Methods in the Art of Taxidermy

by Oliver Davie Published in 1900

History of Taxidermy Part III

Becceur, of Metz, who first compounded the well-known preservative, arsenical soap, mounted birds and quadrupeds by replacing their skeleton back in their skins. The muscles being removed from the bones, which were allowed to remain attached to their ligaments, he replaced the flesh with flax or cotton, wired the legs and vertebral column, sewed up the opening in the skin, placed the specimen on its stand, gave it a suitable position and then put on the finishing touches. It is recorded that his work was skillfully done and the attitudes of his subjects were natural, because with the skeleton he could not go far wrong.

A German work, Issued anonymously at Leipsic in 1788, contains some rather unusual methods of mounting birds and mammals. Professor J. S. Wiley in 1855 published a fifty page pamphlet, entitled "The Preparation and Preservation of Objects of Natural History." It is one of the best and most thorough treatises on the subject that has ever appeared. The different methods offered in this work form a combination based upon those employed by the best French and German operators. His manner of collecting and preparing fishes and reptiles is of the best kind. One in the German by Dr. W. Shilling, published at Weimar in 1860-61, in three volumes, is one of the best foreign works with which I have met. Philipp Leopold Martin, in 1870, published at Weimar a most creditable and complete exposition of our art. A book by H. T. Race, in the Danish, published in 1842, contains old methods of mounting birds and mammals, in which the methods of preservation are not at all reliable. A little work of twenty-nine pages, by S. H. Sylvester, published in this country in 1865, is a most practical work as far as it goes. The instructions are very concise, but clear and of the most practical kind. Those given are only for birds and small quadrupeds. A work by Nathaniel Whitlock, appeared in London in 1831, and gives some very good instruction in the" Skinning and Mounting of Birds, Beasts and Fishes." It makes little difference, however, what methods a man employs if, by their means, he attains in a satisfactory manner the ends in view; but of all the above mentioned works, Martin seems to be the only author who has a proper knowledge of the uses of clay in taxidermy.

In fact, it is difficult to comprehend how the old taxidermists managed to make the heads and faces of large, and also some of the smaller mammals, look natural without its use or something equivalent to it. It would be difficult, indeed, without something of a plastic nature, to reproduce the exact character of the lips and faces of dogs and larger mammals, the faces and fingers of monkeys, etc. It is true that Naumann in 1815 advocated the use of clay in birds by making a stout wire frame, which he filled with soft clay and allowed it to dry, thus producing a piece of work of great weight. The proper uses of clay in our art are well known at the present day. It can be molded into any shape desired, and will forever retain the form given it, and an experienced hand by its use can reproduce to a nicety all the wrinkles, hollows and elevations that are characteristic in the expressions of any animal. This part of the art requires the delicate touch which characterizes the hand of the true sculptor when the image in his brain is first created in clay. In fact, he who would attain a high standard in the advanced branches of taxidermy must be in one sense of the word a sculptor. In the work published in 1840 by William Swainson, and also in that of Capt. Thomas Brown, there appears not one word on the value of clay in taxidermy. Its uses then in our art may be considered of comparatively recent date. My venerable preceptor, Dr. Theodore Jasper, has always employed it in modeling mammals. His experience in the art extends over a period of more than fifty years. The use of clay were undoubtedly known in Brown's and Swainson's time, but it is a well known fact that many methods in taxidermy, like the mixing of met2ls by the alchemists of old, were held secret by their discoverers, which prevented them from becoming generally known.

American books on taxidermy are not numerous, but besides those already noticed, we may name Maynard's" Taxidermist's Guide" and the" Taxidermist's Manual;" also Joseph H. Batty's "Practical Taxidermy." Mr. William T. Hornaday's "Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting" is the best work that has thus far appeared, foreign or American. Our" great lights," if such they may be called, are Charles Waterton, of England, and Jules Verreaux, of France. The first was an enthusiast and had many queer ways of doing things, while Verreaux, of Paris, is said to have created masterpieces in the art fairly rivaling "some of the examples of the higher plastic arts." Titian R. Peale, an energetic collector, is said to have improved the art in the United States.

The distinguished naturalist, Prince Maximilian, of Nieu Wied, Germany, for several years explored regions of North and South America in search of specimens of birds and mammals. In the American Museum of Natural History are numbers of examples in the Maximilian collection bearing labels in the handwriting of the Prince, with dates from 1812 upwards.