Rajkumar Natarajan.
Language of description
Script of description
Processing and conservation of this collection in 1986 was funded by a grant from Skogakukan of Tokyo, Japan.

Repository Details

Part of the Phillips Library Repository

Peabody Essex Museum
306 Newburyport Turnpike
Rowley MA 01969 USA