Our colorplate books of natural history are some of most dramatic in the collection. Typically oversized (or double-oversized), they celebrated native flora and fauna as they documented it. Usually expensive, multi-volume works sold by subscription, colorplate natural history books were destined for the libraries of the upper classes and went beyond scientific usefulness to become works of art in which the artists and printers involved took a great deal of pride. The eighteenth-century works of Mark Catesby (including The Natural History of Carolina) set the artistic and intellectual standards, to be followed by endeavors such as Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology and John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Viviparous Quadrupeds. The Library Company owns examples of these, and other spectacular books of natural history.
In addition to recording the natural world at the time, colorplate books utilized the ever-developing printing technologies put toward depicting natural history in the most accurate way. From the nature prints of colonial currency and collections such as Joseph Breintnal’s eighteenth-century album of leaf specimens to François Andre Michaux’s classic hand-colored work, The North American Sylva to Thomas Meehan’s plate book, The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States, a four-volume work published in full color by the virtuoso chromolithographer Louis Prang, the books present the coalescence of scientific, artistic, and publishing talents.
Works of natural history reveal the changing relationship of humans to the world around them. Jacob Bigelow’s American Medical Botany, a descendant of traditional herbals, was one example of people’s appreciation for the healing properties of plants. Didactic works include the many children’s texts aimed at young botanists who, by studying the natural world around them, might better appreciate God’s grand plan.
Other works record how man saw the natural world as a source of profit. Geological surveys and exploratory expeditions provided inventories of natural resources for scientists, emigrants, and potential investors alike. Transactions of scientific and agricultural societies disseminated information about the latest discoveries and developments related to the natural world. Other types of literature, such as seed and nursery catalogs, show how individuals created business enterprises by using products of the natural world.
Andrea J. Tucher. Natural History in America, 1609-1860. Printed Works in the Collections of the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985).