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William J. Knowlton

William J. Knowlton was born in Massachusetts in 1846, the son of Mary and William N. Knowlton, a prosperous stone contractor in Rockport, Massachusetts. He was probably first exposed to rocks and minerals through his father's business. The 1877 edition of the Naturalist's Directory shows that Knowlton joined forces with mineralogist Charles Gilman Brewster (1832-1880), and the two operated their "Natural History Store" from no. 18 Arch Street, Boston. They offered "Fine Minerals, Rare Shells, Birds & Animals mounted & in the skin." (Brewster had started the business in 1859, and is listed as a dealer in natural history specimens in the 1864 Boston City Directory and the 1865 Naturalist's Directory.).

"Brewster & Knowlton" are listed in the 1878 Boston City Directory, but the partnership must have ended by 1879, when The Naturalist's Directory lists them separately, Brewster at Box 872 and Knowlton at 168 Tremont Street (Brewster's old shop address). In 1880, according to census records, Brewster was still in Boston and listed as a taxidermist living on Forrest Street; Brewster died on June 11 of that year, at the young age of 47.

Knowlton continued the business for some years at their Tremont Street address, and is listed in the 1880 Naturalist's Directory, wherein he declared his company to have been "established in 1859," and to be "successor to Brewster & Knowlton." He offered a "large, full and choice selection of minerals," and stated:

"I have recently added by purchase the entire stock and business belonging to the late C.G. Brewster, No. 304 Washington Street, including his private collection of Shells and Minerals. In the Department of Mineralogy I have a superior collection of choice crystallized and massive minerals, in sizes ranging from those suitable for public museums (making large, showy specimens a prominent feature) to the small specimens used for testing by the blow-pipe. Cabinets accurately labelled and arranged; also minerals determined; thorough and complete analysis being made if desired."

In the 1883 Boston City Directory Knowlton is listed as proprietor of a "natural history store." In that year he sold his extensive zoological inventory to A.L. Ellis & Company's Naturalist's Supply Depot, in order to focus exclusively on minerals and precious stones. Thus in 1884 he is listed as an "expert and dealer in precious stones and minerals." His labels show this change; those dating to 1878-1883 say "Natural History Store," whereas those dating from 1883 to 1892 or later say "Gems and Minerals." The city directory for 1890 lists him as a dealer in diamonds, precious stones and minerals.

Knowlton later developed financial problems, and was arrested in 1892 for fraud. According to an article in The New York Times dated April 8:

"Maiden Lane acquired some costly information about American tin yesterday when it became known among the jewelry and precious stone merchants of the narrow thoroughfare that the financial troubles of William J. Knowlton, diamond dealer of Boston, were due to his investments in an alleged tin mine somewhere in Virginia. Knowlton was arrested Wednesday in Boston on the charge of obtaining, by false pretenses on Feb. 17, $1,353 worth of precious stones from Michael Fox & Co., Maiden Lane, this city...then resold them the same day for $650. [Other] claims [against Knowlton] aggregate to about $27,000... According to one of his creditors, Knowlton went in with a syndicate which proposed to buy and develop an alleged tin mine in Virginia. It is said there is a vein of tin in sight 5 feet 10 inches thick, worth $200,000. None of it has come out of the ground as yet, and the syndicate [the Boston Tin Mining Company] is said to be about to abandon its scheme."

BARROW, M.V. (2000) The specimen dealer; entrepreneurial natural history in America's gilded age. Journal of the History of Biology, 33 (3), 493-534.
U.S. Federal Census, 1860, 1870.
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2019)
Mineralogical Record
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The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton Brewster & Knowlton ad from the 1877 edition of the Naturalist's Directory
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 41 x 65 mm; Brewster & Knowlton label (before 1877 to 1878)
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 42 x 67 mm; Brewster & Knowlton label (before 1877 to 1878)
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 1882 ad for W. J. Knowlton in the Boston Directory
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 1884 ad for W. J. Knowlton in the Boston City Directory
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 14 x 20 mm, a small glue-on specimen label (1878-after 1891)
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 48 x 73 mm, "Natural History Store" (1878-1883)
The Mineralogical Record - William J. Knowlton 46 x 71 mm, "Natural History Store" (1878-1883)
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