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The Twilight Zone

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This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

For Rod Serling, TV was the perfect landscape to battle bigotry and corporate censorship. But was the nation ready for it?

In the late 1950s, Rod Serling found himself sitting in a London airport tired and ready to go home. As he waited to board his flight, he spotted something eerie. Across the room stood his doppelgänger: a man who looked to be his same height, sporting the same coat and carrying the exact same cowhide briefcase. It blew his mind. As the award-winning TV writer tried to catch a glimpse of his double’s face, a strange thought hit him: What if, through some glitch in the universe, he was watching another version of himself?

“I kept staring and staring,” Serling recalled, “with this funny, ice-cold feeling that, if he turns around and it’s me, what do I do?” Eventually, the gentleman did turn around. He was a decade younger and, Serling joked, far better looking. But the experience was too uncanny to forget.

As a writer, Serling made his name toying with unsettling concepts, which made him a critical darling. His 1956 teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight, had garnered numerous awards, an Emmy among them. But corporate sponsors didn’t find his work appealing. Always looking to skirt controversy, they preferred to work within the confines of formulaic Westerns and bland sitcoms. Serling wanted none of that. He thought TV should probe deeper, believing it could address big concerns: social injustice, bigotry, mortality. In 1959, he got the chance to do just that, using that strange airport experience as the kindling for his legendary science fiction TV series, The Twilight Zone. The series would be a double itself, a serious exploration of politics and ethics disguised as harmless sci-fi. The question was whether he could get away with it.

Even as a teenager, Serling had been a social activist. Growing up in Binghamton, New York, he was editor of the high school newspaper, injecting social commentary in between box scores. Fighting in World War II only galvanized his mission. Stationed in the Philippines with a demolition platoon, he witnessed horror firsthand. Serling left the island consumed by a hatred for war, and he brought back a souvenir: a piece of shrapnel in his knee that bled spontaneously for the rest of his life.

At home, Serling struggled for direction. “I didn’t really know what the hell I wanted to do with my life,” his daughter Anne quotes him as saying in her book, As I Knew Him. He eventually registered as a phys-ed major at Antioch College and tried to fit in. But he kept noticing discrimination. When he noticed that a local barbershop refused to cut the hair of African-Americans, he insisted that his friends stop patronizing it.

Meanwhile, Serling found what seemed to be his calling: manning the microphone of the campus radio station, where he wrote scripts, directed, and acted. By his senior year, he was doing weekly shows. One of his scripts would win a national radio contest.

Writing became Serling’s way to deal with the psychological scars of war. Plagued with nightmares, he wrote and sold scripts to radio companies, which eventually led to television gigs. His early work was taut and uncompromising, doggedly pursuing questions about morality and inequality. He thought that TV, film, and radio should be “vehicles of social criticism.” The trouble was, exploring prejudice on TV was nearly impossible. Corporate sponsors ritually censored and watered down his teleplays. When one script about the lynching of a young black man was turned into a popcorn western, Serling became furious. In his words, all the networks wanted was to showcase “dancing rabbits with toilet paper.”

Despite the censorship, Serling had nabbed three Emmys by 1957. But he was also exhausted by the constant battles for creative control, so he returned to an idea he’d had back in his college radio days. Inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the pulp stories of his youth—writing that couched complex messages in pure fantasy—he wrote an hour-long teleplay called The Time Element, in which a distressed American has recurring dreams that he’s transported to 1941 to warn of the pending attack on Pearl Harbor. He consults a psychiatrist, who tries to diffuse his anxiety. Suddenly, the patient stops showing up and, in one of Serling’s trademark twists, the psychiatrist learns the distressed man died in the attack 15 years earlier.

CBS was lukewarm on the script, and The Time Element seemed destined to rot in the network’s archives. But in November 1958, a producer who wanted to air something by Serling plucked the episode from storage. When it ran, more than 6,000 glowing letters flooded in.

The execs took the hint. Soon after, the network asked Serling to write more stories like it for a new series. At last, Serling’s dream was coming true: The Twilight Zone was born. The title, aviation lingo for the point where a pilot can no longer see the horizon, had a double meaning. For Serling, it represented the point where executives could no longer see his true intentions. The spooky show would be a smokescreen for exploring themes like racism, government corruption, and persecution. Anne recalls her father musing that “an alien could say what a Democrat or Republican couldn’t.”

As he worked 12- to 14-hour days seven days a week, Serling’s ashtray overflowed. His smoking habit made his fingers too stiff and cold to type, so instead, he kicked his feet onto his desk and dictated into a recorder. He made different voices for different characters, reciting camera directions and marking punctuation. The scripts quickly piled up. In the afternoons, Serling visited the set in Culver City and wandered the MGM backlot for more inspiration. The studios housed every setting imaginable, from Martian landscapes to barren wastelands.

The 1959 pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?,” set the tone for the series. In it, an astronaut finds himself dropped in a deserted town, and the unfolding story slowly reveals that he’s part of an experiment testing whether astronauts can handle the isolation of long-term space travel without cracking. Hours after a private screening, General Foods and Kimberly-Clark agreed to back the series. Serling’s Trojan horse was off to the races.

