Methods in the Art of Taxidermy

by Oliver Davie Published in 1900

History of Taxidermy Part I

It is not my intention to elaborate on the history of a subject whose life has been so short and uneventful as that of the art of taxidermy. Our" great lights" in the art are few, and if we cannot point to examples as ancient as those which immortalize the grandeur of other arts, it may be because its objects in their very nature are perishable. If there were any early attempts in the art, the subjects must have been so in­artistic and unnatural looking while they lasted that they were per­haps regarded as curious, but as works of art were probably never rec­ognized and were never recorded in history, tradition, poetry or song, and, meteor-like, their rays were soon lost in the firmament of the fixed planets of other arts whose light will continue to shine for all time. Were the examples as desirable as those of sculpture or painting, we should be able to trace their history to very remote periods.

If the mounting of the skins of vertebrate animals to appear life­like was carried on in ancient times, we have no evidence as to the quality of the work or by whom it was done. An old narrative of the Carthaginian navigator, Hanno, has been verified through extensive research, and that portion relating to the original discovery of the gorilla may possibly have a bearing on the question of the antiquity of our art. By this record, five hundred years before the Christian era this old voyager recorded the capture of goril­las and the preservation of their skins; or, as the record has it, "we killed and skinned them, and conveyed their skins to Carthage ." His­tory also relates that these skins were preserved in the temple of Astarte , where they remained until the taking of the city in the year 146 before Christ, as stated by Pliny, who called them Gorgones.

From this, however, we cannot infer that these specimens were mounted or arranged to represent life-like attitudes, but simply that the skins were preserved. If our art is of ancient date, we have no relics of it, as we find in the other arts, as lasting as those of Grecian sculpture, which date back as far as the eighth century B. C. The famous Lion Gate at Mycenre is supposed to be even older. We have no monuments in our art that defy the march of time like the bronze Disco bolus of Myron, yet to be seen in the Vatican at Rome, and many others of equal antiquity and value. We have no traces of our art which correspond to those grand mural paintings of Pompeii now collected in the museum at Naples , which are supposed to date from the first period of Roman painting. We have no parallel with these to give evidence that our art was at all practiced in ancient times.

The art of embalming was invented by the Egyptians for the pur­pose of preserving dead bodies from decay by means of aromatics, antiseptics or desiccation. It was an art created by the demands of the religious superstition of the times, and was practiced by the ancients from the earliest periods, but, unfortunately, was not calculated to enlighten and elevate. In their sepulchers, tombs and pits are found not only countless bodies of human beings, but also myriads of dogs, apes, crocodiles, cats, ibises, sheep, oxen and other animals.

All this was associated with their religious belief, for they held that the soul, after completing its cycle of separate existences extending through several thousand years, again returned to the body, and if that were found decayed or wasted, it transmigrated. It was not for the love of having their specimens look natural and life-like, but for the reason of their superstitious belief, that their spirits would, in course of time, return to their bodies, and they would again live with their cats and dogs as before the spirit left the body. Embalming is simply a means of preservation, is a separate art, and cannot, strictly speaking, come under the head of taxidermy, while taxidermy proper attempts to reproduce the forms, attitudes and expressions of animals as they appear in life.

The skins of animals were used from the most remote periods for clothing and various useful and ornamental articles, but respecting those periods we have no knowledge of the skins being mounted to represent life-like forms and attitudes. History records the fact that the older Indian tribes decorated themselves on different occasions with the heads of porcupines, foxes, raccoons, eagles, etc., stuffed so as to look quite natural. It is told that the first attempt to stuff birds was when the Hol­landers in the early part of the sixteenth century began their commer­cial intercourse with the East Indies.

A nobleman brought back to Amsterdam a large collection of live tropical birds and placed them in an aviary, which was heated to the proper temperature by a furnace. It happened that the attendant one night before retiring carelessly left the door of the furnace open, thereby allowing the smoke to escape, which suffocated the birds. The nobleman beholding the destruction of his large collection, which was the pride of the city, began to devise means for the preservation of the dead birds. To this end the best chemists of Amsterdam were called in for consultation, and it was decided to skin the birds and fill their skins with the spices of the Indies for their preservation. This was done, and they were then wired and mounted to represent life. For many years they were the hobby of the nobleman and the pride of the inhabitants.