A Trip Into The Past: Part 8

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

  Part 1 : Part 2 : Part 3 : Part 4 : Part 5 : Part 6 : Part 7


I did come across another issue of The Taxidermist , Vol. I, No. 2, August 1892. I’m not going to discuss the articles nor natter on about the advertisements; I’m just going to share a few helpful hints provided to make your own ventures into taxidermy less difficult. They are very brief and we shall quickly move on to other magazines.

For those of you mounting alligators, I’m certain it will be invaluable to know that: “An alligator can be skinned only as far as the occipital bone.”

For the ornithologically inclined: “Corn meal is a better absorbent to use in skinning a bird than plaster.”

And we mustn’t neglect the mammalogist: “All mammal skins ought to be well tanned in a brine of alum, salt, and saltpetre to set before they are mounted.

Finally, for those of you who want to create landscape settings for the mounting of your animals: “Artificial snow can be made by crushing burnt alum with a roller.”

You may recall that in the previous part, we found a notice in The West American Scientist that James P. Babbitt of Tauton, Massachusetts had suffered a devastating fire, but now in The Petrel , Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1901, we find that he has apparently recovered and rebuilt, for he is once more offering a wide range of items for the taxidermist and naturalist.

Moving on to yet another, and earlier publication, The Stormy Petrel of which I have Vol. 1, No. 3, June 1890 and Vol. 1, No. 5, August 1890, on the back cover of No. 3, we find an advertisement for The Farrago : “A monthly Literary Magazine for Boys and Girls, and one pound of well assorted Reading Matter for $1.00.” If, however, you were willing to forgo the extra pound of assorted stuff, you could get a year’s subscription to The Farrago for just 35 cents. The word “farrago” initially makes me think of a confused collection, a hodgepodge, but I take it that the publisher of this magazine intended it in its other sense of being a medley. I wonder what the assorted pound of reading material was like. I remember years ago, being in a very large, cluttered, and eclectic used bookstore in which the owner had come up with the clever notion of selling off his dross at $1.00 per pound. It’s absolutely amazing what people will buy when they think they’re getting a bargain. The front cover of this issue has a poem titled The Stormy Petrel without identifying the author which may convey to you something about the quality of the verse.

The front cover of No. 5 has a depressing, morbid poem titled: “On A Goldfinch” by William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper” I am told by one of my learned colleagues) whose work I was familiar with from a peculiar and rather boring little book called Table Talk which I had purchased as a guileless youth.

This issue of the magazine has 6 items of special interest; 2 advertisements and 4 brief notes. Let’s consider the ads first. M. Smith & Co. of Mendota, Illinois (not exactly a coastal city) offers you the special opportunity of acquiring leopard shark’s eggs for a mere 15 cents each. We are informed that: “A curiosity collector should not rest nights, until one of these eggs are [sic] in his cabinet.” At last, an explanation for my insomnia.

The second ad is from the San Diego College of Letters which already back in 1890 was employing clever marketing strategies.

“The Attention of parents is especially directed to the climatic advantages enjoyed by this institution. Students unable to attend schools in more rigorous climates, or too delicate in health, may study here regain full health and compete in scholarship with their stronger associates.”

This makes one wonder whether the institution was a college or a tuberculosis sanatorium. In 1890, the air was probably clear and clean; however, in 1960 when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles to do graduate work, there were days when, in the civic center, one couldn’t see the tops of the buildings because of the smog. In fact, we would wake up in the morning and hear the birds coughing. San Diego’s air may be marginally better, but one has to remember that it is an enormous port city with pollution not only from cars, but refineries, heavy industry, and ships. Such a notice today would be blatant false advertising of the most egregious sort.

Today, there is much talk about urban myths, but in the 19th Century, one was just as likely to encounter rural myths. This first one is brief enough to quote in its entirety.


