Joseph Sansom formed one of the first mineral collections in America, and inspired his nephew, William Sansom Vaux (1811-1882; q.v.) to build one of the finest mineral collections ever assembled in America. He was born in Philadelphia on 13 February 1767, the younger brother of William Sansom, a successful Philadelphia merchant after whom a street was later named. Joseph married Beulah Biddle (b. 1765) in 1798, but they never had children. He described himself as a "merchant" but thanks to his family's wealth he was able to devote himself entirely to travel, art, literature and science, and was a sophisticated antiquarian and connoisseur.
Being associated with the Society of Friends (Quakers), he disliked the "show and vanity" of painted portraiture, but was an excellent amateur silhouette artist. Working in black ink on paper, he produced silhouette portraits from life, of important Early American personalities such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. His travels took him to a Quaker-sponsored conference of the "Five Nations" (of Native Americans) in 1796, and in 1798 he began a three-year tour of Europe, followed almost immediately by a two year trip through Switzerland and Italy in 1801-1802. It may have been on these trips that he bacame interested in mineralogy and began buying specimens. In any case, he traveled and collected throughout his life, and was ultimately elected to the prestigious American Philosophical Society.
Joseph Sansom died October 4, 1826 in Philadelphia; according to Canfield (1923), his widow donated his mineral collection to Haverford College around 1832. Many of his personal papers and letters are preserved there as well.
CANFIELD, F.A. (1923) The final disposition of some American collections of minerals. Privately printed by the author, Dover, New Jersey; reprinted (1990) in Mineralogical Record, 21, 41-46.
SELLERS, C. C. (1964) Joseph Sansom, Philadelphia Silhouettist. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 88, 395-438.
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WILSON, Wendell E. (2019)
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portrait by Charles Willson Peale ca. 1804