a shell 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 (1802) 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 (1813), 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.

The Juvenile Gazette reports the discovery of the “teeth of the mammoth or some very large animal” (1820) but doesn’t theorize. a shell


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.”

Peale's mastodon

An illustration of the mastodon skeleton exhibited by Charles Willson Peale makes its debut in 1832, in The First Book of History and The Child’s Own Book of American Geography, both by Samuel Griswold Goodrich; the illustration appears also in Peter Parley’s Tales about the State and City of New York.

In “Petrified Forests” (1832), the Juvenile Rambler describes transformed forests near Rome and near Yellowstone, though the author doesn’t attempt to place them in the geological chronology.

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. a shell

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.

a plesiosaur

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 (1840) include the plesiosaur, a pterosaur, and the untrustworthy ichthyosaur.

a mammoth skeleton

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.

fossil leaves

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.”

an iguanodon

Probably the first dinosaur illustrations in an American periodical for children appear in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1842, though the word “dinosaur” isn’t used to describe the iguanodon, the plesiosaur, or the ichthyosaur; “Wonders of Geology” incorporates material from several sources.

a shell The Deluge is no longer mentioned as the source of coal when Parley’s Magazine prints “Who Filled the Coal Hole?” (1843), which stretches the age of the Earth from 6,000 to more than 60,000 years.


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.

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Petrified Forest on the Nile” (1846) describes a fallen stone forest apparently on the shore of a vanished sea, in one of the few pieces on geology to appear in Young People’s Magazine.

small creature

Robert Merry’s Museum emphasizes the colossal size of some prehistoric beasts, in “Wonders of Geology” (1848).

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.

footprints in rock

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.

Robert Merry’s Museum describes a large tree found in a Pennsylvania coal mine, in “Fossil Tree in the Coal Rocks” (1852). a shell

megatherium skeleton

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.

a dinotherium

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.

a mammoth

The mammoth’s bones had been clothed in illustrations by 1871, when “The Mammoth” detailed an exciting find by a Siberian hunter many years earlier.

two little dinosaurs

“Uncle Jacob” discusses the investigation of creatures who lived “many ages, perhaps, before the creation of man” in “The Ancient World (1872), accompanying an illustration based on Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s sculptures of labyrinthodons, pterosaurs, iguanodons, and other dinosaurs in London’s Crystal Park.

Some good reading:

a pretty shell merrycoz.org