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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”