A Trip Into The Past: Part 7

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

  Part 1 : Part 2 : Part 3 : Part 4 : Part 5 : Part 6



In the last part, I got so caught up with Franklin C. Johnson’s account of his experiences in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana in the 1890s, published in serial form in several issues of The American Magazine of Natural Science that I didn’t even get around to rambling on about the advertisements in these 5 issues and from previous installments, you know how I like these old advertisements. So, if the ads don’t have the same fascination for you, you may want to skip this part, but you’ll miss out on some lovely oddities and eccentricities. I might also have to devote a further essay to the additional article content of these issues.

Let’s go through them in order beginning with Volume 2, No. 4. Many of the ads are straightforward, some are amusing, some are blatantly entrepreneurial, and some are disturbing to us now in terms of the issues of animal rights and endangered species. Here’s one that rather bothers me.

“WANTED–To correspond with hunters who can furnish one to three specimens (fresh) suitable to mount of grey or brown wolves, for cash or exchange, the coming winter.”

It is unquestionable that wolves were more abundant in the 1890s than they are now and that the sheep and cattle ranchers did not (and still don’t) regard them kindly, but they are impressive and sometimes beautiful beasts, but that’s just my view–which also happens to be shared by the beautiful and brilliant French pianist, Helen Grimaud.

We all have our biases, positive and negative, and one of mine is an intense dislike for hyenas. To my way of thinking, they are foul-smelling, ill-tempered, cowardly, vicious, cringing, creatures with a mocking laugh–a sort of wild animal version of Uriah Heap or some contemporary politicians I could name. Personally, if it were not for the disruption of ecological balance, I think I could heartily endorse the extinction of hyenas (and perhaps politicians as well). Clearly, these repugnant creatures have none of the noble character of the wolf.

However, since I already wrote extensively on ads from this issue in Part 5, I’ll move onto the next issue. In this issue, the same man who wanted the wolves is now advertising for “First class skins of Southern, South American and Mexican Hummingbirds.” Fortunately, it is now illegal to possess such skins or even feathers unless you can demonstrate that they are antique.

Clearly exchanges were very popular among collectors of the day. Here are a few examples.

“THE FOLLOWING, in exchange for stamps, shells, good mineral specimens, eggs, or other natural curiosities of equal value. Tarantulas 50c.; trapdoor spider’s nest 25c.; sea moss; shells.”

How on earth does one determine what the worth of a tarantula is in birds’ eggs?

Another gentleman advertises that he is willing to take “a fair collection of U.S. stamps” for a small printing press, almost new worth $88. If the stamps are cancelled, I wonder how one would tally up $88 worth–perhaps the weight of the press in stamps? Yes, I know, some old cancelled stamps are worth a lot–in fact, I confess that in my youth I engaged in acts of philately.

A Mr. Ed Doolittle was willing to trade 3 old postcards for every perfect arrowhead sent to him.
A Mr. A.E. Little wanted to trade 4 Japanese and Chinese coins for every set of eggs (with data) having a catalogue value of 20 cents or more.
Mr. B. Butler wishes to exchange a large bear’s skull and over 50 bear claws for Indian or Mound relics.

And there was this from Mr. E.M. Parker of Newell, Iowa:

“I WILL exchange for specimens, or offers, one Odell $15.00 typewriter, birds’ eggs, rare stamps, $3.50 flute, full blood chickens. State what you have and how you will exchange.”

A rather non-specific ad in terms of what sorts of specimens he is desirous of having. It sounds rather like Mr. Parker simply wanted to get rid of some old junk and acquire some new junk, apart from the chickens of course. And I didn’t even know there were any half-breed fowl.

Clearly, bartering was a popular pastime. Perhaps eBay should branch out and create a spinoff called eBarter. Too late! On a whim I just Googled “ebarter” and came up with an announcement of the Electronic Barter Corporation–Coming Soon. I hate it when other people anticipate my ideas and steal them.

I am also intrigued by the range of offerings of certain manufacturers during this period. A wonderful example is Mr. J.W. Fiske of 39 and 41 Park Place, New York, a maker of aquaria, who boasted the largest assortment in the United States. In addition to fish, turtles, aquatic plants, and other creatures suitable for aquaria, he could not only supply grottoes, arches, rocks and other decorative items, but Mr. Fiske was also a manufacturer of fountains, drinking fountains, settees, chairs, lamp posts, railings, and “etc.”

However, for me the most bizarre advertisement in this issue is one for a book called Uncle Jeremiah and Family At the Great Fair. You are promised:

but here’s the bizarre part.


