Introduction

So many kids love dinosaurs that it’s difficult to remember that there weren’t always dinosaurs for them to love.

While it’s been argued that the remains of prehistoric beasts have sparked the human imagination for thousands of years (see, for example, The First Fossil Hunters, by Adrienne Mayer), descriptions especially for children seem to begin in the nineteenth century. As scientists like William Buckland, Georges Cuvier, and Gideon Mantell investigated the past and recreated it for adult readers, the information was repackaged for young readers in England and the United States.

At this site you’ll find works on fossils published for American children, in books and magazines from 1832 to 1853. Some are illustrated; many aren’t. Many of the illustrations, as with much of the text, are redrawn from earlier works published in England.

Many of the illustrations appear to have been copied from Gideon Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology, which was published in London in 1838 and in the United States in 1839. Others may have originated in Peter Parley’s Wonders of Earth Sea and Sky, published in London by Darton & Hodge in 1837. Some of the text may have originated here, too.

The Darton book may have inspired Samuel Griswold Goodrich to publish works on fossils, especially Goodrich’s The Wonders of Geology (1845), which includes at least two illustrations from the British work. It wasn’t Goodrich’s first work on fossils: he edited Robert Merry’s Museum, which published an illustrated piece on the mastodon in 1841 and probably the first picture of a dinosaur for American children in 1842.

As the century progressed and more information became available, writers began to push back the age of the Earth. Works like Blair’s Outlines of Chronology (1825) taught the traditional lesson that the Earth had been created by God in six literal days about 6,000 years earlier; and early writers about fossils had little problem with this, using the biblical Flood to explain the huge mats of vegetation that became coal. By the 1850s, writers were having trouble shoehorning the geologic record into the biblical chronology; the author of a piece in 1853 explained that the Earth had been created untold ages ago, but in six of God’s days, which can be “a very long though indefinite period of time.”

The bible, in fact, explained more than the age of the Earth. It explained why coal existed: several early works explain that vegetation was allowed to become coal because God knew that human beings would need it. And the only trace of early humans in these pieces are some “footprints” which weren’t exactly fossils, but were probably indentations created or “improved” by Native Americans—in keeping with the authors’ constant insistence that humans don’t appear in the fossil record because they hadn’t yet been created.

The Earth presented in these works soon came to be considered what Samuel Goodrich called a “former state of this Earth:” God using the processes of geology to make the Earth ready for humans:

We may also suppose that the earth was intended to be the abode of man; and geology teaches us that this end has been accomplished by a process bearing the evident marks of intelligent design. In the several stages of the world’s progress, we have seen that the animals and vegetables were mutually adapted to each other, and to the state of things around them. When the air was heated and filled with moisture, the vegetation conformed to these circumstances; and the animals, consisting of huge reptiles, were fitted to breathe a fetid atmosphere, and to feed on coarse, rank herbage. But in tracing the geological changes, we observe a constant improvement, from one step to another. If we compare any one age with that which preceded it, we see that the earth always becomes more and more suited to the higher forms of animal life.

(The Wonders of Geology, pp. 280-281)

What you’ll find in this collection is evidence of a struggle as one explanation of the world was beginning to give way to another. What you won’t find is the word “dinosaur,” which was first used in England in 1841, but which hadn’t yet entered the narrative for American children by 1853. What you also won’t find are the “usual suspects” of the fossil record: the tyrannosaurus rex, the stegosaurus, the triceratops, the apatosaurus. These hadn’t yet been discovered—or, at least, hadn’t yet been described in popular works.

Instead, early writers for children described the dinotherium, with its elf-like ears and vampire-like tusks (which it used to anchor itself as it rested in deep water); the toothy ichthyosaurus; the “three-bodies-one-head” trilobite; the duckish plesiosaur; the un-aerodynamic pterodactyl; the megatherium, with its skull like a clenched fist; the iguanodon, which sported a sharp horn on its nose. All described with a touch of the gee-whiz! that we find in writing on fossils today.

This web exhibit is available in a mostly text version and a stroll-in-a-museum gallery version. I plan to add to it as I find new works. The splash page is available in two sizes as a computer wallpaper.


a pretty shell merrycoz.org