Squirrels will sometimes migrate from one place to another by the thousands. It is said that neither rocks, nor rivers, nor forests, nor mountains will stop them. If they find a river too wide for them to cross, they will go back into the forest and provide themselves with a piece of bark, and then they put out to sea, making their tails serve as sail or rudder. It often happens that they ventured too far, and cannot contend against the waves, and therefore never reach the other side.”

If in 1890, there had been the equivalent of the National Enquirer, I would expect a headline:



Imagine a squirrel using its tail as a rudder!

The second note also contains a couple of points which strain credulity. The topic of the paragraph is strange marine fish. The halibut’s strange feature of having both eyes on one side of its head is mentioned–“a fish sometimes six feet long”. Then, we are told that the much larger sword-fish–“often 20 feet long–sometimes attacks the side of a ship and runs its sword deep into the timbers.” Now, swordfish are indeed powerful, formidable creatures, but I suspect it is only retarded specimens that attack ships. However, the next example is a first-class aquatic myth. “The cuttle-fish has a roundish body, a wicked-looking head and face, and eight long arms, with which it catches its food, and has often been known to catch sailors and squeeze them to death.” For starters, whoever wrote this was apparently thinking of an octopus, since cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 longer tentacles, as do squid. Further their body is elongated. Giant squid and octopi devouring sailors and even pulling down entire ships are classical parts of mariners’ lore. I vividly recall an old drawing of a three-masted ship around which there were gigantic tentacles extending up to the top rigging, pulling the unfortunate vessel down into the sea.

There are indeed some giant squid, but they have turned out to be quite elusive and scientists have been spending a great deal of time and money trying to film and capture these fascinating creatures. They are, of course, not so large that they would attack large ships and they seem to be rather shy. Most large specimens of cephalopods that scientists have been able to study closely have been washed up on beaches. If a large octopus were to attack a human, the greatest dangers would be:

1) drowning from being held under water and 2) rending of the flesh by the powerful “beak” which the octopus uses for attacking and dismembering prey. Incidentally, there is in Australia, a small blue octopus which possesses a very dangerous toxin, but this doesn’t fit into the giant monster-of-the-sea myth. Our reporter tells us, however, that these great creatures often squeeze sailors to death–to which I reply–Yes, and Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

The next little note is titled: “The Economy of Nature”. We are told that a German professor spent 20 years studying a certain snail “and learned this interesting fact concerning it.” (For 20 years of research, I hope he learned more than one fact.) Unfortunately, we are not given a clue as to the identity of this unusual gastropod. We are told that it occurs in coastal areas on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The intriguing fact in the account is this: the Pacific snail is the prey of “a certain fish” and so has evolved a third eye on the back of its head. The predator fish is absent on the Atlantic coast and so these snails have no posterior eye.

I know that nature produces incredible numbers of astonishing adaptions and many of them seem so bizarre that, without documentation, they seem hard to believe. I wish the anonymous author had supplied a bit more information so that one could track down this unusual gastropod.

One of the reasons that I find some of these accounts suspect is amply illustrated in the next brief note.

“A LIVE SEA-FLOWER, named the opelot, which looks a good deal like the China aster, is found blooming in the ocean. Its petals are light green, glossy as silk, and each one is tipped with rose-color. Little fish which are pleased with the bright color of these waving, silky petals, swim around and look at them. Soon one swims nearer and touches the rosy tips, when a sharp pain goes through it, and in a few minutes, it turns over and dies. It has been poisoned...The petals then prepare to catch another; and so that plant lives and blossoms, fed from the fish it catches so strangely.”

I’m sure that you have all figured out by now, that this organism is not a plant at all, but a sea anemone and, of course, its very name invites us to be misled. Apparently Edmund Gosse’s beautifully illustrated work on anemones had not yet reached Mendota, Illinois and today if you want a copy you’ll have to pay anywhere from $185 to over $1,000! As an aside, I Googled the term “opelot” and got pages of entries in Polish along with a few in Russian and German. So, I have no idea where that term came from. The conjectures in this little note, though quite wrong, are understandable. There are insectivorous plants that depend upon the animal kingdom for nutrition and there are plants that exude some nasty toxins–poison ivy and nettle being two common examples. Nonetheless, were you to take this account as given, you would be seriously misled. such errors have a very long and, one might even say, distinguished history, since Aristotle, the first real biologist thought that some kinds of sponges and tunicates were plants.