The Twilight Zone premiered Friday, October 2, 1959, at 10 p.m. Almost immediately, angry letters poured in—not from offended viewers, but from parents who were irritated that their kids were staying up late to watch the show. “Every week you looked forward to a different kind of realization and shock,” says author Mark Olshaker, who was 10 when the series debuted (he would later consult with Serling on a biography). “You knew you were going to get something that was going to make you think. On Monday morning, that’s what you would talk about.”

It wasn’t just kids. Adults were captivated by the fantasies, the themes, and especially the ironic endings that made the series famous. As civil rights debates exploded, the episodes mirrored newspaper headlines. In “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” three astronauts crash-land on a strange alien landscape. Without laws or consequences, one of them regresses to animal instincts and murders the others. The survivor’s fate? Accountability. (They had landed in the Nevada desert.) In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a neighborhood devolves under suspicion that someone might be an alien invader. In the end, none are—but real aliens observe the chaos from above, musing that mankind is all too quick to destroy itself. Attentive viewers realized the only thing black-and-white about The Twilight Zone was its cinematography. Fan clubs sprang up in most states, with members christening themselves “Zonies.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow famously dubbed TV a “vast wasteland,” but he made an exception for Serling’s show. The title even entered the popular vernacular: When boxer Archie Moore was KO’d in a 1961 match, he told reporters, “Man, I was in the Twilight Zone!” By 1962, the show had made a huge dent in popular culture. Serling released a collection of short stories based on the series, and it sold more than a million copies. Before long, a Twilight Zone board game, comics, and a record appeared on the market.

Despite all the success, the show still hadn’t won over the network. CBS president James Aubrey continued to chop away at the show’s budget, convinced it was eating up too much money. Meanwhile, Serling refused to compromise and often dipped into his own pockets. By season three, Aubrey was pinching so many pennies that he insisted that six episodes be shot on videotape rather than film. The quality would be a jarring contrast to the film-noir feel the crew was careful to keep consistent. Serling was so angry he threatened to resign. (He was bluffing.)

It was clear that Serling was losing control. One sponsor called CBS repeatedly, demanding to know what Serling was really getting at: He sensed a deeper layer but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was. Serling, for his part, was making his points more obvious. (In an audacious move for the era, he cast three black actors in leading roles in “The Big Tall Wish.”)

As ratings idled and sponsor suspicions grew, the network effectively canceled the show in spring 1962. But then, in a bizarre twist, it was resurrected when CBS realized it had no solid replacement. It renewed the show and expanded its time slot from half an hour to an hour.

But messing with the formula was a mistake. At an hour long, the show lost its crucial tension. Ratings plummeted, and though a fifth season was ordered, it was clear the show was running on fumes. When CBS finally let the axe fall in early 1964, Serling held a tongue-in-cheek wake, complete with a tombstone, on the MGM soundstage. “He thought it had run its course,” Anne says. Dejected, Serling told journalists he thought The Twilight Zone would be forgotten in short order.

Burgess Meredith, here in "Time Enough at Last," was also featured with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Photo courtesy of Alamy.

This wasn’t a good prediction. While the void left by Zone was indeed filled with vapid sitcoms— like 1964’s megahit Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.— something about Serling’s ability to weave cultural commentary into popular entertainment would captivate viewers for decades to come. The Twilight Zone’s O. Henry–esque twists became pop culture staples: gut-punch scenes, like the climax in “Time Enough at Last” (in which an introverted bank teller longing to be left alone with his books finds himself the lone survivor of an atomic blast that has mercifully spared most of the books in the nearby public library; unfortunately, he ends up shattering his glasses and can’t read without them) would become timeless TV tropes—even parodied on The Simpsons. The show had proved that audiences were just as willing to consume ideas as they were slapstick, which opened the doors for shows like M*A*S*H, which padded entertainment with rich, powerful messages.

“Almost any writer, when you ask who influenced them, will say Rod Serling,” says TV critic Mark Dawidziak. That includes J.J. Abrams, who gushed over Serling’s allegory in Wired in 2007, and Stephen King, who, in a chapter in his memoir Danse Macabre writes: “Of all the dramatic programs which have ever run on American TV, it is the one which comes closest to defying any overall analysis. It was its own thing, and in large part that fact alone seems to account for the fact that a whole generation is able to associate the Serling program with the budding of the sixties ... at least, as the sixties are remembered.” Unfortunately, Serling, who passed away in 1975, wouldn’t live to watch his influence spread. 

At one point, Serling recalled the incident with his would-be double at the London airport and said that it was typical of “the kind of story you’ll be seeing on The Twilight Zone.” Of course, that was not entirely true. There was no one kind of Twilight Zone story. The thread was simply that each episode held a mirror to society and compelled viewers to question both their own preconceptions and the wisdom of the powers that be. Serling was just reflecting on the era: the tumult of civil rights, the Vietnam War, and a surging counterculture. 

With Zone, viewers found a show that not only grappled with messy topics, but also tried to provide answers. “To my generation that came of age in the ’60s, the show was amazingly important,” Olshaker says. “[We were] idealistic enough to believe anything is possible and cynical enough to believe nothing is true. Twilight Zone was one of the seminal forces in that realization. It opened up possibilities of imagination, of social consciousness, but also realities of evil and prejudice.”

As for the question of the doppelgänger, perhaps Serling realized he could be two people at once: one who could entertain and one who could provoke. Maybe his fifth dimension wasn’t fantasy. Maybe it was a way for television to face reality. 


