Top of page

Hand-drawn image of insects in colored circles, in large bound volume
Illustration detail, “The Carabidae in Five Subfamilies,” Jacob Stauffer, “Sketches of Insects,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Bugging Out Over Jacob Stauffer’s “Sketches of Insects,” 1859-1880

Share this post:

As a child growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of my favorite summertime activities was bug hunting in the woods behind my house. My friends and I would turn over stones on the banks of the creek and scoop up the little critters underneath before they scurried away, or take nets with us and try to catch cabbage butterflies in the field up the hill. Our little group of budding naturalists was encouraged by my aunt, who gave me an entomology book for my seventh birthday. I pored over this book for hours, learning the differences among insect varieties before venturing out again to put my new knowledge to the test.

Nearly 150 years earlier, another naturalist was roaming the Pennsylvania countryside, recording his observations of the flora and fauna. Jacob Stauffer was born in 1808 in Manheim, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In his early twenties he trained in oil painting and drawing, but was unable to support himself as an artist.[1] His professional career would take several different paths, including a clerkship in a counting house, running a printing press, and working as an apothecary.[2] The one constant throughout his life was his devotion to natural science. A biographical essay on Stauffer published in 1872 states that his “great love and facility of illustrating plants, insects, &c., occupied much of his time, and it is surprising to behold the immense number of illustrations, many very life-like and admirably drawn and colored, so that it is difficult to find a plant or insect that he has not figured.”[3] Stauffer’s knowledge about the natural world was well respected by his peers. His biographer remarked that “if a strange plant or insect is found, and a name wanted for it, you are usually advised to ‘go to Stauffer, he can tell you.’”[4]

Open bound volume with handwritten scientific description on left and intricate monochrome insect diagrams on right
Handwritten scientific observations and illustrations of beetles, Jacob Stauffer, “Sketches of Insects,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Stauffer created several large manuscript books containing illustrations and descriptions of plants, fish, shells, and insects. The Manuscript Division holds Stauffer’s volume relating to insects, a wonderfully detailed guide of which my seven-year-old self could have only dreamed. Stauffer began work on the manuscript in the 1850s and continued likely until his death in 1880.[5] Of the volume’s approximately 500 pages, 179 contain handwritten text, 176 feature hand-colored illustrations, and the remaining pages are blank. Each of its ten sections relates to a different order of insect: butterflies, beetles, wasps, and crickets are just a few of the groups Stauffer describes within. Accompanying Stauffer’s scientific overviews are stunning illustrations done in ink or pencil, most of them richly colored. Frequently, the drawings contain captions indicating when and where each specimen was found, and it is easy to imagine Stauffer on a summer day in 1856, for instance, carefully sketching an elm sawfly larva curled up in a basswood tree leaf. His passion for science is evident in the question he poses underneath the sketch, in which he wonders if the larva, usually found munching on elm leaves, also feed on basswood – or was this “simply axidental [sic]?”

Hand-colored drawing of larva on green leaf, with handwritten description above and below
Sketch of sawfly larva on basswood leaf, Jacob Stauffer, “Sketches of Insects,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Stauffer’s caption below the sketch reads: “July 11th, 1856. Near Mount Joy, Lancaster Co. Pa I found the larva of a Cimbex coiled on the leaf of the Tilia Americana. I noticed a single Ulmus fulva within 20 feet of the Tilia. Querry. Do they also feed on the Tilia or was simply axidental, being called 1… Cimbex Ulmi.”

Stauffer’s contributions to entomology and zoology were considerable. Naturalist E. D. Cope wrote to Stauffer that “Thee would have been encouraged in thy zoological studies, no doubt, in finding the number of species thee has added to the fauna of Pennsylvania.”[6] Unfortunately, Stauffer’s accomplishments have not been widely recognized, “a misfortune due in part to his failure to preserve his works in publications.”[7] When asked why he never published a book, Stauffer replied that “such books as some men compile are no credit to them. I have purchased such, and found nothing new and no improvement on works previously written on the same subject; this has admonished me to be cautious.”[8] Stauffer’s character was described as being “habitually benevolent,” “affable and social,” and that his dedication to the pursuit of knowledge always took precedence over any financial or personal gain.[9] However, Stauffer’s care and reverence for capturing the natural world and some of its smallest inhabitants would not go unforgotten; in 1865, Cope named a species of tree frog found in Mexico Hyla staufferi in Stauffer’s honor.[10]

Instead of turning over stones in my local creek this summer, I’ll be spending time in the Manuscript Reading Room turning pages in Stauffer’s insect manuscript, looking for the little bugs I remember from my Pennsylvania childhood and learning all over again about their role in the world around us.

Color, hand-drawn illustrations of moths and caterpillars in bound volume.
Illustrations of moths and caterpillars, Jacob Stauffer, Sketches of Insects, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

[1] Alexander Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” in A Biographical History of Lancaster County (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1872), 556. Available online.

[2] Eugene R. Rightmyer, “Less-Known Biologists of Lancaster County,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 57, no. 3 (1953), 51. Available online.

[3] Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” 556.

[4] Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” 558.

[5] “Scientific News,” The American Naturalist 14, no. 6 (June 1880), 466. Available online.

[6] Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” 558.

[7] Rightmyer, “Less-Known Biologists of Lancaster County,” 54.

[8] Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” 558.

[9] Harris, “Stauffer, Jacob,” 559.

[10] “Scientific News,” 466. See also, E. D. Cope, “Third Contribution to the Herpetology of Tropical America,” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 17, no. 4 (September-October 1865), 195. Available online.


  1. Wonderful post about a remarkable manuscript. I realize that the expense and effort involved would be formidable, but this amazing item would seem to be an obvious candidate for digitization– or for publication in facsimile. Are there any plans for something of that kind?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.