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An Old Collection Becomes New Again: The J. Harry Howard Collection

As far as hobbies go, becoming a lapidarist might not be a bad way to go.  I can’t really think of a better way to spend your free time than cutting diamonds and fashioning cabochons (a cut and polished gemstone). Just think, you’d never need to come up with another gift idea again! Thanks to J. Harry Howard, a native of Greenville S.C. and the benefactor behind McKissick’s impressive gem collection, all your lapidary dreams can come true.

An example of Howard Collection Beryl, also known as an Aquamarine

An example of Howard Collection Beryl, also known as an Aquamarine

A sample of Corundum (Sapphire) from the Howard Collection

A sample of Corundum (Sapphire) from the Howard Collection

A lapidarist is someone who cuts, polishes and engraves precious stones from their original rough form. The lapidary arts are often practiced professionally, but in 1936 Howard wrote the first instructional handbook geared towards the amateur lapidarist. “The art for some reason,” Howard wrote, “has always been passed down from generation to generation by apprenticeship only.”[1] Through his book Howard sought to bring lapidary art to the public, creating a text which would be both instructive and interesting to lapidarists of all skill levels. Howard’s book, to this day, is the only text dedicated to the pursuit of the armature lapidarist.

Mr. Howard, who was an electrical engineer by profession, was a notable collector of gems and minerals. Starting his collection in the 1920’s, he amassed an impressive variety of almost every known type of gem. Throughout the late 1940’s and into the 1960’s the University of South Carolina pursued a fruitless effort to acquire Mr. Howard’s collection. The August 25, 1967 minutes of the of the USC Board of Trustees states that when the Colburn Mineral Collection was purchased by the University in 1945, it was thought that the Howard Collection would “compliment it and provide a broadly based museum which would be of interest both to the public and to students.” [2]

Mr. Howard passed away in 1962, and “although his collection included virtually every known variety of gemstone, it was seen by relatively few people during his lifetime. This was due in large extent to his great modesty about his own accomplishments.”[3] Despite Mr. Howard’s overwhelming modesty about his collection, it was expected by the University’s board of trustees that Mr. Howard’s widow, Louise Howard, would donate the collection to the University. According to the minutes, in 1967 the collection was valued between $50,000 and $100,000.  At the time, it had been the museum’s intention to put Mr. Howard’s collection on permanent display in its entirety, with specimens occasionally on exhibit in the Geology Museum.

Although the complete collection is not currently on display here at McKissick, specimens can still be viewed in our natural science exhibit, Natural Curiosities. However, there is more to the Howard Collection than just gems and cabochons. In 1970, the University was bequeathed the gift of Mr. Howard’s grinding and lapidary equipment.  Significantly, much of the equipment had been designed by Mr. Howard himself, and still forms the basic template of lapidary equipment that is in production today. A letter dated February 24, 1977 from Kenneth Toombs, then the University’s Director of Libraries, enclosed an appraisal on the portion of the Howard Collection which included the machinery, lapidary rough, and Howard’s books and periodicals. Interestingly, the letter refers to the lengthy time lapse between the acquisition and the appraisal, citing a move in McKissick’s location and the fact that “the University was closed for two weeks due to the energy shortage” as explanations for the delay.

As we pack up our off-site storage and prepare for the big move, the Howard Collection has become a major part of the IMLS grant team’s daily thought. While the gems and minerals are being carefully stored here at the museum, much of Howard’s machinery was placed in our off-site storage facility. As we continue to pack up, much of Howard’s possessions have been unearthed and rediscovered for a new generation of lapidarists.

Some of Howard’s collection, inclusive of both equipment and gems, will be on display in our upcoming exhibit, Hidden Treasures: Rediscovering McKissick Museum’s Natural History Collections. The exhibit will run this coming summer, from May 19- August 20 on the third floor lobby. While I can’t promise you’ll walk away ready to cut your own precious stones, you will get the rare opportunity to see natural crystals, faceted gems, and some of the equipment used to evaluate gems, and a glimpse into the work of the IMLS team. See you there!

Alyssa Constad
Curatorial Assistant


The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.


[1] J. Harry Howard, Revised Lapidary Handbook, (Greenville, South Carolina) 1946. 1.
[2] University of South Carolina, Board of Trustees, Meeting Minutes, August 25, 1967.
[3] Ben Smith Jr, Valuable Gem Collection Given to the University of South Carolina, Lapidary Journal (August) 1969. 734.

A Shepard of Meteorites & Minerals

Museum collections don’t hold their physical or intellectual value purely with the specimens themselves. Collections, of any sort, can reveal a wealth of information about both their own personal histories and the histories of the collector. Why were they collected? Who collected them? When were they collected, and what made them valuable? At McKissick Museum, our historic natural science collections are no different. Within this material, much of our focus is based around Thomas Cooper, the esteemed University of South Carolina president and the source of our collection. However, pieces of our historic collection also bear the mark of other great men, including Charles Upham Shepard.

Charles Upham Shepard

Charles Upham Shepard

Although Charles U. Shepard has no distinctive connection to the University of South Carolina, he did make a significant contribution to the collection.  In 1853, Dr. Richard Brumby, a Chemistry professor at what was then South Carolina College, purchased a number of minerals and meteorites from Dr. Shepard, who at the time was well known as one of America’s first distinguished mineralogists. A Rhode Island native, Charles U. Shepard spent a year studying at Brown University before transferring to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Upon graduation in 1824, Shepard spent a year studying and offering private chemistry lessons in Boston, until he joined the faculty at Yale in 1827. In 1833 Shepard moved to Charleston to teach at the South Carolina Medical College, where he remained until 1870. During his time in Charleston, Shepard discovered the value of South Carolina phosphate deposits.  In his later years, Shepard divided his time teaching both at his alma matter Amherst College, and SC Medical College in Charleston.  He died in Charleston in 1886.

