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

Peale’s mastodon, from The Child’s Own Book of American Geography
by Samuel Goodrich (1832)

Charles Willson Peale founded his museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1786. It contained an eclectic collection of natural history specimens, portraits of admirable historical figures, and human artifacts from various countries—all intended to edify visitors and to show the place of human beings as part of the animal kingdom.

His most famous display, however, was the mastodon skeleton he obtained in 1801. Eleven feet high at the shoulder and fifteen feet from chin to rump, it was huge and strange 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 described Philadelphia in The Child’s Own Book of American Geography (also titled The Child’s Book of American Geography), he included a brief description of the museum and a picture of the mastodon skeleton on display. In his quest to provide entertaining and educational books for children, he quickly realized that those books needed to be illustrated. This was especially important 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 made sure to get their money’s worth by reusing the engraving blocks. Goodrich was no different: this little wood block found its way into a more detailed description of Peale’s Museum in The Child’s First Book of History (1831) and—thanks to some creativity—in Peter Parley’s Tales about the State and City of New York (1832).

The Geography was intended to act as an introduction to the subject, for very young children. Thus Goodrich chose to emphasize the object in Peale’s museum for which he had an illustration—or, maybe he just knew that very young readers would find it interesting. Though the book was originally published in 1831, my copy is of the 1832 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].)

Peale’s mastodon, from The Child’s Own Book of American Geography, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (Boston: Waitt & Dow, 1832; p. 35)

6. There is an Arcade at Philadelphia, where Mr. Peale’s museum is kept. This is a collection of stuffed birds and beasts, and other strange things; among the rest, are the bones of a huge animal, called a Mastodon, that lived many hundred years ago. No such animals are living now.

skeleton and statues
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