American Collections blog

13 posts categorized "Animal Tales"

08 August 2014

50,000 Moths and Butterflies Died in the Making of this Post

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Printing takes many forms. We mostly think of books as something created by moveable type, and then by more automated means, such as linotype or, more recently, digital production. But it can also incorporate the more handmade, corporal, and in the case of this post, lepidopterous.

The volume next to me as I write this post has been in our collections since it was purchased for the British Museum Library in 1900. It is copy number 259 of a limited edition of 500, printed in Boston, Mass., and the two volumes have been bound as one in dark green and black leather. Its title? The relatively unassuming Moths and Butterflies of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, by Sherman F. Denton (Boston, Bradlee Widden, 1900) [shelfmark K.T.C.27.b.14].

It is a remarkable thing. Denton perfected an existing technique for preserving the wings of moths and butterflies in paper. As the Boston Evening Transcript (1899) explained, Denton sketched and engraved the bodies and outlines of his individual specimens.  Then, the wings of the once fluttery creatures were soaked in various gums and waters and then delicately laid onto prepared paper.  Weights were applied, and after 24 hours, the wing frame was gently brushed away, while the scales had transferred to the page in a form of lepidine transfer process. Along with 400 photographic illustrations, Moths and Butterflies contains dozens of such colourful â€“ and slightly creepy â€“ butterfly wing prints.

Photo 1

Denton, an American naturalist who also produced a series of models, books and prints for the United States Fish Commission at the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission, was attempting to show 'our native butterflies and moths not as dried and mutilated specimens in a cabinet... but as one sees them in our woods and fields, fresh and lovely.'  His text that accompanies his specimens demonstrates his genuine fascination and love for the creatures. He also thought his extraordinary work might have wider interest or use:

From the standpoint of the artist and the decorator, the study of the designs and color patterns on the wings of butterflies may be of valuable assistance. Such combinations of pleasing tints are rarely found in the handiworks of man. What better school could be found for the colorist than is within the reach of the humblest aspirant for fame as artist or decorator? Think of students copying the dingy works of the old masters year after year, when at their own doors the grandest combinations of colors that Nature can reproduce are passed by without a thought!

How true. We wonder if Damien Hirst has a copy?

The scientific response was less happy. The method, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century, has not been replicated, with the exception of a collection of Sri Lanken wings (Lionel Gilbert Ollyett Woodhouse, The Butterfly Fauna of Ceylon (Colombo, [1950]) [shelfmark STB (B) G 70] . For scientists, the method does not preserve the membranes of the wings, and the glorious lustre and sheen aside, the colours and shapes can be replicated by other printing methods (such as chromolithography in Denton's day, or even hand-colouring). The cost in numbers of creatures gently put to sleep by potassium cyanide is also very great. Denton states that he used 50,000 butterflies and moths in the production of the print run.

Photo 3

 (a photograph attempting to show the shimmer in the wings)

Photo 2

(not forgetting the moths. All images in the public domain)

Read more:

Boston Evening Transcript (3 March 1899).

A digital copy of the text can be found at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Cowan, CF, 'Butterfly Wing Prints', Shorter Notes, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1970), 389

Cowan, CF, 'Butterfly Wing Prints', Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1968), 368-69

[Matthew Shaw]

08 August 2013

The Cats of Canada

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The Globe kittens (HS85-10-13446-11)

Above: some of our colleagues may bring you illuminated cats but we bring you cats and books!

Public Domain Mark
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

Those of you on Twitter will have noticed it is World Cat Day and here at Team Americas we love a bandwagon. So, here's a selection of wonderful felines from the Picturing Canada collection. Enjoy!

A garden party (taken from life) (HS85-10-8754)

Above: a (rather scary) garden party

Fritz the cat (HS85-10-11178)

Above: Fritz, looking magnificent

Topsey's curiosity (HS85-10-20757)

Above: Topsey is curious...

The Globe kittens (HS85-10-13446-3)

Above: another set of bookish kittens to round us off

All images are from the Picturing Canada collection on Wikimedia Commons. You can read more about the collection over at Public Domain Review.


31 January 2013

Oil, Ambergris and the Grand Ball of the Whales

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2013-01-07 14-55 vanity fair 1861 page #12
Public Domain Mark

This work (Grand Ball given by the Whales), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

There was a certain amount of spluttering over the porridge this morning, as the Today programme's John Humphrys discussed reports of discovery of whale vomit on a Morecambe beach, and speculated briefly on the possibility of somehow farming sperm whales for this valuable commodity, more pleasantly also known as ambergris. Long-sought-after for its rarity and use as a base for perfumes, this lump of grey waxy emission is a reminder of the special status of whales and their relationship to human culture.

The early connection can be seen in this folio from the British Library Catalogue of Medieval Manuscripts:

Birthwort and Ambergris

Egerton 747, f. 7, 'Birthwort and Ambergris'. Guidance on use of this image.

