Special Collections

Discovering American Animals

Mark Catesby, 1683-1749.
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Savannah, Ga.: Beehive Press, 1974. [Facsimile edition]

Catesby's Natural History, originally published between 1731 and 1743, is one of the key documents of the exploration of North America. The book was based on two trips that Catesby took between 1712 and 1726. He discovered and named many previously unknown species. The illustrations show the animals in their natural habitat or with their preferred food plant. While the animals appear stiff and posed to modern readers, they were considered lifelike for their time.

Alexander Wilson, 1766-1813.
American Ornithology, or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States: illustrated with plates, engraved and colored from original drawings taken from nature. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-14.

American Ornithology is a key publication in the history of zoological illustration. It was the first American work to use color plates to combine art with scientific information. The seventy-six plates were produced by hand-colored copper plate engraving. The illustrations are stiff and somewhat awkward and lack the artistry that Audubon would exhibit ten years later. However, the project was financially successful and showed that an American audience would support a scientific publication of this type.

Gift of Joseph Y. Jeanes, Jr.

American Ornithology

John Edwards Holbrook, 1794-1871.
North American Herpetology. Philadelphia: J. Dobson; London, R. Baldwin; 1842.

This was the first comprehensive description of the amphibians and reptiles of North America. Many of the plates were done by a process called "lithotint," which produces plates with several tones of printed color which were then finished by hand. The plates were produced by Peter S. Duval of Philadelphia, one of the finest lithographers of the era.

United States. Dept. of the Interior.
Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, Made under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, by William H. Emory. Washington: C. Wendell, printer, 1857-59.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ended the United States' war with Mexico, it was necessary to establish a boundary acceptable to both nations. The Mexican Boundary Survey was the result and provided Americans with the first detailed descriptions of their newly-acquired territory. The twenty-five finely hand colored plates are accompanied by a list of two hundred and twenty six bird species, many never before identified.

John Edwards Holbrook, 1794-1871.
Ichthyology of South Carolina. Charleston, S.C.: Russell and Jones, 1860.

Holbrook was a physician and member of the faculty at the Medical College of South Carolina. The book includes 28 hand-colored plates of fish which lived in South Carolina waters and was published just before the start of the Civil War. Additional planned volumes were cancelled and the number published was very small, making this an extremely rare title.

Gift of the University of Delaware Library Associates



Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887.
The Birds of North America: the Descriptions of Species Based Chiefly on the Collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Salem: Naturalist's Book Agency, 1870.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian, is credited with making it a truly national museum. Baird was the foremost American ornithologist of his day as well as an expert on reptiles and fishes. Much of this work was taken from earlier work, especially the General Report on North American Birds presented to the Department of War (1858), one of the series of Reports of Explorations and Surveys of a Railroad Route to the Pacific Ocean.


John James Audubon, 1785-1851.
The Birds of America: From Original Drawings; reissued by J. W. Audubon; chromolithography by J. Bien. New York: Roe Lockwood & Son, 1860.

In 1858, Audubon's son John Woodhouse Audubon set out to publish a less expensive lithographic edition of the full-sized hand-colored Birds of America. He hired noted lithographer Julius Bien to create lithographic stones by inking each original copper plate and transferring a color print from it to the stone. This giant stone would be inked with each color in turn, printed, then finished with hand coloring. This was the most technically sophisticated use of lithography attempted to that time.

The project was terminated after the outbreak of the Civil War and only fifteen of the planned forty-five parts were produced. The deaths of John Woodhouse Audubon and his brother soon after put an end to the Audubon publications and the original drawings and copperplates for the prints were sold off by 1870. It is believed that less than fifty copies of the Bien Birds of America exist today.

Gift of C. Porter Schutt

blue jay

John James Audubon, 1785-1851.
The Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and their Territories. New York: J.J. Audubon; Philadelphia, J.B. Chevalier, 1840-44.

Gift of Joseph Y. Jeanes, Jr.

red fox

John James Audubon, 1785-1851.
The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by John James Audubon and John Bachman. New York: Audubon, 1846-53.

Following the success of his Birds of America, John James Audubon began to gather material for an equally ambitious project to document the animal life of North America. Audubon collaborated with his sons and the Reverend John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and experienced naturalist, who wrote most of the text for the illustrations. As Audubon's health declined during the project, more and more of the work was done by his sons, including most of the coloring of the lithographic plates.

Gift of Joseph Y. Jeanes, Jr.

John James Audubon, 1785-1851.
The Quadrupeds of North America. New York: V.G. Audubon, 1851-54.

Gift of Joseph Y. Jeanes, Jr.


John Warren.
The Conchologist. Boston: Russell, Odiorne & Metcalf, 1834.

The Conchologist was the first American manual for the study of shells. Its author was not a scientist, but an Englishman who sold shells and other curiosities in Boston and supplied private collectors with handsome specimens as decorative objects.

Thomas Say, 1787-1834.
American Conchology or, Descriptions of the Shells of North America; illustrated by coloured figures from original drawings executed from nature. New Harmony, Ind., 1838.

This book was produced at the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana at a time when that area still was frontier. The text and some of the plates were produced on the press of the community's school and colored by Thomas Say's wife and some of the school children.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849.
The Conchologist's First Book. Philadelphia: Haswell, Barrington, and Haswell, 1839.

Edgar Allan Poe is remembered as a novelist, editor, and poet, but in his day, it was conchology that helped pay his bills. While living in Philadelphia in 1838, Poe took on the most unusual project of his literary career, acting as a writer for hire for his neighbor, Thomas Wyatt. The idea was that Poe's recognizable name on the title page of Wyatt's edition of Thomas Brown's Conchologist's Text Book would spur sales. Poe, who was paid $50 for his efforts, contributed the preface and introduction; Wyatt (unattributed) most of the scientific detail; and Brown (also unattributed), the bulk of the text. This led to years of mistaken claims that Poe had plagiarized his only published work in the natural sciences. It was the only one of his works to enjoy a second edition during his lifetime.

Poe cover

Amos Binney, 1803-1847.
The Terrestrial Air-breathing Mollusks of the United States; described and illustrated by Amos Binney; edited by Augustus A. Gould. Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1851-1878.

The illustrations were colored and many were drawn by Philadelphia artist Helen Elizabeth Lawson (1808-1853). An accomplished scientific illustrator, her works for this book were considered to be the finest shell illustrations ever made.

University of Delaware Library 181 South College Avenue Newark, DE 19717-5267 USA +1 (302) 831-2229
This page is maintained by Special Collections.

Last modified: 04/26/11