William Henry Curtis, 1840-1903

by Brian Stevenson
last updated April, 2020

Many of W.H. Curtis’ slides are especially remarkable for his ornamental coverslips (Figure 1). He painted his name, address, and various patterns onto the underside of the coverslips, creating eye-catching slides. He also prepared slides with more standard techniques (Figure 2). Curtis was an amateur microscopist who appears to have exchanged his works with other enthusiasts, rather than selling them in quantity, which probably accounts for their relative scarcity. His published exchange requests suggest that Curtis began to seriously prepare slides in 1881, continuing until around 1888 (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Circa 1885 microscope slides of diatoms by W.H. Curtis. He painted his name, address, and decorations on the underside of his coverslips. A contemporary professional slide-maker, W.C. Walker of Utica, New York, similarly painted his coverslips. From the author’s collection or adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


Figure 2. A slide of stained anthers of morning glory flowers, with a type-set label from W.H. Curtis. Another label is underneath Curtis’, which indicates that this slide was actually prepared by William H. Pratt, a neighbor in Taunton, Massachusetts.


Figure 3. Top: The earliest known record of Curtis’ interest in microscopy, an April, 1881 exchange request that appeared in “The American Monthly Microscopical Journal”. Bottom: an 1888 exchange request from “The Microscope”.


William Henry Curtis was born on July 30, 1840, in Bradford, Massachusetts. His father, Edwin, worked in shoe manufacturing, as did many of their family and neighbors. William presumably received some education as a youth, as he later worked as a business clerk and treasurer. However, in 1860, the census listed the nineteen year-old’s occupation as “day laborer”.

The U.S. Civil War broke out in April, 1861. William joined the Massachusetts 47th Infantry Regiment on October 31, 1862. He may have been in poor health, as he was mustered out of the army after one week, on November 6. Curtis joined again on September 28, 1864, serving with the Massachusetts 58th Infantry through June 6, 1865. After the war’s end, Curtis was active in veterans affairs, serving for many years as adjutant and treasurer of his local branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veteran’s charity).

After leaving the army, Curtis returned home, settling in the nearby town of Haverhill. He took up work as a ticket agent for the Boston and Maine Railroad. In the early 1880s, he became treasurer of the Haverhill Gas Light Company, as position he kept until the end of his life.

Beginning in April, 1881, Curtis posted monthly requests to exchange microscope slides in The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (Figure 3). He did not place any requests prior to that date, suggesting that he had recently become a proficient slide-maker. Those requests offered “well-mounted diatoms”, evidently his specialty when preparing slides.

Curtis had broader interests, though. For example, he sent specimens of the clover mite, Bryobia pratensis, to the Smithsonian Institution in 1884.

American popular science magazines contain numerous references to Curtis’ diatom slides through the 1880s. In 1885, The American Monthly Microscopical Journal noted that a current box that was circulating in their postal microscopy club included “Diatoms from Island of Corsica (by) W.H. Curtis”. In 1886, The Microscope reported that “W.H. Curtis, of Haverhill, Mass., sends us a slide of Pleurosigma. The material is nicely cleaned and exquisitely mounted”. The Microscope received, in 1888, “from W.H. Curtis, Haverhill, Mass., a slide of diatoms of algae from Pacific coast”.

Those slides were probably decorated in manners similar to those shown in Figure 1. The American Monthly Microscopical Journal wrote in 1885, “Mr. W.H. Curtis has favored us with two neatly mounted preparations of diatoms; one a slide of five selected and arranged frustules of Arachnoidiscus, the other a mount of some fresh-water gathering. The diatoms are well cleaned and the mounting is well done, but highly ornamental. Between two fine rings of bright red color surrounding the specimens a white ring is made in which the preparer's name is written with a needlepoint. Outside of this, around the edge of the cover-glass are dots of red and blue. The ornamentation is of the same kind as that on slides prepared by Mr. W.C. Walker”.

I did not locate any exchange advertisements from Curtis after 1888.

