Showing the Mammoth

May 30, 2014

Mammoths and mastodons are mentioned surprisingly often in early American works for children, but they weren’t often illustrated.  Partly, it was due to the cost of illustrating:  cash-conscious editors were most likely to use a ready-made illustration, rather than adding the expense of having one engraved.  So I was especially pleased to open a newly purchased volume of the Quaker publication The Childrens Friend and find a wood engraving of an astonished hunter gazing at an astonishingly large mammoth:


It’s part of an article describing the discovery of a mammoth in Siberia in 1799; having waited five years for the ice to melt, the man and his friends “feasted on the carcase” and harvested the tusks.  Part of the charm of the illustration is that peacefully snoozing … er, I mean deceased mammoth:


It’s a definite improvement on the earlier representations, which were much more … fundamental:

Mastodon skeleton, from Robert Merry's Museum, 1841The mammoth illustrated in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1841 was pretty basic, as was the mastodon shown in Charles Willson Peale’s museum ten years earlier:

a mastodon skeleton on display(That’s a Roman sarcophagus under the mastodon’s ribs; the background is probably the cases with taxidermied birds that appear in Peale’s self-portrait.)

At least toward the end of the century works for children were getting some of the details right.  (Though, just how edible would that mammoth have been after defrosting for five years?)  And starting a new stereotype:  instead of the mammoth-as-skeleton, illustrators were presenting the frozen mammoth on its feet, perfectly preserved in a block of ice.  Let’s see that face again:

mammothChFPA_headeyes closed, trunk artistically curled, not a hair out of place …  And standing on all four legs, waiting to amaze us.

That’s the mammoth most of us have in mind when we hear about a frozen mammoth being found, not the carcass deformed by tons of ice over thousands of years.  We love it still:

mammothPearlThat’s Charles Livingston Bull illustrating a scene from Samuel Scoville, jr’s The Boy Scouts of the North; or, The Blue Pearl, with the protagonist gazing at one of Scoville’s patented wonders:  “There, frozen in a solid block of clear ice, towered a monster such as had not walked this earth for ten times ten thousand years. Unburied from the grave where it had rested, untouched by time, and intact as when some unknown fate had overtaken it when the last Ice Age overwhelmed the earth, the monstrous creature, standing erect, seemed ready to step forth out of an age-long sleep.”

Still astonishing; still wonderful; still inaccurate.  But at least this one doesn’t get eaten.


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