Methods in the Art of Taxidermy

by Oliver Davie Published in 1900

History of Taxidermy Part II

But with these few very faint and unsatisfactory glimpses we have taken of our art, through the dark corridors of time, we must leave its past history to the oblivion that surrounds it, and look at the attempts of more modern times. Very interesting allusions are frequently made to taxidermic specimens in some of the world's greatest literature. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene 1, Romeo, in addressing Juliet, says:

"I do remember an apothecary, And hereabouts he dwells,-whom late I noted In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows, Culling of simples; meagre were his looks, Sharp misery had worn him to the bones: And in his needy shop a tortoise hung, An alligator stuff'd, and other skins Of ill-shap'd fishes."

Samuel Butler, in Hudibras, gives us a picture in the astrologer, Sidrophel's laboratory. It would be difficult to supply a better stock in trade for a wizard's den than that which Hogarth has furnished the apartment in his illustration of this scene. It is the most striking, if not the best, of Hogarth's illustrations of the Hudibras. Everything we see in the room bespeaks the cunning craft of the astrologer in the ignorance of his fellow-creatures. Besides two globes, terrestrial and celestial, and the spread scroll with its cabalistic signs, there is a stuffed crocodile, a sword fish, a tortoise, a bat, frog, snake and a few lizards. There is also a human skeleton with an owl mounted upon its shoulder. The room is luridly illumined by a burning lamp which is suspended by a chain from the crocodile, which seems to be the presiding genius of the place.

Not only do we know that examples of taxidermy decorated the dens of astrologers and the shops of apothecaries in the middle ages, but many a trophy of a day's hunt adorned the stately halls of palaces. The head and antlers of the stag which was laid low by "my lord's prowess" were preserved and hung as a memento of the chase. In recent years, as in the past, those in the humbler walks of life have likewise cherished a love for the preservation of the objects of animated nature, and in their lowly chambers may often be found specimens of taxidermist handiwork of great beauty and rarity. In a large number of instances our art has found patronage by those whose humble names have become immortal. Highland Mary, the idol of Burns, the greatest lyrical poet that ever lived, died in a room containing, among other simple decorations, three or four stuffed birds. We might recall many significant instances of individuals whose love for objects from the fields of nature, through modest personal efforts established a nucleus which formed the basis of some of the great museums of the world. The existing literature on the subject of taxidermy which has been published from time to time throws considerable light upon its rise and progress.

So far as my investigation goes, I have not been able to trace any writings on the subject of taxidermy farther back than two hundred years! The oldest work in my collection is a Natural History published at Paris by the Royal Academy in 1687, on the dissection of various animals. In this work mention is made of the fact that the Hollanders were the first to bring into Europe live specimens and skins of the cassowary and a number of other strange birds which they secured on their first voyages (1517) to the Indian archipelago. These were stuffed at Amsterdam.

Reaumur in 1748 published a memoir of the method of preserving skins of birds to be sent into distant countries. He received birds from all parts in spirits of wine, according to the instructions he had given, and formed a beautiful cabinet of natural history in his own house which, after his death, became the basis of the collection of birds in the Museum of Paris.

In 1752 M. B. Stoll as issued at Paris a work entitled" Instructions on the Manner of Preparing Objects of Natural History." The work contains five full-page illustrations. Some of the most ingenious devices for the mounting of birds and quadrupeds are given in this work. Why his methods were not more universally adopted by those immediately following him is difficult to understand. The same year appeared H. L. Duhamel's work of a similar title. E. F. Turgot appears to be the author of an anonymous work on taxidermy, which was issued at Lyons in 1758. The methods of skinning and mounting birds and small quadrupeds, described and illustrated in this work, are not the best by any means, while those for mounting reptiles, fishes and crustaceans are far better than some of the methods employed at the present day. This book is beautifully bound in the old style vellum. Another French work, by P. N. Nicholas, published at Paris in 1801, gives practical methods of mounting quadrupeds and reptiles, but the one given for mounting birds is the old unskillful, soft-filling method. The bird skin is also treated quite differently. It is soaked in a bath of preserving solution which, if at all practicable, would certainly aid in its preservation.

In 1786 the Abbé Manesse published a volume under the title of Treatise on the Manner of Stuffing and Preserving Animals and Skins. He presented his work to the Academy of Sciences at Paris. It contained some very useful advice in the mounting of birds, but the excluding of poisons and the adopting of alkalies for the preservation of skins proved a failure in his day and is not admissible in modern taxidermy. About this time an old German sculptor living at Lahaye devoted himself to the practice of taxidermy, and in a short time surpassed all those who had employed themselves in the mounting of animals. He excelled in the mounting of large mammals.