[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

Peale’s Museum, from The Child’s First Book of History
by Samuel Goodrich (1832)

Charles Willson Peale founded his museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1786. It contained an eclectic collection of natural history specimens, portraits of admirable historical figures, and human artifacts from various countries—all intended to edify visitors and to show the place of human beings as part of the animal kingdom.

His most famous display, however, was the mastodon skeleton he obtained in 1801. Eleven feet high at the shoulder and fifteen feet from chin to rump, it was huge and strange and confusing: was it carnivorous? Was it an elephant? If so, what were elephants doing in North America? There were a lot of questions to be answered about the “Great American Incognitum.”

So it’s no wonder that when Samuel Griswold Goodrich described Philadelphia in The Child’s First Book of History, he included a brief description of the museum and a picture of the mastodon skeleton on display. In his quest to provide entertaining and educational books for children, he quickly realized that those books needed to be illustrated. This was especially important when describing something like the mastodon, so bizarre that young readers would have difficulty visualizing it. Other writers had included mammoths or mastodons in their works, but Goodrich managed to show what they looked like.

Well, sort of. The image is tiny (two inches wide and 1.5 inches tall) and the skeleton is almost lost in the background. It’s tuskless, and, to the modern reader, the head is oddly misshapen. But the illustration certainly gets across its point: the skeleton is huge—the human visitors barely reach the first leg joint—and it’s evidently part of a wide-ranging collection. What appears to be a stuffed alligator (or crocodile) is suspended in the background, with two statues (a message-bearing Hermes and a Roman sarcophagus) nearby. The “windows” in the back may be the display of taxidermied birds in a self-portrait Peale painted of himself standing in his museum. Was the illustration wholly accurate? Probably not. But it’s a charming visualization of the major themes of Peale’s museum: education and variety.

Illustrators need models to work from, and those illustrating early works on fossils were no different. The skeleton pictured here greatly resembles one drawn by Titian Ramsay Peale II, which appeared in American Natural History, by John D. Godman (1826-1828).

Strange as the skeleton looks, the illustration is fairly accurate. The head is flat on the top because the top of the skull hadn’t yet been discovered. But where are the tusks? Tusks seem to have puzzled naturalists of the time; there were arguments that the tusks curved up, like those on elephants, and there were arguments that the tusks curved down, so the mastodon could dig for mussels (and a wood engraving by Alexander Anderson appears to have the tusks inserted in the eye sockets). Leaving off the tusks may have seemed the safest option.

Illustrations were expensive to produce, and publishers made sure to get their money’s worth by reusing the engraving blocks. Goodrich was no different: this little wood block found its way into The Child’s Own Book of American Geography (1832) and—thanks to some creativity—in Peter Parley’s Tales about the State and City of New York (1832).

My copy is of the 1832 edition.

(Dimensions of the skeleton are in Stanley Hedeen’s Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology [Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008], p. 85. Information about research on the mastodon and the tusk controversy appears in Paul Semonin’s American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity [New York: New York University Press, 2000].)

Peale’s museum, from The Child’s First Book of History, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. (Philadelphia: Key, Meilke, and Biddle; Boston: Richardson, Lord, & Holbrook, 1832; p. 58)

1. This is a large, wealthy and flourishing State. Our travels through it will afford us much gratification. We must examine Philadelphia in the first place. In my opinion, it is the handsomest city in the United States. The streets are all straight, and cross each other in a regular manner.

2. We shall find many interesting objects in the city. The Bank of the United States is built of white marble, and is one of the most beautiful edifices in the world. The Arcade is a very curious building, in which there are a great many shops. In the upper part of this building is Peale’s Museum.

3. This is a most interesting collection. There are hundreds of stuffed birds and animals, which look as if they were really alive. There are grisly bears, and deer, and elk, and prodigious great serpents, and birds with beautiful feathers, and cranes, with legs as long as a man; and there are bugs and butterflies, and Indian tomahawks, and a multitude of other things.

4. But the most wonderful of all is the skeleton of the Mastodon, or Mammoth. These bones were found in the State of New York; the animal to which they belonged must have been as large as a small house. No animals of this kind now live in America, or anywhere else. But long before the white people came to this country, it is certain that they roamed through the forests of America. Some of them must have been at least four times as large as the largest elephant.

mastodon and statues
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