If you have been to “THE FAIR” you MUST HAVE IT. If you have not been you NEED it.”

The Chicago World’s Fair or Great Exposition was held in 1893 and was an elaborate, lavish and enormous display designed to demonstrate that Chicago had recovered from the Great Fire of 1871, so there is a certain relationship between the exposition and the fire, but the advertising certainly creates a kind of cognitive dissonance (to use modern jargon).

In the next issue (December 1893), we find more ads requesting exchanges. In fact, Fred Stearns himself, publisher and collector of virtually anything connected with natural history has the following notice:

“SEVERAL hundred 2c. revenue stamps to exchange for any of the following: Horse-foot crabs, tarantulas, sea horses, porcupine fish, sand dollars, skates’ eyes, skate stingers, birds’ eggs, etc. Make offers.”

If, however, your interest were directed more toward the botanical side of things, then Mr. W.I. Cook of Okahumpka, Florida could probably tempt you:

“PRESSED palm leaves, plants of palm, banana, guaia, pine-apple, century, magnolia, crape myrtle, fig, oleander, lilies, air plants, orange thorns, etc. for sea curios, fossils, minerals, curtain material, banners placques, etc.”

Curtain Material!? Methinks, Mrs. Wood may have had a hand in the drafting of this advertisement.

Remember our taxidermist who wanted 3 wolves; well, Mr. John Amient of Koch, Ohio, has expanded his want-list and is now asking for:

“FRESH specimens of prairie dogs, prairie hens, wild ducks, plovers, wild turkeys, gophers, geese, foxes, lynxes, divers, deer heads, etc. suitable for mounting, wanted in exchange for mounted specimens, stands, perches, printing, or cash. Write for directions.”

Now, suppose I am out here in the Wyoming Territory and I go out and shoot 50 prairie dogs, 10 foxes, 20 prairie hens, 10 gophers, 25 geese, decapitate 15 deer, then how on earth do I get these “fresh” specimens preserved, packed, and shipped to Mr. Amient in Ohio? I guess that’s why one had to write for directions.

With all our scientific and high-tech advances, we tend quite naturally to think of the world 115 years ago as a somewhat primitive and backward place. Who would imagine that at this time a man in Georgia would want to trade his mineral collection, books, stamps and war relics for books in Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. How easy it is to lose perspective. Just think that in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich had chairs in Assyriology and Egyptology.

Remember our friend Mr. Parker who had the bear’s skull and claws for exchange? Well, toward the back of this issue he has a full-page ad which is curious in several respects. Here are some samples of his unusual offers for exchange (beyond his usual birds’ eggs and birds’ skins):

Self-inking Printing Press and outfit, value
Wilson’s Bone Mill, value
D. Flute, value
Magic Lantern, value
Iron Cannon Ball, Battle of Quebec, value
Hot Spring Diamond, value
Asbestos, value  


And, he assures us, thousands of other specimens.

Today, of course, the bottom has dropped out of the asbestos market. It is, nonetheless, an interesting mineral and collectors still seek samples. Asbestos is one of those numerous scientific Janus-like entities with two sides, one beneficial, the other destructive. Earlier it was known that asbestos was a useful and valuable fire-resistant material; unfortunately, what was not known was that the tiny fibers of which it is composed could prove lethal to humans. There are historical and contemporary parallels in carbon tetrachloride and anti-inflammatory drugs, such as, acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, which are now known to produce stomach or liver damage and can even be lethal. When I was a lad avidly collecting butterflies, I used carbon tetrachloride as a killing agent in my jars. I found its odor pungently pleasant; I spilled it on my hands on occasion and gave it no thought. After all, my mother used it as a spot remover–what was to worry about? Micropaleontologists used to use it to “float” and separate forams, but these days even researchers may have difficulty in obtaining it. In 1970, it was banned from all consumer products in the U.S. It is highly toxic to the kidneys, liver, and lungs both in terms of inhalation and absorption through the skin. Also, I’m sure that schools I went to were insulated with asbestos and, through high school and the first year or so of University, I worked a night shift in a telephone company garage gassing trucks and inhaling the fumes. So, in some ways, I’m amazed that I’ve made it to this age, especially when I factor in my earlier rather cavalier handling of formaldehyde and my job for several summers working in the bacteriological preparation laboratory at the university.

