How Things Have Changed
This morning I was looking through a copy of The American Magazine of Natural Science, volume 2, number 4, October 1893. Yes, 1893! What caught my eye immediately were the advertisements. This period was, of course, one in which all kinds of people were curious about natural history and many collected odds and ends of natural objects to study or simply to display for their intrinsic aesthetic characteristics.
The Fred R. Stearns & Co. with offices in Des Moines, Iowa and Sac City, Iowa offered, among other things, the following:
Leopard Shark's Eggs..................$ .10
Skate's Eggs...............................$ .07
Coffee Beans...............................$ .06
Star Fish.....................................$ .10
Sea Urchins.................................$ .10
Iron Pyrites (fool's gold) fine.........$ .20
Locust Skins (Seven-year)............$ .06
Periwinkle Egg Cases...................$ .35
Sea Fans, large...........................$1.75
Imagine being able to purchase a Skate's egg for seven cents! Of course, seven cents was worth a lot more in 1893 than it is today, but even so, I am not surprised that this company is no longer in business (or, at least, I assume that it is not. If it is, I am sure that they no longer offer such a wonderful range of curiosities.) On the other hand, $1.75 for a large Sea Fan seems a considerable sum for that era.
The same company, in a different advertisement, informs the reader of the availability of:
"23,000 skins! including Emu, Condor, Ostrich, Hedge Accentoe, Chaffinch, Yellow Wagtail, Eagles, Egrets, Kites, Hawks, Owls, etc., and all the rare foreign and domestic birds. Nearly all in pairs. Only 50 cents per skin with full data. On orders over $5.00 25 per cent discount. With every order we will throw in a pair of Long-Tailed Monkey skins as long as they lastonly forty-eight pairs of monkey skins. Order quick, as this is a bargain."
Today, such an advertisement would spark protests, demonstrations, and perhaps even assaults.
This same company advertised as taxidermists and offered to mount deer heads, buffalo heads, and "Pet Birds and Animals Mounted in Life Like Manner at Reasonable Prices." During the thirty-five years my wife and I have been married we have or have had at least a dozen cats, a Welsh corgi, three Old English Sheep dogs, and a Black Labrador who weighs over 100 pounds and we have cared for each and every one of them dearly. However, never have I had the slightest inclination to have them stuffed and exhibited. What a morbid museum that would make and, furthermore, we would have to build an addition onto the house!
The obsession of the collector is a peculiar one. Several of my colleagues collect books and have admitted that they already have more than they can ever read. I recall from my undergraduate days a man at the University of Nebraska who was a librarian and bibliophile. On his death, they found, scattered and piled throughout three houses which he owned, over 60 tons of books! I do not exempt myself from the eccentricities of the collector. I have what is unquestionably the largest collection of preserved tunicates in the entire State of Wyoming (and probably several neighboring States). Human curiosity often manifests itself in bizarre ways and certainly during the heyday of natural history studies the passion to possess oddities led to the sacrifice of large numbers of creatures with little gain. Many amateur naturalists did make significant contributions to knowledge and made significant discoveries, but many others were dabblers of the worst sort seeking a kind of entertainment only slightly more sophisticated than that provided by the freak shows of the day.
I do not mean to single out Fred R. Stearns & Co. as being a collection of capitalist villains pandering to the often misguided passion of the collector of the objects of natural history, but their advertisements do provide such an intriguing glimpse into the period. In a "Wanted" advertisement, this firm stated the following:
"WANTEDLand and fresh water shells, sea shells, skulls, and skins of birds and animals, birds' eggs, Indian and mound relics, war and art relics, curiosities, mounted birds, reptiles, stuffed or in alcohol; insects, foreign and domestic; native woods and plants, fossils, minerals, coins and stamps, books and pamphlets on natural science or kindred subjects. Can give for the above, Chinese and Japanese coins, carved bone cuff buttons, Chinese card receivers, pin trays, coin swords, Japanese knives, amber with insects in it, shot gun, bicycle (pneumatic tire, been used a few months only), insect cases, glass eyes, insect pins, botanical collecting cans and botanical supplies, climbing irons, mounted birds of this and other localities, also first class skins, data blanks, letter heads, envelopes, or cabinets made to your order. (Our specialty in cabinets is a glass fronted revolving cabinet, four sides, but we also make first class wall cabinets with drawers and shelves.) Make plans to suit yourself, and send list of what you can offer for same." What a motley collection!
Perhaps Darwin made a fundamental mistake and the human animal is not even remotely related to a simian ancestor, but rather we evolved from a relative of the pack rat. The passion for collecting does indeed seem deeply rooted in our psyche and I suspect that every period has its own quirky obsessions about the sorts of things worth acquiring. One small advertisement in the same magazine, I found quite charming.
"CHRISTMAS GREENSI will exchange holly, mistletoe, and ground pine, for eggs in sets, natural history specimens, or curios of any kind. Address at once, WM. H. BELL, West Point, Virginia."
I know of a man who collects old computers, not ones of any particular historical interest, just anything that anyone doesn't want anymore. Furthermore, it is a matter of complete indifference to him whether or not they still work. For many collectors, utility is not an issue. They have no intention of making any use of what they collect, the passion is simply to possess. As we all know, humans sometimes collect very strange sets of objects; bottle caps, matchbook covers, old calendars, etc. But the tradition of natural history provides some remarkable examples of outlandish combinations. Consider the following advertisement:
"SAY, YOU! Why not subscribe for and advertise in "Eggs and Stamps;" fifteen months for only 25 cents. Eight pages of good reading, 500 copies guaranteed circulation; prize in every issue."
It would never have occurred to me to join the passion to collect eggs with the passion to collect stamps, but perhaps these merchants of a century ago had a shrewder understanding of human psychology than I do.
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Published in the December 1999 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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