Neither did I find indications that he was a member of a microscopical or other scientific society. Nonetheless, he shared his enthusiasm for microscopy in other ways. For example, in 1893 The Observer wrote, “ ‘Microscopical missionary’ is a happy phrase coined by ‘The Microscope’ while under the editorial charge of Dr. Stokes. The Haverhill, Mass., Gazette of a recent date, speaks of a talk on the microscope given by Mr. W.H. Curtis of that city, at the Home of the Woman's Union for Good Works, and we learn of a number of our readers, here and there, who are lending their microscopical talents to similar benevolent and popular purposes. Everybody who has learned to use the microscope is struck with the unfamiliarity of the world, so much at variance with preconceived ideas, to which the microscope introduces us. How best to give to microscopically untrained minds, in the limits of a single evening, either by talks or exhibitions, an adequate idea of any portion of the microscopical field, is a difficult problem. The more apparently simple the talk or exhibition, the greater amount of labor involved in its preparation. Lack of time for preparation prevents many microscopists from giving so instructive and inspiring a species of popular entertainment as evenings with the microscope. We invite those who have had experience as ‘microscopical missionaries’ to compare notes through ‘The Observer’, giving us methods and results. Some such concerted work among microscopists might make the microscope a better understood and more appreciated instrument than it now is”.

In 1890, Curtis was declared to be an “invalid” by the military, and began to receive a pension. Presumably, this was connected to his times in the Army during the Civil War.

Although Curtis does not appear to have joined a microscopical society, he did join other groups. In 1899, he was President of the Haverhill Camera Club. As noted above, he was very active in his veterans society. He was also a Mason.

William Curtis died on August 22, 1903, from “pulmonary congestion”, after 2 years of “cardiac dilation”.

Figure 4. Details of a strew of mixed diatoms from Pensacola, Florida, prepared by W.H. Curtis (Figure 1).



The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1881) Exchange offers from W.H. Curtis, Vol. 2, pages 80, 100, 120, 160, and 180

The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1885) Postal club boxes, Vol. 6, page 78

The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1885) Notes, Vol. 6, page 99

Death record of William Henry Curtis (1903) accessed through ancestry.com

Haverhill City Directory (1874) “Curtis William H., ticket agent B. & M. R.R., h. Arch, Mt. Washington

Haverhill City Directory (1878) “Curtis William H., ticket agent B. & M. R.R., house 222 Washington

Haverhill City Directory (1880) “Curtis William H., ticket agent B. & M. R.R., house 28 Pecker

Haverhill City Directory (1883) “Curtis William H., treasurer Haverhill Gas Light Co., 106 Merrimack, h. 28 Pecker

Haverhill City Directory (1887) “Curtis William H., treasurer Haverhill Gas Light Co., 106 Merrimack, h. 10 Fountain

Haverhill City Directory (1896) “Curtis William H., treasurer Haverhill Gas Light Co., 106 Merrimack, h. 31 Green

Haverhill City Directory (1899) “Curtis William H., 106 Merrimack, h. 212 Main

Haverhill City Directory (1900) “Curtis William H., clerk, 106 Merrimack, h. 212 Main

Haverhill Facts of Interest Concerning its Early History, its Soldiers in the Great Rebellion, its Grand Army, its Churches, Secret Societies, etc. etc. (1880) G.A.R. Major How Post 47, page 24

The International Annual of Anthony's Photographic Bulletin (1899) Haverhill Camera Club, Vol. 11, page 280

Journal of the Thirty-eighth Annual Encampment, Department of Massachusetts, Grand Army of the Republic (1904) “Major How Post 47, Haverhill … William H. Curtis: b Bradford, 1840; d Haverhill, Aug 22, 1903, of heart failure. Entered service Sept. 28, 1864, as Private in Co. B, 58th 111. Vols. Mustered out June 6, 1865”, Vol. 34, page 102

The Microscope (1886) Diatoms, Vol. 6, page 134

The Microscope (1888) Exchange offer from W.H. Curtis, Vol. 8, page 96

The Microscope (1888) Acknowledgements, Vol. 8, page 119

The Naturalists’ Directory (1883) “Curtis Wm. H., Box 66, Haverhill. Mic. Diatoms”, page 29

The Observer (1893) Microscopical Missionary, Vol. 4, page 353

U.S. Army records, Civil War, accessed through ancestry.com

U.S. census and other records, accessed through ancestry.com

Webster, F.M. (1912) The clover mite Bryobia pratensis Garman, “January 28, 1884, a microscopic slide containing these mites, taken from bees, was received from Prof. A. J. Cook, Lansing, Mich. February 8 of the same year specimens were received through the Smithsonian Institution from Mr. W.H. Curtis, Haverhill, Mass. In this case the mites were said to have appeared by thousands in May and again in November, remaining each time for four or five weeks. They were first observed on the bricks outside a residence, but afterwards made their way into the house”, Journal of Economic Entomology, Vol. 5, page 291