Shepard's letter to Prof. Brumby, June 1853

Shepard’s letter to Prof. Brumby, June 1853

During Shepard’s time in South Carolina, it is feasible that he crossed paths with Professor Richard Brumby. Although we are unsure of the relationship between the two, we do know of communications and the transaction between Shepard and Brumby, through two well preserved documents. Over the past few weeks the team here has been hard at work transcribing the contents of a letter Shepard penned to Brumby, and a list of specimens intended for sale. In case reading 161 year old script isn’t your thing, the letter reads:

N. Haven, Conn June 22
Prof. Brumby

My Dear Sir,

I have at last completed the collection to be offered to your college, and I shall dispatch the box to-morrow by express.

I shall be pleased to hear of your decision as soon as convenient, although you can consult your pleasure respecting payment.  Three months from this, will equally suit me. The health of my family will probably require me to visit Engl’d again this summer.  If so, I shall sail on the 30th for London.  My address will simply be, London until Aug 7th.  I would be pleased however, if you could communicate your decision respecting the collection to my family here under my present address; + they will let me know in Engl’d.

The minerals sent, you will see, are among the rarest and most difficult to obtain (for the most part), although not handsome, or ∧often in large specimens.

Very truly & respectfully yours,

C U Shepard

Shepard’s offering consisted of 99 specimens, and he noted that “the meteorites are chosen so as to illustrate as far as possible all the leading varieties among these bodies…  The collection if taken, will make the Columbia cabinet the 2nd in point of numbers and variety in the U. States, in possession of any college.  The Yale is the first.”  Of the original 99 specimens, McKissick is still in possession of 72 specimens. Part of the mission of our current IMLS grant work is to identify these historic specimens, and ensure that they are properly cataloged and documented.  However, some specimens were lost in the midst of the Civil War, some were transferred to other institutions, and yet others simply misplaced in the bustle of the past 161 years, making our job easier said than done.

CUS inventory pg5

A page from Shepard’s original inventory list

In 1877 Shepard sold the majority of his personal collection (more than 25,000 specimens!) to Amherst College, though it was destroyed in a fire in 1882. He immediately began collecting again and, after his death, his son donated the collection in part to the Smithsonian, and again to Amherst College.  To see some of Shepard’s minerals, his letter (and crafty penmanship) for yourself, be sure to stop by the third floor of McKissick Museum and check out the Natural Curiosities gallery!

by Alyssa Constad
Curatorial Assistant


The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Thomas Cooper – A Collector of Minerals and Cornerstone of SC College

In 1819, from his office at the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson prepared a statement regarding the resignation of his close friend and fellow faculty member, Thomas Cooper.   “I do sincerely lament the loss of (Cooper) whom I had looked to as the cornerstone of our edifice.”  Cooper resigned without ever teaching a single class.  Powerful members on Virginia’s clergy forced his resignation.

Fortunately, the South Carolina College – later University of South Carolina – eventually lured the professor to Columbia, who as President served as our cornerstone during USC’s formative years, and who as mineral collector, would initiate one of the greatest mineralogical collections in the Nation, found today at the McKissick Museum.

Thomas Cooper was born in 1759 in London.  He attended Oxford where he studied Medicine and Law and collected minerals in the English countryside as a hobby.  He moved to Pennsylvania in 1793 and had a wide range of jobs before settling down as President of USC for twelve years commencing in 1821.  He befriended Thomas Jefferson during these early years in the United States.  Their correspondence reveals a shared similar political belief and common scientific pursuits.  Unfortunately he was not able to devote all his time to scientific pursuits.  Daniel Walker Hollis, in his 1951 history of the University of South Carolina explains how Cooper was a “devoted follower of Thomas Jefferson, whose cause he supported with such a trenchant pen that he was indicted under the Alien and Sedition Laws passed by the John Adams Administration.”[i]

Cooper held a variety of professorships in the Northeast before settling down in Columbia and serving as the college president.  He never lost interest in his hobby of hunting for minerals and the collection boasts a number of South Carolina gathered minerals.


MCKS # 3140 – Sample of Galena collected by Thomas Cooper in England.

The Mining McKissick blog is proud to reveal that there are currently 205 mineral specimens identified as collected by Thomas Cooper.  Identifying, cataloging and labeling a specimen as Cooper’s is extra special.  Perhaps yet-to-be cataloged mineral drawers will reveal more Cooper specimens in the second year of the IMLS Grant.  Fortunately, our thorough examination and cataloging is not wholly unprecedented.  Daniel Martin, an employee at USC embarked on a similar mission in 1902.  He noted that a previous professor, Richard T. Brumby, cataloged them with a “C” for the collector’s surname.  Martin further categorized them as; “Collected in Europe, prior to coming to the U.S.”; “Collected in Pennsylvania, chiefly, prior to coming to S.C. “; or “Collected hereabout, chiefly.”


Daniel Martin classified the Cooper Specimens by locality.

Thomas Cooper died in 1839 and is buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbia.  His headstone reads “ERECTED BY A PORTION OF HIS FELLOW CITIZENS, TO THE MEMORY OF THOMAS COOPER.”  Today, Thomas Cooper’s memory lives on in various ways at the University at South Carolina, including through the mineral collection at McKissick Museum!


[i] Hollis, Daniel W., University of South Carolina: Volume I. South Carolina College. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1951, pp 77

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.