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Peter Parley and his Pictures: the First Illustration of Dinosaurs for American Children

Today’s guest post is by Jacqueline Coleburn and Anthony Mullan. Jackie is a rare book cataloger at the Library of Congress and is cataloging the Library’s rare children’s books.  Peter Parley books are a particular interest of hers. These books, which were very popular in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, offer insight into the evolution of American children’s literature, and can tell the modern reader a great deal about American attitudes and thought. Anthony Mullan is a volunteer who was formerly a reference specialist in the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. One of his current interests is 19th century American geographic education. Jackie and Tony have written for us before, you can read their previous blog posts Peter Parley Explains the Moon, Part 1 and Part 2.

Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. New York: S. Colman, 1840: frontispiece.

Illustrated children’s books on dinosaurs abound and, as any children’s librarian or parent of a dinosaur-obsessed young child will tell you, children can’t get enough of them.  The words “dinosaur” or “dinosaurs” appear in over 5000+ titles in the Library of Congress catalog.  Most of these are books for children.  After cars and trucks, the most common intense interest for young American children is dinosaurs.

Perhaps Samuel G. Goodrich, known to his young readers as Peter Parley, was on to something when he published the first illustration of dinosaurs in an American children’s book in 1840.  This illustration appeared two years before the term “dinosaur” was coined by Sir Richard Owen. Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky (New York: S. Colman, 1840) includes engravings of “fossil animals restored,” descriptions of the Icthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, and Pterodactyle, and several illustrations of dinosaur skeletons.

Goodrich, well-known for his ability to communicate information to children in an engaging manner, describes these creatures in ways that a 19th century child could understand.

The Icthyosaurus, or Fish-Lizard, was “most like the modern porpoise; but it had the teeth of a crocodile, the head of a lizard, the backbone of a fish, and the fins or paddles of a whale.” They “lead a ruffian sort of life, always biting something or other,” and had eyes as large as a man’s head.

The Plesiosaurus had a long neck, 57 vertebrae, and could change color like a chameleon. Goodrich explains that he must not have been any match for an Icthyosaurus and would either fall prey to or outrun him.

The Pterodactyle, or Wing-fingered, was bat-like, with “a head like a lizard, a long snout, and sharp teeth,” and ate insects.

Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. New York: S. Colman, 1840: at page 26.

After describing the Icthyosaurus and his occasionally cannibalistic eating habits, Goodrich tells his young readers that “He must have been, altogether, a very unamiable character.”  He tells the children to draw their own conclusions about the creature, but cautions them to remember that the Icthyosaurus and his family are long extinct and we ought not to speak unkindly of the dead.

It is interesting to see how Goodrich draws parallels between the history of the earth he learns from the geological discoveries of the day and his confidence in the creation story recorded in the book of Genesis.

In his preface to The Child’s Geology (Brattleboro: G.H. Peck & Co., 1832) Goodrich explains that his object is to present leading facts of geological science to children.  He emphasizes that the study of geology has a positive moral influence, in that it confirms the account of creation in the book of Genesis, “… notwithstanding the doubts of skeptics. It proves the account of a general deluge, the effects of which are every where visible; and … irrefutably shows the harmony of the works of God with the records of revelation.”

On page 10 he explains that “Geologists are generally agreed upon the fact that in former ages there has been a universal deluge, or flood, which covered the whole earth.”  Goodrich sets forth that the dinosaurs, whose existence is proven by the evidence of fossils, were destroyed in a great flood from which only Noah and his family survived.

Illustrated natural history of the animal kingdom. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1861: volume 1, page 9.

Goodrich seems especially fond of the writings of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a major figure in the natural sciences in the early 19th century who is called the father of paleontology.  In Recollections of a Lifetime, page 363, Goodrich says that “Cuvier and his followers have enabled us to read the lines written by God upon the rocks …”

Cuvier wrote many years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution. He believed in the cyclical creation and destruction of the earth, not evolution.  This supports Goodrich’s writings on the harmony of geological science and the creation story in Genesis.

Goodrich, writing as his young readers’ good friend Peter Parley, is so absolute about the correctness of the biblical account that we should wonder if he wasn’t doing his best to keep himself convinced.   Or, considering that he was in the business of selling books written for children but purchased by parents and teachers, he may have been appealing to traditional views of the older generation.

Further reading may reveal his true beliefs.   Meanwhile we can appreciate his understanding of his young readers, knowing that illustrations of large, mysterious, and extinct beasts would feed their imaginations and create in them a hunger to learn more.

For more information on dinosaurs and paleontology, see the Science Reference Section’s guide to Dinosaurs and Paleontology: A Resource Guide.


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