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NASA/JPL
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Space
The Secret Cold War History of the Missile That Launched America's First Satellite
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

In 1950, a group of scientists proposed the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a sort of "Science Olympics" in which nations of the world would embark on ambitious experiments and share results openly and in the spirit of friendship. The IGY, they decided, would be celebrated in 1957.

As part of the IGY, the Soviet Union vowed that it would launch an artificial satellite for space science. The U.S., not to be left behind, said that it, too, would launch a satellite. Both countries had ulterior motives, of course; the ostensibly friendly rivalry in the name of science allowed the two superpowers, already engaged in the Cold War, to quite openly develop and test long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of "friendship."

The Soviet Union aimed to develop missiles capable of reaching both western Europe and the continental United States. Such "intercontinental ballistic missiles," a.k.a. ICBMs, would, Nikita Khrushchev hoped, neutralize the overwhelming nuclear superiority of America, which had a $1 billion squadron of B-52 bombers. Their development would solve another of the Soviet Union's pressing issues: Military expenditures were gobbling up one-fifth of the economy, while agricultural output was in a severe decline. In short, there were too many bullets being produced, and not enough bread. Long-range rockets armed with nuclear weapons, already in the Soviet arsenal, could allow Khrushchev to slash the size and expense of the Red Army, forego a heavy long-range bomber fleet, and solve the food problems plaguing the country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an Army major general named John Bruce Medaris saw a big opportunity in the International Geophysical Year: to use a missile designed for war—which the Army had been prohibited from developing further—to launch a satellite into space. But Medaris, who commanded the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, would need to be creative about selling it to the Department of Defense.

AN EDICT: NO ROCKETS OVER 200 MILES

Medaris was working under heavy restrictions against stiff competition. In 1956, the Secretary of Defense, Charlie Erwin Wilson, had issued an edict expressly forbidding the Army from even planning to build, let alone employ, long-range missiles "or for any other missiles with ranges beyond 200 miles." Land-based intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles were now to be the sole responsibility of the Air Force, while the Navy had authority for the sea-launched variety.

The idea was to avoid program redundancy and free up money to pay for the B-52 fleet, but the edict wound up having a catastrophic effect on the American missile program and its space ambitions, as author Matthew Brzezinski recounts in Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

At the time of Wilson's injunction, the Army's rocketry program was far ahead of the Air Force's or Navy's. The Army had just tested a rocket prototype called Jupiter that flew 3000 miles—but it was the new and flourishing Air Force that had the political backing of Washington. Moreover, few in the capital were worried about the Soviets developing long-range missile capability. Yes, they were trying, but they didn't have a prayer at developing one before the technically advanced United States, and in the meantime, the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear bomber superiority. When you got right down to it—the DOD reasoning went—who cared whether the Army, Air Force, or Navy developed our missiles?

Major General Medaris cared. He believed that, thanks to a German aerospace engineer named Wernher von Braun, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had made too much progress on ballistic missile technology to just stop working on them now.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States—and the Soviets—had scrambled to gather German missile technology. The U.S. lacked the ability to develop anything as powerful as Germany's lethal V-2 rocket and desperately wanted not only as much V-2 hardware as it could find but the V-2 designer himself, von Braun.

The U.S. succeeded in recruiting the engineer, ultimately assigning him to the Army's missile agency in 1950. There Von Braun and his team developed and deployed the Redstone, a short-range missile that could travel 200 miles. (This is where Wilson's 200-mile limitation came from.) Von Braun also began work on a research rocket (in parlance, a sounding rocket) based on the Redstone that could fly 1200 miles. It was not, technically, a missile—it wasn't designed to carry deadly ordnance. Its purpose was to test thermal nose-cone shields. This rocket was called the Jupiter C.

The 1956 injunction on Army missile development threatened the tremendous progress the Army had made. Both Medaris, who led the Army's missile program, and von Braun, who had now spent years trying to advance the rocket technology of the United States, were infuriated.

ARMY VS. NAVY (VS. THE SOVIETS)

With the IGY deadline looming, Medaris saw an opportunity to save the Army's role in rocket design. He had the genius German engineer and all the hardware necessary to do the job.

Medaris began to wage bitter bureaucratic warfare to protect the Army's missile program. The Air Force's program, he pointed out to defense officials, seemed not to be going anywhere—there was simply not much rush to replace bomber pilots with long-range missiles in a pilot-led organization. Worse yet, the Naval Research Laboratory, which had been given charge of the U.S. satellite entry for the IGY, was hopelessly behind schedule and underfunded. The Navy's Vanguard program, as it was called, would never succeed in its goal on time. (Why, then, did the Navy get the coveted assignment? In large measure because the Naval Research Laboratory was an essentially civilian organization, which just seemed more in the spirit of the International Geophysical Year.)

design plan of explorer 1 satellite
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

Through all of this, it never occurred to Medaris that he was actually in a Space Race against the Soviet Union. To his mind, he was competing against the other branches of the U.S. military. To keep his missile program alive while he waged war in Washington, he allowed von Braun to continue work on ablative nose cone research using the Jupiter C research rocket. Not missile—Medaris could not emphasize that point enough to the Department of Defense. It was a research rocket, he stressed, and therefore exempt from the ban on Army missile development.

