Mr. Peale’s mastodon

June 14, 2010

a mastodon skeleton on display

I’ve been working recently on updates for the online exhibit of works on fossils published for American children before 1873.  (Seven months.  It’s been seven months since I scanned the first illustrations.)  Mostly it was so I could put up an illustration from 1831 of the mastodon skeleton on exhibit in Charles Willson Peale’s museum.

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.”

Samuel Griswold Goodrich is the focus of a lot of my research.  He tried to mix education with entertainment in his books on geography, history, natural science–just about anything he thought children might need to know about.  And he knew that if you were going to introduce something as new-to-readers as the mastodon, it helped to have a picture of the thing.  So he provided one.

Well, sort of.  No one seems to have figured out what the living animal must have looked like, but there were illustrations of the skeleton put together by Peale.  So in his discussion of Peale’s museum in The Child’s First Book of History, Goodrich included a picture of the mastodon on display in the museum.

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 us, 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 what appears to be a “Dying Gaul”) nearby.  Was the illustration wholly accurate? in other words, were there classic statues on display nearby? Probably not.  But it’s a charming visualization of the major themes of Peale’s museum:  education and variety.

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.  And where are the tusks? Tusks seem to have confused 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.

What’s puzzled me is why this illustration hasn’t been mentioned in the secondary works I’ve been looking at, and that’s made me notice (yet again) how often researchers seem to copy from each other.  Paul Semonin’s American Monster:  How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity has been invaluable to my research into how the mastodon was perceived in early America.  And he does mention The Child’s First Book of History.  He doesn’t mention the illustration, but he does say that “In 1831, he [Goodrich] reproduced Charles Willson Peale’s broadside advertising the exhibition of the ‘mammoth’ … introducing his young readers to the American monster as the ‘uncontrouled Monarch of the Wilderness’ and the ‘largest of all Terrestrial Beings!'” (p. 378).

Now, I have three copies of various early editions of that book; and I’ve seen the copy of the first edition at the Internet Archive, and that broadside isn’t anywhere in any of the copies.  And reproducing an entire broadside isn’t the kind of thing Goodrich tended to do.  But from what I can see on google books of Charles Coleman Sellers’ Mr. Peale’s Museum, the broadside is reproduced in that book, with the caption to the illustration I’ve put at the top of this piece, and the words “from Child’s First Book of History“.

Was there a misprint?  No idea–I haven’t seen a copy of Sellers.  But presumably Semonin did; and he copied the info from that into his profoundly confident sentence.  Looking at his bibliography I don’t find that he managed to track down the First Book of History.

And this is why I manage to produce so little:  I’m always redoing other people’s research before I use it.  Good habit–when you have a really good research library at your disposal.  Lousy habit, though, if you want to actually finish anything.

How I love this illustration.  Those tiny human figures pointing out various parts of the skeleton; the skeleton itself, looming so huge in the dark gallery, that sprightly little eye-catching statue of Mercury/Hermes; the slightly chubby dying Gaul (or is it an odalisque?); the mysterious shape in the upper left-hand corner–so much in such a tiny rectangle.  Goodrich liked it too:  he used it at at least twice more that I can find.

It’s just a shame Peale’s museum didn’t put it on their broadside.

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One Response to “Mr. Peale’s mastodon”


  1. […] illustrated in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1841 was pretty basic, as was the mastodon shown in Charles Willson Peale’s museum ten years […]


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