Next, I would like to look briefly at several intriguing articles and one advertisement in The Western Ornithologist (formerly The Iowa Ornithologist), Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February, 1900, published in Avoca, Iowa. I mentioned in a previous essay in this series, that it was traditional in the period for publications to offer premiums to entice subscribers and this magazine was no exception. In a full page ad, one was offered a choice of three premiums for a subscription, the price of which was 50 cents.

I. 50 envelopes with your name and address bronzed in the corner.

II. 100 datas, size 3x5 inches.

III. Your choice of any 6 of 26 Cuban views, size 2½ x 3¼ inches.

I won’t bore you with the entire list, but I’ll give you a few choice examples of these Cuban views, using their numbers:

1. Turkey Buzzards in the suburbs of a city (poor negative).

8. Driveway to a country residence.

12. Tombs in cemetery at Neuvitas, Cuba.

15. Block house, forming entrance to dungeons.

21. Cuban ox cart.

16. Cubans paving the streets.

Who selected these pictures–El Sade?

I’ll certainly want #13 to add to my collection of places of execution and #1 for my huge display of photographs of turkey buzzards. The more I know of humans, the less I understand them.

Actually all of the articles in this issue are interesting and well-written and there are some excellent drawings and a fine photograph of a Swainson’s Hawk.

The article “Bird Life In The City” by Burtis H. Wilson is full of interesting observations about both humans and birds. In the first paragraph, he comments: “In the midst of the hurry and bustle of life at the close of the nineteenth century, with all the varied pursuits which go to make up the round of existance [sic], it seems strange that so many people can find time to take an interest in ornithology.”

Oh, what a difference a century makes! Since this was published in the January/February issue of 1900, Mr. Wilson probably wrote this in 1899. To us in 2007, it seems almost laughable that he speaks of “the hurry and bustle of life”–no radios, no televisions, no computers, no cinema, no bus lines, no airplanes, no telephones, very limited electricity, limited indoor plumbing (certainly in Iowa), no stereos, no cell phones, no electron microscopes, and the list goes on. In 1900, many of the “labor-saving” devices we have now were not yet invented and many tasks took much longer than they do now. Yet, with all the distractions, many Americans are working more hours than they did 25 or 50 years ago; parents organize their children’s activities in team sports, dancing classes, piano lessons, beauty pageants, and God knows what else. Communing with nature has been redefined as taking your kids to the park for soccer practice. “Roughing it” now often amounts to loading up granny and the kids in an RV the size of a Greyhound bus–with TV, DVD, stereo, cellphones, wireless lapdog (sorry, laptop) computers, toilet, kitchen and bedrooms–to go “plug in” at a campground in Yellowstone and , if you go in the winter, you can tow your snowmobiles behind and then when you get there, you can ride around deafening all the grizzlies, elk, antelope, and skiers.

As you can tell, I have mixed feeling about all of these technological “advances” which we enjoy. Most of my reservations have to do with the fact that we have not, for at least two generations, taught either young people or adults how to properly utilize the magnificent resources at our disposal. I know of a beautiful spot 15 miles east of Laramie in the mountains. It is not easily accessible; there is a lovely little spring feeding a stream where I have found Lacrymaria and Planaria, a series of beaver ponds filled with wonderful micro-life, including the bryozoan Plumatella repens , pine and aspen groves surround the area, and I have found prickly pear cacti with their yellow and red flowers, a hummingbird’s nest with 2 tiny eggs, ducks on the pond, aluminum beer cans, styrofoam, plastic sacks, newspapers, condoms, a rusty knife, and other detritus of indifferent humans.