Medaris argued to Secretary Wilson that if they just gave the Jupiter C a fourth stage—that is, basically, a rocket on top of the rocket—it could reach orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour and get a satellite up there.

All of his arguments fell on deaf ears. "Not only were Medaris's pleas gruffly rebuffed," writes Brzezinski, but Wilson "spitefully ordered the general to personally inspect every Jupiter C launch to make sure the uppermost stage was a dud so that Von Braun did not launch a satellite 'by accident.'"

So instead, Medaris made sure that Jupiter C "nose-cone research" plunged ahead. It simulated everything about a long-range, satellite-capable ballistic missile, but it was not a missile. The Jupiter C kept the Army in the rocket development business. Just in case something went south with the Navy's Vanguard program, however, Medaris had two Jupiter C rockets put into storage. Just in case.

AND THEN CAME SPUTNIK

Two events would happen in 1957, the International Geophysical Year, that changed the trajectory of history. First: Secretary Wilson, who so vexed the Army missile program, retired. On October 4, 1957, his replacement, Neil McElroy, soon to be confirmed by the Senate, visited Huntsville to tour the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Second: Later that same day, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik-1 into orbit and ushering humankind into the Space Age.

Von Braun was apoplectic. He'd devoted his life to rocketry. To be beaten by the Soviets! "For God's sake," he implored McElroy, "cut us loose and let us do something! We have the hardware on the shelf." He asked the incoming secretary for just 60 days to get a rocket ready.

McElroy couldn't make any decisions until he was confirmed, but that didn't faze Medaris, who was so certain that his group would get the go-ahead to launch a satellite that he ordered von Braun to get started on launch preparations.

What Medaris didn't anticipate was the Eisenhower White House's response to Sputnik. Rather than appear reactionary or spooked by the Soviet's sudden access to the skies over the U.S., the President assured the American people that there was a plan already in place, and everything was fine—really. The Navy's Vanguard program would soon launch a satellite as scheduled.

One month later, there was indeed another launch—by the Soviet Union. This time the satellite was a dog named Laika. In response, both Medaris and von Braun threatened to quit. To pacify them, the Defense Department promised that they could indeed launch a satellite in January, after the Vanguard's launch. von Braun, satisfied that he would get his shot, had a prediction to make: "Vanguard," he said, "will never make it."

And he was right. On December 6, 1957, the nation watched from television as the Vanguard launch vehicle began countdown from a virtually unknown expanse of Florida swampland called Cape Canaveral. At liftoff, the rocket rose a few feet—then blew up.

THE SECRET IDENTITY OF MISSILE NO. 29

After the Navy's failure, the Army was back in business. Medaris had his approval. The Jupiter C rocket would be allowed to carry a satellite called Explorer-1 to space.

Unlike the public outreach that accompanied the Vanguard launch, however, Medaris's rocket readying was done in total secrecy. The upper stages of the rocket were kept under canvas shrouds. The rocket was not to be acknowledged by Cape Canaveral personnel as the rocket, but rather, only as a workaday Redstone rocket. In official communications, it was simply called "Missile Number 29."

The Jupiter C destined to carry the spacecraft was one of the rockets placed in storage "just in case" after the Army was locked out of the long-range missile business. On the launch pad, however, it would be called "Juno." (The name change was in part an effort to conceal the rocket's V-2 and military lineage.) Explorer-1 was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. JPL had worked with the Army "just in case" the Navy's Vanguard program failed. ("We bootlegged the whole job," said William Pickering, the then-director of the JPL lab.) The onboard scientific instrument, a Geiger counter developed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, had also been designed with the Army's rocket in mind … just in case.

Medaris wanted no publicity for his launch. No VIPs, no press, no distractions. Even the launch day was to be kept secret until the Explorer-1 team could confirm that the satellite had achieved orbit successfully.

And then 60 years ago today, Explorer-1 left Earth from launch pad 26 at the cape. The response is best captured by the breathless headline atop the front page of the New York Times [PDF] the following morning: "ARMY LAUNCHES U.S. SATELLITE INTO ORBIT; PRESIDENT PROMISES WORLD WILL GET DATA; 30-POUND DEVICE IS HURLED UP 2,000 MILES."


NASA/JPL

America's first satellite would go on to circle the Earth 58,000 times over the span of 12 years. The modest science payload was the first ever to go into space, and the discovery of the Van Allen belts—caused by the capture of the solar wind's charged particles by the Earth's magnetic field—established the scientific field of magnetospheric research.

Six months after the spacecraft launched, the U.S. would establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a.k.a. NASA. (For the next three years, however, the Soviet Union would continue to dominate the Space Race, establishing a long run of "firsts," including placing the first human in space.) Wernher von Braun became director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and was chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that powered the Moon missions. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has since launched more than 100 spacecraft across the solar system and beyond.

The unsung hero today, of course, is Major General Bruce Medaris, whose tenacity righted the U.S. rocket program. It is impossible to know how the Space Race might have ended without his contributions. We do know how his career ended, though. When at last he retired from the military, he rejected overtures to advise John F. Kennedy on space policy. Instead, he took a job as president of the Lionel Corporation, famed for its toy trains. He eventually set his sights on the heavens, literally, and entered the priesthood. He died in 1990 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his legacy forever set among the stars.

