The most famous display in the natural history museum Charles Willson Peale founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1786, was the mastodon skeleton he obtained in 1801. He was rightly proud of his part in bringing it to light: he memorialized his excavation of two skeletons in one painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806-1808), and pictured himself in front of it, inviting us into his museum, in The Artist in His Museum (1822).
And the skeleton made for good display: eleven feet high at the shoulder and fifteen feet from chin to rump, it was huge and strange and impressive 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.”
So it’s no wonder that when Samuel Griswold Goodrich wanted to write about the skeleton, he included a picture of it on display. And, given the subject’s interest and the expense involved in having wood engravings made for publication, it’s no wonder that he used the illustration wherever possible.
That’s how an illustration appearing originally in a description of Peale’s museum in The Child’s First Book of History (1831) and in The Child’s Own Book of American Geography (1832) shows up in Peter Parley’s Tales about the State and City of New York. While mastodon and mammoth bones had been found for centuries in other parts of the United States, Peale’s skeletons had been excavated Newburgh, New York. So when Goodrich compiled his book on New York, he had a chance to include the illustration.
Working to provide entertaining and educational books for children, Goodrich understood the educational value of illustrations—especially when describing something like the mastodon, so bizarre that young readers would have difficulty visualizing it. Other writers 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. 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. But 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.
Illustrations were expensive to produce, and publishers kept them for reprints and other projects (3500 wood engraving blocks were listed as part of Goodrich’s estate when he died in 1860). Thus, when Mahlon Day reprinted the first six chapters Tales about the State and City of New York as a little chapbook titled Peter Parley’s Visit to the City of New-York, he had more than one reason not to include the illustration: he may not have been able to get a copy of the block because his reprint wasn’t official or because the block no longer existed (though the illustration appears in an 1839 edition of First Book of History); or he simply may not have felt he had page space. Either way, the discussion in Day’s book is unillustrated.
Here you’ll find only the sections on the mastodon from each book. My copy of Goodrich’s work is of the first 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].)