For many dwellers in large cities, avifauna to them means pigeons which are widely despised. In smaller, less populated communities, there are still bird watchers and even clubs and many individuals keep “life lists” to record every species they see in their lifetime. I am fascinated by birds, but I am not O.O. (ornithologically obsessed), but I must admit that in the spring I look forward to driving out to some of the isolated lakes where my only other human companions will be a few fishermen basking in the silence and there I encounter blue heron, pelicans, Canadian geese, red-wing blackbirds, yellow-wing blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, occasionally an eagle, and many busy little American avocets skittering around the edge of the shore, probing the sand with their long beaks. Here, in these special, secret places, there is a kind of peace which allows me to lose my ego and expand out into the immensity around me. There is a mixed sense of joy and loss–joy in the freedom, a quickening of my senses, a celebration of being both mind and body; loss, in the realization that I have to return to a context of responsibilities and obligations. I feel sorrow for the technocrats and techno-teens who are either indifferent to nature or know it only through television nature programs or zoos.

Back to Mr. Wilson’s essay. He, like many sensible persons of the period, advocated responsible collecting of specimens.

Of course these collections are of help to the real student, as is also a scientific knowledge of the birds’ classification and physical structure, but to the average observer they are not necessary. And it is to this latter class of observers, and they are far more numerous than the former, that this article is addressed. The collection of eggs and birds is well enough when it is done to add to one’s knowledge, but when, as is usually the case, it is taken up in the same spirit as the collecting of stamps or coins or autographs, merely to satisfy the collector with the possession of them till he grows tired and turns his attention to collecting something else, the true bird lover will do his utmost to discourage it.”

It is discouraging to think of how many individuals end up discarding natural history collections of all kinds, but even more discouraging how high schools, colleges and universities also either discard collections or let them fall into neglect and no longer use them for instructional purposes. This is one of the splendid things about the internet; it provides an opportunity for the recycling of specimens. Last year on eBay, I bought some wonderful Morpho butterflies which had been mounted in the 1920s. Just last week, I bought some slides of parasites from a scientist who is retired and wants to allow others access to some of these unusual organisms.

Several years ago, I offered to donate to the university here a fairly wide variety of duplicate preserved invertebrates. I was told, rather bluntly, that using funds to maintain such a collection was not a high priority. This experience got me to thinking that it may well be better to offer such items for sale rather than donate them since, if an individual is willing to spend a modest bit of money to acquire them, then perhaps he or she is more likely to make use of them than an institution is.

Wilson has some keen observations regarding how man’s intrusion with his city-building has provided new options for birds in terms of nesting. He remarks that the Purple Martin which traditionally nested in cliff crevices now nests “in crevices under the cornices of city buildings and in spaces between the iron beams in the tops of bridges.” Chimney swifts have often moved from hollow trees to–where else?–chimneys. The Night Hawk moved from the bare ground or rock to the flat gravel roofs of buildings.

Equally interesting are his reflections on the use of materials for nest building.

Not only has the location of nests been altered, but the materials used in their construction have been changed from natural to manufactured. For instance, paper, twine, hemp, yarn, wire, and even lace are found in the nests of many species.”

It is rather a nice thought that our avian friends are recycling some of our detritus. He further comments that our invasion has provided a shift in food habits of many birds which “feed almost exclusively on cultivated fruits and grains, and insects that infest them.”

Mr. Wilson is clearly a keen observer and a devoted lover of birds. His essay is largely directed at city and suburban dwellers in an effort to encourage them to develop an interest in the avifauna around them and to help protect and preserve them. He also is disturbed by the wanton destruction of birds. “Just across the street from the orchard a Bohemian Waxwing was shot one November day in a mountain-ash tree by a boy with a sling-shot. As far as is known to this writer this is the only one of the species ever taken in the county.” The very crafting of that first sentence reveals the expression of deep sentiment verging on a brief elegy.

Two other articles, one by a man and one by a woman, express the melancholy of winter in the beginning of the year. In the first paragraph of his piece, “A New Year’s Day”, David L. Savage says:

“ANOTHER year drops into the gulf of the past. The faces of the crowd are all turned toward the future–mine ever toward the past. Everyone smiles upon the new year; but, in spite of myself, I think of her whom time has just wrapped in her winding sheet. The past year! At least I know what she has, and what she has given me; whilst this one comes with all the foreboding of the unknown. Is it storm or is it sunshine? Just now it rains, and I feel my mind as gloomy as the sky.”

However, he then hears the song of a Slate-colored Junco and experiences a rapid transformation of mood. “This unexpected soloist dispelled, as with sunshine, the kind of mist that had gathered around my mind...A happy man is the bird-lover; always another species to look for, another mystery to solve.”

For many, the long, bleak winters of the Midwest with their brutal cold, howling winds, heavy snows, and seemingly endless days of overcast skies were oppressive and depressing. Nonetheless, the bird-lovers seemed to be able to maintain a special reserve of emotional strength which allowed them to transcend the gloom and rejoice in the wonderful small pleasures of life.

In “A Winter Reverie”, Mrs. Mary L. Rann presents us with an account that parallels that of Mr.Savage.

“Slowly, silently, like the fluttering down of gold and crimson leaves, do our summer guests gather for their long journey home. The summer is ended, say we; the harvest is reaped and garnered. We enclose the field glass and put aside notebook and pencil till another season...As we reflect upon the unkindness of the season, we turn to our bookshelves for solace,...But suddenly the glint of a wing or the clear call of some winter-loving bird remind us that on the sunnyside of yonder hill are gathered Juncos, Canadian Tree Sparrows, Tits, and Chickadees, and across the ravine in the grove, may be found Nuthatches, Creepers, Jays, Crows and purchance [sic] a Robin or two attempting to brave an Iowa winter.”

In my view, Mr. Savage and Mrs. Rann are wonderful examples of the virtue of having a passion for some aspect of natural history and it need not be birds. Over the years, I have accumulated a considerable collection of preserved organisms, both marine and freshwater and I maintain a few plants, small aquaria and cultures, so that when the weather is such that I can’t get out, I always have material to study and wonder at. Actually, today is a good example. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon and the temperature is 5 degrees F. and there is lots of snow and ice on the ground and the streets.

I was amused by one paragraph in Mrs. Rann’s essay wherein she indulges in some moralistic anthropomorphic projections.

“There is no more interesting study than the character of birds. One sees the frivolous, the gay, the stupid, the shy and apprehensive, the stolid and indifferent, as well as the high bred and aristocratic. There is also the cruel murderous character in birds, as well as in the human race. We learn to love birds by their character or otherwise. The lack of tenderness of the Rose-breasted Grossbeak destroys my pleasure in his beauty and in his song. A bird that is so indifferent to the comfort of its young as to build its nest of dead twigs in an open slatternly manner, without lining of any kind, has the instincts of the aborigines.”

One can almost see Mrs. Rann quivering with outrage as she pens these remarks.

Almost every summer, I find a few feathers scattered in the yard which are, I suspect, the result of birds squabbling over food or nesting territory. Feathers are remarkably complex structures and can prove hours of challenge in the attempt to unlock some of their secrets. In this issue, Mr. Morton E. Peck examines the plumage of the Blue Jay. This is the first of a series of articles in which he rather ambitiously proposes a “comparatively full survey of the plumage of a single representative bird as illustrative of the whole avian class.” He adds that he will not address the issue of coloration and admits that he has selected the Blue Jay because it presents “no striking peculiarities of feather structure.”

Such surveys can be quite helpful in a limited fashion, but they can also be misleading. Many biology texts present Paramecium as a typical example of a ciliated protozoan. The main reason for this is that it is ubiquitous, but just because an organism is abundant and cosmopolitan does not mean that it is typical. The “generic” models of a “typical” cell or feather are also problematic; useful if one understands the limits, misleading if one doesn’t. Nonetheless, Mr. Peck presents a very nice exposition with some fine drawings, one of which I’ll include here.

I am also including a closeup image which I took of a feather from an old feather duster. You can see all the tiny barbels extending from the shafts.

Finally, we get to the last of these early magazines with Vol. 1, No. 3, July and August 1903 of The Atlantic Slope Naturalist edited and published bi-monthly by W.E. Rotzell, M.D., of Narberth, Pennsylvania. There are three brief items I want to take a look at. The first is a letter with the heading:

A Critical Non-Supporter

Dear Sir: Your little journal has been received and I would like to be a subscriber but really do not approve of killing birds to find out their names...The best way to study birds is by note and not by shot gun. If you will make an effort to stop the slaughter of birds you can put me down as a long subscriber.

Very truly,

D. Minehan

A devilish dilemma! From one perspective, I greatly admire the doctrine of “reverence for life” as it develops from Spinoza to Goethe to Albert Schweitzer. On the other hand, our knowledge of the natural world would be much impoverished without access to specimens. With adequate and proper research, we can find ways to help preserve species and protect them from radical threats of diseases, toxic environments, parasites, and excessive predation. However, this last must include human predation and the protection of more of the environment from developers, many of whom are predators of the worst sort. Humans have long sought gold, silver, diamonds and other precious stones and metals, but have all too often forgotten or ignored the biological treasures of planet Earth. These are the sort of treasures that can endure only if we understand that part of our role in nature is to be the caretakers of Earth.

This little magazine also has an utterly delightful short piece titled “Early Risers” by Thos. G. Gentry, Sc.D. and I am sorely tempted to simply reproduce the whole thing here since it is only 1 1/3 columns, but this essay has already gotten quite long. However, I will give you a brief, pale summary here. Dr. Gentry recounts how during a period of recovery from typhoid pneumonia, he undertook a modest experiment which raised his spirits and perhaps even aided his recuperation. He had a clock and a lamp placed such that he could see the time in his darkened room and he observed the time each day that he could hear particular birds. He was a man with a rather florid, but pleasing, style and I will quote one brief passage to give you a sense of it.

“The hour of five found the summer yellowbird and the song sparrow sufficiently awake to add their quota of delight.

But scarcely had they thrilled the fields and groves around with their sweet cadences, than they were hushed by sounds more shrill than jay or crow e’er uttered, for the sparrows–those hateful, saucy gamins from Albion’s shores–had now essayed their matins.”

The final item I want to look at is an advertisement inside the front cover for a book by our good Doctor of Science, Thomas G. Gentry–yes, he of the purple prose above and this notice suggests that Dr. Gentry was a bit of a loon. His book is titled: Life and Immortality! or Soul in Plants and Animals . The purveyor, W. Aldworth Poyser, informs us that he has acquired the remaining copies of the author’s private edition (suggesting that perhaps Gentry paid to have it published) and further tells us that this “large octavo [of] 289 pages, cloth, profusely illustrated’ which previously sold for $2.50, he is now by special arrangement with the author, offering for $1.00 and furthermore that these are autographed copies. Apparently this volume didn’t make The New York Times bestseller list.

Here is the description of the book.

“The intelligence of plants and animals is depicted as never before. The work is not as one might suppose from the title–a controversial treatise, packed with metaphysics, bristling with thesis and theory with disputatious argument. The theme is handled with skillful simplicity by a master hand.”

I would love to find a copy of this “treatise”; in fact, I’d even be willing to pay the full price of $2.50 without the autograph–since it’s profusely illustrated, it would be worth it to get a glimpse of a diagram of the soul of a philodendron or petunia let alone a wildebeest or wallaby. Why not? After all the French philosopher, Jacques Maritain provided a diagram of the human soul in his book Creativity and Intuition in Art and Poetry .


I decided to Google Gentry’s book and found used copies of it priced from $20 to $60. I also discovered that it has been reissued (2003) in a paperback which is also available for about $20. I checked the university library, but it doesn’t own a copy. So, I guess I’ll have to soldier on not knowing what the soul of a philodendron looks like as I’m not sure my curiosity extends to $20 in this case.

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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