For further reading, see Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

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BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images
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History
Audubon's 'Birds of America': The Book So Big It Needed Its Own Furniture
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images

John James Audubon dreamed of creating life-sized portraits of every species of bird in North America. The portraits, when bound, became some of the biggest books ever made—and to read them, his customers would need to hire a carpenter.

 

After years of painting portraits, giving drawing lessons, and relying on his wife’s teaching salary to get by, John James Audubon boarded a ship bound for England on his 41st birthday, carrying letters of introduction and 250 “watter coloured drawings” of birds, with a singular goal. “The purpose of this voyage,” he wrote in his journal midway through the journey, “is to Visit not only England but all Europe with the intention of Publishing my work of the Birds of America.”

Audubon had departed for the journey six years after he had first decided that he would illustrate all of the birds in North America and publish the images. In 1824, he had visited Philadelphia and New York with his illustrations, looking for a publisher, but found no interest. Undeterred, he kept working, and by 1826, he believed he had enough material to search for a publisher abroad, where he hoped interest would be keener.

Though other naturalists had created books of North America’s birds before him—Alexander Wilson, for example, had already published volumes in his American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States, in 1808—Audubon had set out to outdo them all. His work would be published on the biggest paper available: a 39.5-inch by 26.5-inch sheet called the “double-elephant” folio.

Audubon needed every inch of space he could get—he planned to print full-color, life-size representations of every bird in North America. If bound together, the pages would create a book that rivaled the wingspan of a soaring mountain hawk.

 
 

Audubon had been obsessed with birds and nature since his childhood in France. Born to his father’s mistress in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, he moved to Nantes as a young boy, where he spent long hours in the wilderness. “To examine either the eggs, nest, young, or parents of any species,” he wrote, “constituted my delight.”

He was often joined by his father, who encouraged his son’s interest in birds—not just in observing them, but in drawing them. “I was very far from possessing any knowledge of their nature,” Audubon wrote. “The first Collection of Drawings I made of this Sort were from European specimens, procured by my Father or myself … they were all represented strictly ornithologically, which means neither more or less than in Stiff unmeaning profiles, such as are found in all works published since the beginning of the present century.” His father gifted his son with a book of ornithological drawings and critiqued his early work, and Audubon remembered him noting that “nothing in the world possessing Life and animation was easy to imitate, and that as I grew older he hoped that I would become more & more assured of this.”

Plate 1 of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, featuring a blue jay, a goldfinch, and a Baltimore bird.
Plate 1 of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, which features a blue jay, a goldfinch, and a Baltimore bird, all in profile. "The easiest form for the human perception to seize on is the profile," says Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society. "That’s what most bird ornithological treatises used ... It begins to change and get richer with Selby and people like that, but really, Audubon is the one who began putting in settings or things that he thought would be appropriate for the bird."
Alamy

In 1803, when he was 18, Audubon ducked conscription in Napoleon’s army by moving to the United States; he settled outside of Philadelphia at an estate called Mill Grove. He was there to manage the estate for his father, but he made time to observe, hunt, stuff, and paint birds. He also met and fell in love with Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a neighbor; Audubon returned to France in 1805 to ask his father for permission to marry Lucy, but the elder Audubon insisted that he be able to support himself before marriage.

And so Audubon returned to the U.S. in 1806 and attempted to make it in the mercantile business. He settled in New York, where he served as a clerk for Lucy’s uncle; in 1807, he moved to Kentucky, where he opened a general store with his business partner, Ferdinand Rozier. The next year, he and Lucy were finally married. The store, he wrote, “went on prosperously when I attended to it.” The problem was, he couldn’t stop thinking about birds: “My thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight … I seldom passed a day without drawing a bird, or noting something about its habits.” He often left Rozier to tend the shop so he could go out birding.

But Audubon happened to be in the shop on the day in March 1810 when Alexander Wilson wandered in seeking subscriptions for his book, American Ornithology. Audubon had never heard of Wilson, but when he heard the ornithologist explain what he was up to, he pulled out his pen to sign up. It was then that Rozier said to him, in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better, and again you must know as much of the habits of American birds as this gentleman.”

Audubon put down his pen and showed Wilson his own work. “He asked me if it was my intention to publish,” Audubon recalled, “and when I answered in the negative, his surprise seemed to increase. And, truly, such was not my intention.” Audubon lent Wilson a few of his drawings, and the pair even hunted together, but Audubon never subscribed to American Ornithology, “for, even at that time, my collection was greater than his.”

The encounter may have been what gave Audubon the idea to publish his illustrations, but it wasn’t something he was prepared to do just yet. Audubon and Lucy started a family; he tried his hand at various commercial careers, “but they all proved unprofitable,” he wrote, “doubtless because my whole mind was ever filled with my passion for rambling and admiring those objects of nature from which alone I received my purest gratification.”

In 1819, Audubon spent time in jail after going bankrupt. The next year, fed up with trying to make it in business, he fully committed to illustrating all of the birds of North America.

The artist roamed the forests of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana with an assistant, while Lucy raised their sons and worked as a tutor for wealthy families to support him. Unlike previous artists, who propped stuffed birds into rigid unnatural poses and sketched them in profile, Audubon wanted to portray the animals as he saw them in the wild. So he shot specimens and manipulated them into position using wires against a grid background that would allow him to correctly determine proportions—a technique he had pioneered in his time at Mill Grove. It sometimes took 60 hours to string up a specimen and draw it. (As one person who observed Audubon drawing one bird recalled, “Audubon ... spent several days sketching it ... till it rotted and stunk.”)