However, back to Mr. Parker. What did he want in exchange for these unusual items? Answer: Columbian stamps! Why would one particularly prize stamps from Columbia in 1894? The face value of the stamps ran from 1 cent up through $15.00. Or was “Columbian” the designation for a particular set of issues of American stamps celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the voyage of Columbus. As it turns out, these stamps were issued in 1893 as the Columbian Exposition series and became wildly successful.

The next issue (No. 7) has mostly the same sorts of advertisements that we’ve seen in previous issues, so we’ll proceed to issue No. 8, February 1894 where we find a different Mr. Parker who wants to exchange 10 new volumes of James Fenimore Cooper’s works for shells, fossils, coins, birds’ eggs “or any curios.” Not being a Natty Bumpo fan myself, I’m with Mr. Parker; I’d rather have the fossils, shells, etc; in fact, I think that Cooper wrote not only with a lead pencil, but leaden hand.

A Mr. Hawley of New York City had “a handsome German Standard microscope, magnifying seventy fois” which he was willing to exchange for “Coue’s Key in good condition.”

Then there is a rather sad advertisement from Mr. Jas. P. Babbitt of Tauton, Massachusetts, who advertised in previous issues. He informs the reader that at the end of November, his establishment suffered a fire and the only goods not damaged were:

He states that he is offering substantial discounts so that he does not have to pack and store these goods during rebuilding.

Now, color me skeptical, but unless those skins were already stored at another location, they would surely have suffered smoke damage at the very least. The newest style for the spring–a smoked chinchilla stole.

D. Frank Keller of Reading Pennsylvania, another ornithological vandal, was prepared to sell you, for $20, either a Bald Eagle with a wing span of 7 feet or a fine peacock. Clearly, one needed an estate with very large rooms to house such displays.

However, the most fascinating item in this issue is a book review. It’s a brief paragraph, so I will quote it in its entirety and then discuss it at inordinate, tediously and mindbogglingly pedantic length and pretentiousness. Well, we’ll hope it won’t be quite that bad.

“Probably the most important literary event of the age is the discovery by Dr. Orville W. Owen of the ‘Cipher Stories’ of Sir Francis Bacon, proving if they be taken from the plays of William Shakespeare as the author asserts, that the authorship of these famous plays should now without any doubt be credited to Sir Francis Bacon. We herewith present a likeness of Dr. Owen, who has spent years of labor upon his work and whose efforts should be given due acknowledgment. The first volume of the deciphered writing is just out of press, and may be obtained of the Howard Publishing Co., of Detroit. Price 50c in paper, cloth 75c.”

It’s nice to know that hyperbole was alive and well in the19th Century and not something for which we are entirely responsible–“Probably the most important literary event of the age...”–Madison Avenue drivel! The authorship of the plays became a heated matter in the 19th Century and this was, in large part, due to the fact that so little is known of Shakespeare’s education and yet he refers to sophisticated scientific theories, philosophical, theological, literary, artistic, historical, and political matters that suggest a broad background and a mind which had been taught to think both analytically and synergistically. Nonetheless, like it or not, the human race very occasionally produces minds of staggering, almost incomprehensible genius–Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Mozart, Bach, Dante, Socrates, Goethe, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato, Einstein, Dostoevski, Darwin and the list goes on, but even a long list of geniuses (even though we might not agree on every individual) would comprise such a tiny fraction of the human race since recorded history that these are beings who set standards toward which those of us not so gifted, aspire and strive to overcome our indolence and create “beyond” ourselves.

Dr. Orville W. Owen was, by the way, not an academic, but a medical doctor, who tried to demonstrate Bacon’s authorship by discovering ciphers within the plays. Apparently he constructed some kind of deciphering machine (whatever that might be–we’d better get the CIA onto that) which has 2 wheels and 1,000 feet of canvas. Calling Rube Goldberg, calling Rube Goldberg. I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of contraption this was.

Bacon was not the only candidate proposed for the authorship of the plays. There was also Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and both Orson Welles and William James thought that he might well be the author. There were several other Earls who were thought to be possibilities and it was even proposed that Queen Elizabeth I herself wrote them.

This issue is rather like the Loch Ness Monster; it simply won’t go away and from time to time rears its ugly head again. My own view is reflected in the following remark about Homer. If Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey, then they were written by an ancient, blind, Greek poet of the same name. Perhaps Shakespeare was one of those extraordinary individuals who possessed the gift of eidetic memory and managed to recall everything he heard and read and then, with stunning accuracy transformed by a staggeringly inventive mind, created what are perhaps the greatest plays in the English language.

In any case, as you see, venturing into 19th Century natural history publications can lead one into unexpected and fascinating dimensions of human history.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.


Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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