But a more recent - and American - reminder can be found in the cartoon at the top of this post, taken from Vanity Fair in 1861, and which we hold at the Library.  'The Grand Ball given by the Whales' depicts a celebratory pod of whales, who are heartily cheered by the the striking of 'rock oil' at Drake's oil well in Pennsylvania.  No longer, the sperm whales believed, would their precious spermaceti oil be hunted for use in candles and lubrication of the delicate machines of the industrialised north. 

It tool a while for oil to become established as lighting and heating fuel and a propellant, but against the backdrop of the Civil War, a startling, and massive, infrastructure was put in place (extraction, refinement, distribution, sales...), and the American talent for marketing was put to work inventing and explaining how the new fuel could offer brilliant light for homes, offices and factories.  At one point, U.S. consuls were provided with details of newly-designed kerosene lamps and instructed to advertise them in the capitals of the world.  Oil tankers were invented, removing the need to rely on leaky oil barrels (which stripped the poor horses that pulled them in carts of their hair), naval engineers began to speculate on converting warships to petroleum, rather than relying on great coal stations, and vast new docks and sumps were constructed.  Legislation had to be passed in both countries after a series of fires at oil merchants and their warehouses (there was also a relatively well-founded scare about the inflammatory properties of oil lamps). 

And, unlike the potential olfactory use of ambergris, all of this smelled pretty bad.


14 December 2012

Valhalla of Famous Army Pigeons

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As a brief addendum to last week’s post for the Social Sciences blog to coincide with my selection of the RAF Pigeon Service Manual as the Library’s 'item of the week', I felt it would be worth reporting briefly on some issues of The New Yorker that Matthew recently acquired to fill some early gaps in our collection. 

In the issue for 10 November 1934 there is a short article entitled 'War Birds' in the 'Talk of the Town' section about a weekend spent at Camp Monmouth, New Jersey - the headquarters of the pigeon branch of U.S. Signal Corps. The purpose of the visit was an Armistice Day piece on two ageing war veterans: namely, two pigeons Mocker and Spike, both of whom could boast citations from the War Department for heroic work in France during the First World War.

Despite seeing active service in France, this pair of birds managed to live to almost double the normal life expectancy for pigeons, Mocker reported as aged seventeen years old, and Spike not far behind at sixteen-and-a-half. It appears Mocker and Spike had spent a portion of the intervening years adding to the Signal Corps pigeon populations, laying claim to at least ten generations of offspring.

After their passing, the Signal Corps intended to send them to the Smithsonian Institution; as the correspondent put it, the 'Valhalla of famous army pigeons', and the resting place of feathery comrades President Wilson and Cher Ami. Indeed, the latter’s story is the subject of a children’s book by Robert Burleigh Fly, Cher Ami, fly!: The pigeon who saved the lost battalion,New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008 [BL. Shelfmark: YK.2009.b.6433]. 

The Library’s Collection of print copies of The New Yorker are held at BL. Shelfmark: P.903/858 and are consultable in our Reading Rooms, and soon the new acquisitions will also be available for consultation. Until then, the microfilm surrogate can be used at BL. Shelfmark: Mic.B.64/1-45.  

08 December 2010

Woodpecker Pie

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A record was set yesterday at Sotheby's, London, when a copy of Audubon's Birds of America broke the record for the price of a printed book: a handy £7,321,250.  We've a copy on display in the Treasures Gallery at our St Pancras site, accompanied by a digital copy that allows you to 'Turn the Pages'; another digital version can be seen at the University of Pittsburgh's website.

There's something of a connection between the U.S. national project and ornithology.  Thomas Jefferson composed a list of 109 species in his Notes on Virginia and William Bartram listed 215 species from his continental meanderings in Travels through North and South Virginia.  But the father of American ornithology may be said to be Alexander Wilson, a self-taught, Paisley-born weaver, printer and poet.  Arriving in Delaware in 1794 and then taking jobs as a printer, pedlar and teacher, he found himself to be a neighbour of Bartram.  Taking full advantages of Bartram's library, they discussed the need for a proper account of American ornithology and, in 1803, despite his lack of formal training in either natural history or illustration, Wilson resolved to correct this defect.  Over the next few years he travelled thousands of miles by foot, horse and rowboat, drawing and observing and recording bird behaviour (as well as feeding his poetic muse), seeking subscribers to his project in the hope of freeing North America from 'that transatlantic and humiliating reproach of being obliged to apply to Europe for an account and description of the production of our own country'.  He succeeded, and American Ornithology was published from 1808-1814, in nine volumes, many of which were coloured by Wilson himself. 

Wilson - in his words, a 'faithful historian of our feathered tribes' - died in 1813, and the books still stand as remarkable examples of printing, as well as scientific insight; to my eye, they also offer a wonderful glimse into the daily life (and the kitchens) of the new republic.

Our copy belonged to Joseph Banks, and here's a picture of the Gold-winged Woodpecker, an 'elegant bird well known to our famers and junior sportsmen, who take every opportunity of destroying him; the former for the supposed trespasses he commits on their Indian corn, or the trifle he will bring in market, and the latter for the mere pleasure of destruction, and perhaps for the flavour of his flesh, which is in general esteem.'