The technique was a success, but you would never have known it from the reception Audubon got in Philadelphia, at the time the publishing capital of the United States. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” says Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, which houses the world’s largest collection of Auduboniana, including the watercolors for Birds of America (currently, a different watercolor and its corresponding plate are on display each month in the museum's Audubon Focus Gallery). Ord, who was finishing Wilson’s American Ornithology after the ornithologist’s death in 1813, “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there. In a sense, it was a blessing in disguise because it forced him to go to Edinburgh and then London,” where printing technology was much more advanced—and the audience much more receptive.

When Audubon landed in Liverpool on July 21, his watercolor illustrations drew widespread praise. His detailed portraits of wild turkeys, purple martins, and Kentucky warblers from the “New World” charmed Europeans, who still viewed the United States as an exotic far-away land.

A painting of John James Audubon in 1826.
John James Audubon in 1826.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Audubon, with his fur cap, buckskin clothes, and backwoods demeanor, likewise enthralled them—but his dream of making life-size illustrations on the world’s largest paper was not met with the same enthusiasm. Though other authors were creating big books around this time, most had used the relatively manageable elephant folio, which measured up to 23 inches. The paper Audubon wanted to use, which had been invented by papermaker J. Whatman in the 18th century, was much bigger, much more expensive, and much more difficult to print on.

Henry Bohn, a London bookseller, told the ornithologist that anything too big would distract from the other books on the table, warning, “it will not be purchased by the set of people who now are the very life of the trade.” Create a book that size, Bohn said, and Audubon could expect to sell only 100 copies to institutions and noblemen.

It was only when Bohn saw the illustrations firsthand that he came around to Audubon’s big idea. Audubon wrote, “[H]e is of opinion now that the work ought (if at all) to come forward, The Size of Life? — He said more, for he offered to publish it himself if no one else would undertake it.”

William Lizars, an engraver based in Edinburgh, Scotland, felt just as inspired when he set eyes on Audubon’s watercolors. “My God,” he said. “I never saw anything like this before.”

Lizars was convinced that the book had to be made, and he started right away. First on his list was a male turkey, which, according to Audubon’s notes, was more than 4 feet long, “extent of wings 5 feet 8 inches; beak 1 ½ inches along the ridge … a fine specimen.”

A composite photo of John James Audubon's watercolor of a turkey, Lizar's copper engraving of the turkey, and Lizar's hand-colored print.
Left: John James Audubon (1785–1851), Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Study for Havell pl. 1, ca. 1825. Watercolor, black ink, graphite, pastel, collage, and gouache with touches of metallic pigment and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.1. Middle: William H. Lizars (1788–1859), retouched by Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878), after John James Audubon (1785–1851). Engraved copper plate for plate 1 of The Birds of America. American Museum of Natural History Library, New York, Gift of Cleveland E. Dodge. Right: William H. Lizars (1788–1859) after John James Audubon (1785–1851). Hand-colored etching with aquatint and engraving. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. [Patricia] Harvey Breit and Mrs. Gratia R. Laiser in memory of their mother, Gratia Houghton Rinehart, 1954.
Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

The printer created the first 10 copper engravings of Audubon’s illustrations, printed them on the huge paper, and, with help from his employees, hand-colored them. When Audubon saw the first five of his illustrations realized in life-size, he began to have second thoughts on the scale of the project. “Some of my good friends, particularly Dr. [Traill], is much against it being the size of life,” he wrote. “I must acknowledge it renders [the work] rather bulky, but my heart was always bent on it, and I cannot refrain from attempting it.”

But as big as the double-elephant folio pages were, they still weren’t big enough for some birds: Audubon had to draw the great blue heron, for example, with its head down—a strange pose for a bird that normally stands erect.

A great blue heron as drawn by John James Audubon.
Alamy

In June 1827, Lizars’s colorists went on strike, and Audubon contracted the engraver Robert Havell and Son of London to publish the rest of Birds of America. Havell Jr. was a particularly lucky find. “Havell was not just a printmaker, not just an engraver. He was a watercolorist and a painter,” Olson says. “They were like two oxen or two horses pulling a carriage. They were both in the same step.”

Coloring the plates required up to 50 people—mostly poorly paid women—at a time, and Audubon, a perfectionist, remained very conscious of the needs of his clientele. After he received a letter from a subscriber complaining that the color on her plates was not as wonderful as the color on the plates of another subscriber, he created a system: He would mark up the colored prints and send them back to be reworked until he was satisfied; Havell’s colorists would use the resulting pattern print—which often had instructions written all over it—as a guide for their work.

Meanwhile, Audubon had to drum up financial support for the book. Like many men creating plate books in that era, he decided on a subscription model: Investors would pay for the book and receive installments over a period of time. (Samuel Johnson used the same method to pay for his dictionary.) To woo subscribers, Audubon took his watercolors out on the road. “Their plumages sparkle with nature’s own tints; you see them in motion or at rest,” one critic who attended a show wrote, “in their play and in their combats, in their anger fits and their caresses, singing, running, asleep, just awakened, beating the air, skimming the waves or rending one another in their battles … a vision of the New World.”

From 1827 to 1838, Audubon sent out 87 sets of plates in tin cases. Subscribers received five plates every month or so, consisting of one large bird, a medium-sized bird, and three small birds. “It was actually brilliant marketing,” Olsen says. “Rather than having 40 sparrows and 60 seagulls in taxonomic order like everybody else did, he decided he wanted it to be like nature, where everything was a surprise. That’s why [the plates] weren’t just shunted away and put in drawers and maybe never opened in boxes—everyone wanted to see what was he releasing.”

Audubon continued drawing as new species were being discovered and ended up creating a total of 435 plates for The Birds of America, depicting a total of 489 species (and 1065 individuals). No one is sure how much the project cost, but it was no small amount. The book wasn’t cheap for buyers, either: A complete set likely cost around $1000 ($22,400 in 2015 dollars). Many subscribers bound the plates into four massive volumes of around 100 illustrations apiece, each standing over 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide and weighing around 50 pounds. Opening one of the volumes required at least two people.

The finished book was so large that owners couldn’t just put it on their laps or on a shelf. In fact, some readers had to change their living conditions to accommodate it. A 1921 issue of the British magazine Country Life tells the story of a collector who, after being given a copy of The Birds of America, was forced to search for a new, much larger, apartment. “If you have such big books in your collection you must be prepared to stand the inconvenience of keeping them in these days of congested quarters and restricted living,” the magazine scolded.

But most owners of Audubon’s book didn’t need to move to a new home; rather, they had to construct special furniture to protect and facilitate the display of their investment—one of the most famous examples of which can be found at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

 
 

It might look like a typical Victorian-era ottoman, but the brocaded piece that sits in a glass case in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room at the Field Museum is not the kind of furniture you’d want to prop your feet on.

Measuring nearly 2 feet high, 2.5 feet wide, and 4 feet long, the ottoman houses a copy of the Birds of America once owned by British zoologist and physician Benjamin Phillips. The piece has four drawers, each of which slides out and opens into a table supported by four legs to better view the volume within.

Audubon ottoman, an object in Field Museum Library collections, with one of its drawers extended and a copy of The Birds of America opened on it.
Courtesy of the Field Museum

Though not the chicest piece of furniture by today’s standards, the ottoman was terrific at protecting Audubon’s great book: It shielded Phillips’s copy of The Birds of America from dust and light, allowing it to be viewed with minimal handling and keeping the set in incredible condition even as it changed hands over the years. (In 1985, the Chicago Tribune called the condition of the prints “delicious.”)

But just because it houses Phillips’s Birds of America doesn’t mean it’s as old as his set. According to Diana Duncan, Technical Services Librarian in the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum, the exact age and provenance of the ottoman is unclear. In 2007, conservator Tatsumi Brown cleaned and restored the ottoman, creating a new, historically accurate brocade cover for the piece; the restoration process took 346 hours. Prior to its conservation, the ottoman was assessed by an expert at the Art Institute of Chicago. “She concluded that it was a 20th century construction,” Duncan told Mental Floss in an email. “Certain elements definitely are 20th century but could have been added during prior conservation work on the cabinet such as screws/hardware in drawers, zippers on original cover, etc. One of the pieces of newspaper on the inside can be dated to the period 1919-1924.”

The Audubon Ottoman wasn’t the only ottoman built to hold the book; Audubon’s ledger notes that Euphemia Gifford, Lucy’s cousin, received an ottoman along with her plates. (Its whereabouts are unknown.) Nor is the ottoman the only piece of furniture built to hold Birds of America. “The furniture expert at the Art Institute mentioned that she had seen a couple other cabinets like this,” Duncan says. “Because of the size of the work, it would be less likely to fit into an off-the-shelf cabinet, which may be why there would be custom pieces of furniture made for it.”

Take the cabinet owned by subscriber No. 11, paleobotanist Henry Witham—the first Englishman to analyze the internal structure of fossilized plants—and one of Audubon’s friends from England. Witham had each of his volumes of Birds of America gilded and hinged with two locks, according to Sotheby’s, “the whole housed in a Victorian mahogany folio cabinet, second quarter of the nineteenth century, 5 sliding trays, the moroccan tooled leather inset top with cross banding, mounted on a plinth and recessed casters.” In 2010, Witham’s copy of Birds of America—complete with cabinet—sold for $11.54 million, the most paid for a printed book at auction at the time. (It unseated another copy of The Birds of America.)

The most elaborate cabinet used to house The Birds of America resembles an Egyptian temple in miniature, measuring more than 3 feet high, 9 feet wide, and nearly 5.5 feet deep. Originally conceived to hold the multi-volume elephant folio Description de l’Egypte, the massive cabinet—preserved at the Providence Athenæum—was also home to a copy of The Birds of America from around 1840 to 1895. The Athenæum ultimately sold its copy of Birds of America for $5 million in 2005.

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, there’s a copy of The Birds of America that once belonged to the Reverend Patrick Brontë—the father of authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. When the book was donated in 1947, a cabinet was constructed to showcase the volumes. The pages were turned every two months; it took two people to lift off the glass, and another two to delicately turn the page. (Recently, the books were moved to a glass-and-metal display case.)

