Mary Orvis was born in 1856, the year the company was founded, and was the only daughter among Charles Orvis’s four children. She had shown an early interest in flies, and Orvis had brought John Haily, an expert fly tyer, up from New York to teach her the art. Mary married John Marbury in 1874, but the marriage did not last, and they quickly separated. Sadly, their only child died in infancy. When the time came to find someone to take charge of the company’s expanded fly opportunities, Orvis had no hesitation in turning to Mary. With six female assistant fly tyers as her staff, she went to work in 1876 in the second story of the white clapboard company building, which still stands on Union Street in Manchester.12
To understand his market, and to help his market understand the company, Charles Orvis had the idea of corresponding with fishermen around the country. Hundreds of letters were sent asking the recipients to comment on their favorite flies for their regions of the country. An astounding 201 responses were received, from or with respect to thirty-eight states altogether, ranging from Maine to California, as well as Canada. These were carefully cataloged by Mary. They answered the questions asked, and more, for fishermen are a loquacious lot. Some, predictably, could not refrain from elaboration. W. David “Norman” Tomlin of Duluth, Minnesota, for instance, was soon into one of his favorite fish stories: “He ran out thirty yards of line before showing any sign of his size; as I checked him, he came to the surface, salaamed, and started on a new gait . . . ”13
Mary presided over the process that--as Charles Orvis had hoped-- incorporated these correspondents into an extended fly-fishing family. C. S. Wells of Victoria, Texas, shrewdly anticipated the end product when he said, “Your idea of collecting information in regard to the use of flies in different sections is a good one, as, if the material thus received is compiled and published, it will be very interesting reading for anglers.”14
Compiled and published it was, in book form under Mary’s thoughtful and artistic supervision. It was, and remains, a masterpiece. Favorite Flies and Their Histories first appeared in 1892, the year the Exposition was supposed to open, and went through eight more printings by 1896 (and two more since then). It cataloged with historical and technical precision 233 trout and salmon fly patterns and an additional 58 bass patterns. It is widely held that the book, more than anything else, both standardized fly patterns and set the standards for future development.15 What gives the book its special and lasting appeal are the thirty-two color plates of fly illustrations in vivid chromolithography. The flies, tied under Mary’s supervision and used as models for these illustrations, are carefully preserved today at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. They alone are worth the trip. Their discovery by Paul Schullery deserves retelling.
One day, not long after my arrival at the American Museum of Fly Fishing as its new director, I was exploring some of the shelves of the collection’s storage room. I came across a large, handsomely made but obviously aged box=cedar it appeared to be=that didn’t seem to be a tackle box or any other type I might have recognized. Carefully lifting the hinged top, I saw what seemed to be the top end of dozens of small mortised picture frames. Each end had written on it, by hand, some phrase, such as bass dd or trout q. When I slid one from the box, I saw one of the, if not the, greatest treasures in the history of American fly fishing: the original flies, mounted in appropriate order, from which the chromolithographs in Mary’s book had been made.16
It was a natural progression for the Orvis Company to become an exhibitor at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Space had been specifically reserved for tackle manufacturers in the west polygon of the Fisheries Building. Besides, publication of Favorite Flies and Their Histories had given Orvis a new level of national prominence, and there could be no better place from which to exploit that than the Exposition in the City of Light. The Orvis exhibit would, of course, include and feature Mary’s elegant flies.
The exhibit consisted of wood-framed panels containing fishing photographs mounted on both sides. Each panel, measuring approximately 29½ inches tall by 24 inches wide, included a selection of meticulously tied Orvis flies. The panels were mounted vertically, in groups, and were hinged around a central post or spine and turned for viewing as one would turn the pages of a book. Forty of these are preserved at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and they are displayed as twenty two-sided panels, ten over ten.17 Generally, each panel contains region-specific photographs and flies, but this is not uniform, and some contain photographs and flies from several regions. The photographs, enhanced by handwritten captions, are all more than one hundred years old. They are fading now. Not all were of high quality by modern standards to begin with, but allowances must be made for the state of the art at that time. Notwithstanding, some are striking and represent the high state of naturalist photography in the 1890s. In all, fifteen photographers have been identified, including William Henry Jackson and Seneca Ray Leonard. Their professional addresses range from Bangor, Maine, to San Francisco, California, giving a sense of the range and popularity of fly fishing at that time.