[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

The mastodon, from Peter Parley’s Tales About the State and City of New York
by Samuel Goodrich (1832)

Samuel Goodrich’s most popular literary creation was “Peter Parley,” an old man who knew a lot of things and enjoyed telling children about them. So when it came time to tell children about the state of New York, Peter Parley’s Tales About the State and City of New York included information about all of New York, including objects that had started there but were now in the state of Pennsylvania.

The mastodon skeleton in Charles Willson Peale’s natural history museum in Philadelphia had been uncovered in Newburgh, New York, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for Goodrich to include the skeleton in his book on New York. It especially wasn’t that much of a stretch when he had an illustration of the skeleton on display. The illustration appeared first in Goodrich’s The Child’s First Book of History (1831), in a description of Peale’s museum; it also appeared in his The Child’s Own Book of American Geography (1832).

Readers apparently were expected to focus on the skeleton in this tiny image (it⁏s two inches wide and 1.5 inches tall), though for the modern reader it’s difficult. 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.

Tales About the State and City of New York was intended to be used in schools, as a geography, and at the bottom of page 32 we have a good example of the kind of questions asked of students who were learning by rote. “What of the Mastodon?” the teacher is to ask the student who has just read that section. There is, in fact, objective and interesting information about the mastodon in that section. Less objective would be the answer to “What of the Screech Owl[?]” on page 31: “He sat up very erect with his eyes wide open, and seemed to think himself as good as any body,” which is rather less of an education in screech owls than one might think useful.

Extracts from Peter Parley’s Tales About the State and City of New York, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (New York: Pendleton and Hill, 1832)

[p. i]



If the reader would know for whom this book is written, let him pay an imaginary visit to the little circle to whom the story is supposed to be told. It consists of half a dozen girls and boys, of from 8 to 12 years of age. They are full of intelligence, and eager curiosity; and although they have some general notions of history and geography, yet descriptive details of towns and cities, rivers and mountains, birds and beasts have to them all the interest of novelty.

It is then to children like these that the book is addressed, and it is from them and them only I hope for approbation. If it pleases them, if it instructs them, if it makes them a little wiser, a little happier, a little better, every purpose that I have in view is fully answered. It is true I have imagined that the work might be found useful in schools, and in the hands of parents, but this may be only the conceit of an old man, who has already had far more favor from the public, than his humble labors could fairly claim.


p. 32

12. I must not forget to mention some very astonishing bones, that I saw at one of the muse-

the skeleton on display

ums. They were dug from the earth, and belonged to a huge animal, five times as large as an elephant, called mastodon.

12. What of the Mastodon?

p. 33

13. None of these creatures are now to be found in any part of the world, but we know they once existed in this country, for skeletons have been found in different places. Some years ago, the bones of a mastodon were found near Newbury, in the State of New York. They were dug up and carried to Philadelphia, where they are still to be seen.

14. It is wonderful to reflect, that such huge creatures once roamed in the forests of America. A full grown mastodon must have been as large as a small house. As he walked along, he must have shaken the very ground beneath his feet, and all the other animals must have scampered away at his approach.

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