Meteors weren’t entirely understood in the early 1800s, when they were considered some sort of atmospheric phenomenon or maybe rocks shot out of volcanoes on the moon. Fireballs wowed viewers then just as they do now; young Samuel Griswold Goodrich, up before dawn on December 14, 1807, to build up the fires in his family’s house, was startled when “[s]uddenly the room was filled with light, and looking up, I saw through the windows a ball of fire, nearly the size of the moon, passing across the heavens from northwest to southeast. It was at an immense height, and of intense brilliancy. Having passed the zenith, it swiftly descended toward the earth: while still at a great elevation it burst, with three successive explosions, into fiery fragments. The report was like three claps of rattling thunder in quick succession.”

So a fireball lighting the skies over New York and Pennsylvania on April 11, 1842, inspired a certain amount of printed ink. The brightness of the fireball would have been even more impressive in a time of little light pollution. The description in The New World is vivid and— Okay: there’s a lot here that just doesn’t sound plausible. Fluid falls onto the observer, who feels heat and smells sulphur and arrives at his destination with a scorched face. His faintness and difficulty breathing can be ascribed to panic; the heat and sulphur could be the product of a startled imagination; and the fluid is so hazily described that it might be a product of the aftereffect of looking at a bright object. But scorching? Was it a sunburn that developed during the night?

Still, the piece is detailed enough to provide a vivid mental picture of a memorable event—almost as good as a dash cam video.

“Splendid Meteor” (from The New World, 23 April 1842; p. 274)

A most extraordinary display of meteoric fire was observed in the town of Westfield, in this State, on the morning of the eleventh instant. It was accompanied by a loud noise—first an explosion, then a snapping and grating sound. It appeared a large and long-extended mass of fire. The light which it emitted was as bright as noon-day. Its disappearance was singular. The long tail seemed to separate from the nucleus, or head, and the latter rushed on, emitting a dark blue flame; but there was no division of its body into fragments, or any thing else to indicate a fracture, unless indeed the very separation of the fiery and blue portions was the result of the explosion. A Mr. Palmer, who was on his way from Dunkirk to Westfield, stated to the editor of the Chautauque County Messenger, that, when two or three miles from Dunkirk, he was suddenly enveloped in a painfully-bright shower of light, proceeding from a mass of fluid or jelly-like substance, which fell around and upon him, producing a sulphurous smell, a great difficulty of breathing, and a feeling of faintness, with a strong sensation of heat. As soon as he could recover from his astonishment, he perceived the body of the meteor passing above him, seeming to be about a mile high. It then appeared to be in diameter about the size of a large steamboat pipe, near a mile in length! Its dimensions varied soon; becoming first much broader, and then waning away in diameter and length until the former was reduced to about eight inches, and the latter a fourth of a mile, when it separated into pieces which fell to the earth, and almost immediately he heard the explosion. On arriving at Westfield, in the morning, his face had every appearance of having been severely scorched; his eyes were much affected, and he did not recover from the shock it gave his system for two or three days.

The same phenomenon was observed in several other towns adjacent, in New York and Pennsylvania. In copying the above account, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser says—“At Erie and Rochester, places about one hundred and fifty miles apart in a straight line, the light was nearly as vivid as that of day. This shows the immense magnitude and great height of the meteor.”

What will Professor Olmsted say to all this? Will he not be indignant that a meteor should appear in any place beside New Haven?

[Note: “Professor Olmsted” was Denison Olmsted, who pioneered the study of meteors; the New Haven meteor no doubt was the one witnessed by Samuel Goodrich in 1807, a piece of which is in the mineralogy and meteoritics collection at Yale (in, of course, New Haven, Connecticut).]


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.

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.