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The Lost Book of Titian Peale, America's First Lepidopterist

©AMNH/D. Finnin
©AMNH/D. Finnin

When Titian Ramsay Peale II died on March 13, 1885, the 85-year-old went to his grave believing that his life’s greatest work—a book describing the butterflies and moths of North America—would never be published. And for more than a hundred years, that seemed to be its destiny. But now, 130 years after his death, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has finally printed portions of The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do, which Peale spent five decades working on, through tragedy and hardship, right up until his death.

“It became apparent to me, after poring over his manuscript and his paintings, that [Peale] was the original American lepidopterist,” David Grimaldi, curator of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at AMNH, said at an event for the book. “He was working before any of the other Americans who are credited with being the early American lepidopterists. He just never published his work.”

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The son of famed naturalist, portraitist, and Philadelphia Museum founder Charles Willson Peale, Titian was born on November 2, 1799 and named after a brother who had died the year before at age 18. The two had more in common than just a name: Like the first Titian, Peale devoted himself to lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths, which he took an interest in from childhood. Both Titians were also gifted artists. “He followed very closely in his older brother’s footsteps,” Grimaldi said, “and was very proud of that, in fact.”

But he was more than a lepidopterist: Peale was an accomplished artist who received his first professional commission—creating plates for Thomas Say’s American Entomology, a work Grimaldi called “one of the first original American works on entomology”—when he was just 16. He would later contribute 10 plates to American Ornithology, written by Napoleon’s nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

Peale was also an explorer, traveling with Say to Florida and Georgia—“wild and wooly places” at the time, said Grimaldi—and working as an assistant naturalist on the Stephen Harriman Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains, the first government-sponsored scientific trip to the American west since Lewis and Clark. Later, he traveled to Suriname, Colombia, and Brazil to expand the collections of what by then had come to be called the Peale Museum, which he took over with his brother, Benjamin, when their father died in 1824.

Still, lepidoptery was Peale’s true passion, and by 1931, he was working on a proposal for a book that he called Lepidoptera Americana: Or, Original Figures of the Moths and Butterflies of North America: In their Various States of Existence, and the Plants on Which They Feed, Drawn on Stone, and Coloured from Nature: With Their Characters, Synonyms, and Remarks on their Habits and Manners. The book would have 100 hand-colored lithographs. Peale’s plan was to release four plates every two months, beginning as soon as possible. 

All he needed were subscribers. According to Tom Baione, director of the Department of Library Services at AMNH, “At that time, scientific works were often, but not exclusively, published with the help of subscribers. So if you could find enough people who would agree to purchase the book, then you could proceed and perhaps produce some extras that could be sold to additional interested buyers.”

Unfortunately, only 27 people signed up for Peale’s book—far below the number he’d need to begin sending out folios. He continued to work on the book anyway.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

In 1838, Peale embarked on what Grimaldi called “probably the most adventurous exploration of his life,” as one of the naturalists on the United States South Seas Surveying and Exploring Expedition, the first seagoing expedition sponsored by the U.S. government. “[The expedition] went all along the Eastern coast of the New World, up along the West coast of South and North America, out to the Hawaiian islands, to the Galapagos, Fiji, and New Zealand,” Grimaldi said.

During the four-year trip, Peale identified and collected specimens of about 400 new species of Lepidoptera—which he then lost, along with his notes and private library, when the expedition’s ship, the Peacock, wrecked off the coast of present-day Portland, Ore., in 1841. 

Things were about to get worse. Much, much worse. 

Peale returned from the expedition to find that his Lepidoptera collections, which had been in storage awaiting a move to the Academy of Natural Sciences, had been destroyed in a fire. Then, the Philadelphia Museum—his family’s museum—closed permanently. Saddest of all, he lost his wife, a son, and a daughter, one right after the other.

“All through that difficult time,” Grimaldi said, “lepidoptera were the things that engaged him and brought him solace.”

©AMNH/D. Finnin

By the time he was 48, Peale realized that he was not going to be able to make a living on the study of lepidoptery or selling his art. So in 1848, he took a job as an assistant examiner at the United States Patent Office in the Division of Fine Arts and Photography in Washington DC. “He became a pioneer in photography,” Grimaldi said, but he didn’t slow down work on the butterfly book he still hoped to have published, “even though he had a means to much more quickly capture, with fidelity, these beautiful specimens. He continued to paint, continued to collect, continued to study and observe life history stages.”

