[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]
Peale’s Museum, from The Child’s First Book of History
by Samuel Goodrich
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
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
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.
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.
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)
STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA.
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.