The New-York Historical Society Regency-style cabinet that holds its copy of Audubon's Birds of America.
The provenance of the New-York Historical Society's cabinet only goes back to 1937. "The question is, was it built after something else?" Olson says. "It’s very tantalizing. We don’t know. We don’t know whether it was English, or whether [the dealer] had it made for his client in 1937. To me, it looks older, and it certainly was custom made for a copy of The Birds of America."
Gift of Mrs. [Patricia] Harvey Breit and Mrs. Gratia R. Laiser in memory of their mother, Gratia Houghton Rinehart, 1954. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Another copy of Birds of America, this one leather-bound and from the library of the Duke of Newcastle, was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1954. It came with a custom-built Regency-style cabinet—the provenance for which only goes back to 1937—that flaunted a most appropriate design: When the four drawers open and convert into tables, with one table open on each side, the furniture resembles a bird with its wings extended. “It’s beautiful, and I think it captures the ceremony [of showing Birds of America],” Olsen says.

 
 

The big book trend, which began in England and Continental Europe in the 18th century, was mostly about showing off. “It was essentially conspicuous consumption,” says Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer at Honey and Wax Booksellers (and writer for Mental Floss). “Paper was very expensive, and [the attitude] was, ‘Look how much paper we can waste and look at these amazing works of art that we can print.’”

Making big books was risky business: The creators bore the entire expense of creating the book, from having the copper plates engraved to coloration to shipment. Along the way, subscribers might die, or the author might go bankrupt trying to get the book made. Though Audubon had a practical reason for wanting to make a huge book, the others, Romney says, “are usually a case of ego in some way.”

The key was to hook the rich, who understood that owning a book of this size showed that they were both cultured and extremely wealthy. And once they had their big books in hand, they needed a way to display the evidence of their culture and money. “Someone who could afford such a book wouldn’t blink over making some kind of shelving/furniture for it,” Romney says. “It was a status symbol. You can’t have this thing that you’re essentially using to say ‘look how rich and cultured I am,’ but it’s in this crappy piece of furniture. It had to be nice.”

For both monetary and technological reasons—the U.S. didn’t have the printers able to create books the size of Birds of America—this trend of elaborate book collecting was mostly confined to Europe. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Americans had enough money to indulge in serious bibliophilia. After the Civil War, Romney says, “you start getting people [in the U.S.] who could compete with centuries-old [European] royalty.” Men like J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Huntington were snapping up rare books and manuscripts; book collecting clubs such as the Grolier Club were formed; and the libraries of late collectors like George Brinley (who died in 1875) were being sold. This appetite for books turned elaborate and rare tomes like the Gutenberg Bible and Birds of America into highly-sought collectibles that remain valuable.

An employee at Christie's lifts a page of Audubon's Birds of America depicting snowy owls.
An employee at Christie's lifts a page of Audubon's Birds of America depicting snowy owls.
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images

Today, the sky-high prices commanded by folios of Birds have less to do with their size than Audubon’s legendary reputation—and the fact that there just aren’t that many Birds of America folios out there. “You have a very small amount printed [to begin with], and then half or more of [the bound versions] end up being broken up because of print dealers,” Romney says. “The number that stay intact over the years becomes smaller and smaller, and that’s one of the reasons you get big prices, because there are so few that survive complete.”

And it’s not just the bound plates that fetch big bucks: According to Romney, single plates from Birds can sell for up to six figures. In January 2016, an 1836 plate from Birds of America featuring an American White Pelican sold for nearly $119,000.

 
 

Were he still alive, Audubon would probably feel faint to hear about the sums of money The Birds of America and its furniture fetches today. During his lifetime, he sold fewer than 200 copies of the elephant-folio, 120 of which still exist today. (Though it seems like a paltry amount, it was, for Audubon and that time, a complete success.) In the 1840s, he revisited the tome, publishing a manageable octavo edition that measured approximately 6 inches by 9 inches, featuring 65 additional plates. It had 1100 subscribers and earned Audubon a tidy $36,000.

Though his octavo was more profitable, it was Audubon’s big book that cemented his reputation as America’s foremost ornithologist. His work attracted the attention and support of King George IV of Britain and King Charles X of France; it even helped him get elected to London’s Royal Society—the second American to earn the honor (the first was Benjamin Franklin). And Audubon’s second book, Ornithological Biography, which was intended to be a companion to The Birds of America, would inspire the founding of the National Audubon Society, one of the world’s first conservation societies. (One of the society’s founders, George Bird Grinnell, had been tutored by Lucy Audubon as a boy.)

“Most people set goals, and they fall short,” Olson says. “Certainly he made compromises along the way, but he succeeded through great adversity and lots of people telling him he was crazy … and of course, he couldn’t have done it if not for Lucy. He made a lot of personal sacrifices and probably worked himself into an early grave, but he was passionate about this. He had a vision.”

And there are few experiences more incredible than having the opportunity to admire Audubon’s double elephant folio version of The Birds of America—today widely regarded as “the most famous and most magnificent of all the great hand-colored bird books”—for yourself.

“It’s like the Pantheon,” Romney says. “You see pictures of it and you’re like, ‘That’s beautiful.’ But the impact in person hits you physically. It’s the same thing with the Audubon Birds of America. When you see pictures, it’s, ‘Yeah, I see how that’s great.’ But when you’re seeing it in person, it’s ‘Holy cow, this is way more than I expected.’ It really is very emotive.”

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