At one point, Peale proposed “a way to facilitate publication [of his book] ... using photography, but which would really compromise the quality of the work,” Grimaldi said. “But he still couldn’t find backers.”

It was also during this period that the men that most consider the early American lepidopterists began to publish. One was William Henry Edwards, a wealthy West Virginia coal mine owner. “[He] was obsessed with butterflies,” Grimaldi said. “He bankrolled gorgeous illustrations of his own lepidoptera of North America, which was published between 1868 and 1872, in various folios.” Another was Herman Strecker, a stonemason who specialized in making memorial monuments for children and published Lepidoptera: Rhopaloceres and Heteroceres in 1872. Peale knew and corresponded with both—Williams even bought 50 of the specimen boxes Peale used to display his butterflies—and, says Grimaldi, both were probably well aware of Peale’s proposed book, thanks to his prospectus.

“I wouldn’t doubt that William Henry Edwards and Strecker rushed to get their stuff done so that they wouldn’t be beaten by Peale,” he said.

Peale—who had remarried in 1850—spent 25 years at the patent office, rising to the position of principal examiner. When he retired in 1873, he moved his family back to Philadelphia, where they lived with one of his grandsons and used his wife’s small inheritance to get by. The Academy of Natural Sciences agreed to give Peale a room to complete his book, which by then he had begun to call Butterflies of North America. He spent the rest of his life devoted to butterflies, collecting, raising, and studying them. 

When he died in 1885, after being ill for just a day, his book still wasn’t complete. It nearly died with him.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

Peale’s manuscript remained in the family until 1916, when the nephew of Peale’s wife donated the book to the American Museum of Natural History. It was composed of 160-odd plates and 145 pages written on legal-sized paper. 

The lepidopterist had made his paintings on heavy paper using mainly gouache paints, with additions made in watercolor, ink, and pencil. “Peale laid out the pages as he hoped they would be pictured in the book,” Baione said. “The name of the plate, and even the plate numbers, are all penciled in, in his neat hand.” Rather than repainting a butterfly’s life stages on a single page, Peale often cut and pasted life stages from previous paintings onto other pages. In many plates, Peale painted a solid background representing the sky—solid blue, gray, or streaked with pink and orange, denoting dusk or dawn. 

After its donation, The Butterflies of North America became part of the museum’s rare book collection, where it was accessed by artists and art historians over the years, according to Baione. “I hate to disparage [Peale’s] scientific efforts,” he said, “but in the art world, Peale is better known.”

There the book remained until last year, when the project to publish Peale’s book began. The photography of the manuscript was supervised by AMNH conservation manager Barbara Rhodes. “My main role,” she told mental_floss, “was in handling the material for the photographer, so we could be certain that things would stay where they were supposed to and he didn’t expose them to too much light. A number of [the illustrations] do have loose components, so that was a consideration.”

The resulting book, titled The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript, has three sections: the butterfly album, which includes all of the plates from Peale’s book and 14 of the original 145 manuscript pages; reproduced pages from Peale’s prospectus; and a section on a separate work of Peale’s called Lepidoptera: Larva, Food-Plant, Pupa, &c., which features the larvae of different butterflies and moths. Readers will find many butterflies they recognize within the book’s pages, like the Tiger Swallowtail, and some they might not, like Urania sloanus, a butterfly native to Jamaica that has since gone extinct.

And that's not all the museum has planned for Peale's work—there's also a grant proposal to re-treat it. The plates had been contained in a scrapbook until 1977, when it was disbound and taken to a bookbinder, who removed the paintings and secured them to artist’s drawing paper. The paper has curved a bit in the years since. Re-treating will “involve taking the paintings off of the artist’s paper,” Rhodes said. “Fortunately they’re not stuck overall, they’re just dots on the corners, so we think we can get them off reasonably easily and expeditiously. We don’t know if there’s any writing on the backs of these. It’s possible that there is and it just wasn’t documented in 1977. The documentation for this is fairly sparse.”

Rhodes has already made a box especially for Peale's work—a common practice at AMNH—and she plans to rehouse the paintings and repair the leather-bound scrapbook that contains the manuscript. “It’s still in the original cover, but it’s falling apart, unfortunately,” Rhodes says. “So we’ll fix that.”

Thanks to the efforts of Grimaldi and Baione and others at AMNH, Peale is finally getting his due. His story is a sad one, Baione said, “but it has a happy ending. The happy ending is today—his work and his reputation are resurrected.”

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

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Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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