So many kids love dinosaurs that it’s difficult to remember that there
weren’t always dinosaurs for them to love.
“ ‘A Former State of This Earth’: Fossils in Early American Works for Children” is a brief introduction to works on fossils published for American children in books and magazines from 1802 to 1853. Some are illustrated; many aren’t. Many of the illustrations, as with much of the text, are redrawn from earlier works.
Nathaniel Dwight’s A Short But Comprehensive System of the Geography of the World includes mention of the fossils at Big Bone Lick, but no real assurance that the mammoth was extinct.
Ezra Sampson mingles fact with folklore in Youth’s Companion; or An Historical Dictionary, a collection of paragraphs on everything from William Herschell to cannabis; his tangle of information on the mammoth includes speculation that its bones were scattered from Siberia to North America by the Deluge.
Taking the bible as a source of historical information, the author of Blair’s Outlines of Chronology (1825) presents the then-standard explanation that the earth was created in 6 literal days about 6,000 literal years ago and that the Deluge was an historical event, since “the earth bears visible marks of having experienced some great convulsion.”
An illustration of the mastodon skeleton exhibited by Charles Willson Peale makes its debut in The First Book of History and The Child’s Own Book of American Geography, both by Samuel Griswold Goodrich; the illustration appears later in Peter Parley’s Tales about the State and City of New York.
Parley’s Magazine often explored the worlds of history and science; “Fossil Shells” (1834) is a filler pointing out that a rock layer found in France could also be found high in the Andes, though there’s no attempt to explain how this was possible.
Evidently reprinted from a British work, “The Fireside” (1839) describes coal and the history of its use, explaining to readers of Parley’s Magazine that it is the remains of vegetation uprooted by the Deluge.
While mastodons had been discovered well before 1839, “The Mastodon” is probably the first description of it published for American children—though “description” doesn’t mean that readers of the Youth’s Cabinet would understand what the animal looked like.
The first dinosaur illustrations in an American children’s book are recreated from a British work as Samuel Griswold Goodrich asserts ownership of “Peter Parley,” the most popular (and plagiarized!) of his literary creations. The “fossil animals restored” in Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky include the plesiosaur, a pterosaur, and the untrustworthy ichthyosaur.
Robert Merry’s Museum offers young readers an articulated mastodon skeleton and a detailed description, in “The Mammoth” (1841). The piece served to introduce a fuller discussion of fossils to appear later.
Josiah Holbrook gives geology its due in “Organic Remains” (1841), which includes illustrations of a megatherium skeleton and explains that animals become extinct, “to give place to other and different races, each succeeding race being fitted to the state of the earth at the time they inhabited it.”
Probably the first dinosaur illustrations in an American periodical for children appear in Robert Merry’s Museum, though the word “dinosaur" isn’t used to describe the iguanodon, the plesiosaur, or the ichthyosaur; “Wonders of Geology” incorporates material from several sources.
The well-illustrated The Wonders of Geology (1845) examines the fossil record in detail, acknowledges that the Earth is unimaginably old, and concludes that geology proves that the biblical story of creation is correct.
The editor of The Young People’s Mirror presents readers with a long list of the types of creatures found in fossil form, in “Geology” (1849); implied is that the creatures were exactly the same as modern versions.
The Young People’s Mirror mixes humans into the paleozoic stew in “Fossil Foot-Prints” (1849), illustrating a piece on fossil footprints with an engraving of two “human" footprints found near St. Louis, Missouri.
The Schoolmate recreates fossil creatures like the megatherium, the plesiosaur, and the dinotherium in words and illustrations in “Wonders of Geology” (1852). Just as the prehistoric world was remade for humans, readers are assured, so will it be recreated again after Judgment.
In 1853, “Professor Pickaxe” explores the history of the Earth and the variety of prehistoric life in the seven-part “Letters About Geology”; geology proves that the earth was created in 6 of “God’s days” untold ages ago. The Deluge isn’t mentioned.
Some good reading: