↑ Top of Page ↑

By the nineteenth century, a golden age of science, an age of natural history was well underway. With the influence of the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and in particular the work of Swedish naturalist Carl von Linne, there was a growing urge to rationally explain the natural world. In Systema Naturae (first published in 1735 and then expanded over the following decades), Linne created a comprehensive taxonomy to classify all known plants and animals based upon shared physical characteristics. At the time, it was thought there was a fixed number of species on Earth, and that, through effort, all of nature could be cataloged and studied. There was a very real rush to explore, discover, and describe nature. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was not an isolated endeavor. This page explores various attempts to expand animal knowledge in the age of natural history.

In 1808-1814, Alexander Wilson produced the nine-volume American Ornithology, a stunning masterpiece of natural history. He portrayed vibrant American birds such as the cardinal and scarlet tanager with "well authenticated facts deduced from careful observation, precise descriptions, and faithfully portrayed representations drawn from living nature." Melding art with science, Wilson's work set the standard for illustrated works on natural history.

Lithographer M.E.D. Brown created an image of the Wild Turkey for the Cabinet of Natural History (1833), the first colored American sporting book. Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the APS, would no doubt have warned hunters of the prowess of the turkey. The bird, "though a little vain and silly, [was] a bird of courage, which would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards" [Benjamin Franklin to daughter Sarah Franklin Bache, 1784].

John James Audubon, best known for his massive elephant folio Birds of America (1827-1838), of which the APS was an original subscriber, produced other noteworthy works of natural history. Partnering with John Bachman, he published The Quadrupeds of North America (1854). This particular work, at a more manageable size for the reading public, featured brilliantly-colored mammals, such as the groundhog.

Scottish naturalist William Jardine produced the 40-volume Naturalist's Library, a set popular with the British public. The third volume, published in 1834, was The Natural History of Felinae, covering the history of cats. Pictured here is the Puma or American Lion, which once appeared from California to Pennsylvania.

It is now time to turn to insects, which make up approximately 80% of the species on Earth. Early American naturalists shied away from cataloging insects, and relied heavily upon their European counterparts for describing the small creatures. Entomologist John Lawrence LeConte sought to remedy this situation, dedicating himself to classifying insects, the beetle in particular. In 1883, he published a taxonomy which classified 11,000 beetles. The beetle images here, drawn by LeConte himself, are testimony to his work.

The next item is Englishman John Benbow's Bee Book (1846-1854), a meticulously illustrated guide to beekeeping, filled with amusing anecdotes. Benbow notes in his tiny manuscript that beekeeping can be a painstaking hobby--because of the beestings!

The last three images are from a later era, the 1930s, and represent the increasing fascination with animals as pets. The three images of tropical fish, created by German illustrator Fritz Mayer, come from the papers of William Innes. Innes is best known for the work Exotic Aquarium Fishes (1935), for which these images were created.

Image Gallery