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The History of Taxidermy

Beginning in the late 1700s, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, manuals for the methods of taxidermy began to appear in the literature.

FMNH Taxidermy Gazelle by John Moyer

While the preservation of animal hides and mummifying pets dates back much further to ancient times, the word taxidermy was not used to describe the process until Louis Dufrense published a manual in 1803, according to the Museum of Idaho.

taxidermy (n.)

1820, from Greek taxis “arrangement, an arranging, the order or disposition of an army, battle array; order, regularity” (see tactics) + derma “skin” (from PIE root *der- “to split, flay, peel,” with derivatives referring to skin and leather). Related: Taxidermist (1827).

Entries linking to taxidermy:

tactics (n.) 1620s, “science of arranging military forces for combat,” from Modern Latin tactica (17c.), from Greek taktike techne “art of arrangement,” noun use of fem. of taktikos “of or pertaining to arrangement,” especially “tactics in war,” adjective to taxis “arrangement, an arranging, the order or disposition of an army, battle array; order, regularity,” verbal noun of tassein “arrange,” from PIE root *tag- “to touch, handle.”

*der- Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to split, flay, peel,” with derivatives referring to skin and leather.

It forms all or part of: derm; -derm; derma; dermal; dermato-; dermatology; echinoderm; epidermis; hypodermic; pachyderm; scleroderma; taxidermy; tart(adj.) “having a sharp taste;” tear (v.1) “pull apart;” tetter; turd.

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit drnati “cleaves, bursts;” Greek derein “to flay;” Armenian terem “I flay;” Old Church Slavonic dera “to burst asunder;” Breton darn “piece;” Old English teran “to tear, lacerate.”

Taxidermy Today

The Breathless Zoo by Rachel Poliquin points to eight different genres of taxidermy. They are: trophy mounts, wonders of nature, natural history specimen, extinct species, decor & fashion, pet preservation, anthropomorphic poses, and fraudulent creatures. The art has evolved over the centuries, even allowing women to enter the practice relatively early compared to other industries (though not well documented in most cases). In order to really explore the different genres of taxidermy, its helpful to understand the practice from the perspective of those who have literally gotten their hands dirty doing the work. This way we can understand what on Earth was so fascinating about playing with dead animals.

Sacred Origins

According to Salima Ikram, there were five reasons Egyptians mummifed animals in ancient times. One she labels “other” so its a little vague in that regard, but the other categories of animal mummies fell into: pets, food, votive, and sacred. Pets, in those days, were a social signal of wealth. Because Egyptians believed in an afterlife, they preserved food from animals (much like jerky) to provide sustenance for the deceased. Mummified animals also served religious purposes and could either be in the form of a sacrificial votive offering or in reverence for a sacred animal, like the ibis.

Ever-Evolving

With centuries of innovations, there is no correct way to do taxidermy. But there are safer chemicals used today, as compared to the arsenic that was once used during the Victorian Era. Many pieces from that time period are covered by glass to prevent poisoning. Martha Maxwell was one of the first taxidermists to incorporate entire habitat dioramas into her pieces. The museum installations you see today were pioneered by her and others like her. No longer was the practice just about collecting and identifying species. It became an artistic manifestation of the beautiful natural environment.

Ask any taxidermist what their most important skill is and they will tell you it is the ability to troubleshoot and improvise. “Smoke and mirrors…” is a phrase my dad will often repeat as he fixes and grooms any flaws that remain after finishing work is completed. No two animals will be mounted the same, even if there is a process in place. What works in one piece may not be so cut and dry in the next, even if they are the same species. Each animal has a different story, different scars, and different injuries at the time of death. Not to mention all the mistakes that are made by humans in processing the skin. All of this will factor in to which repairs are necessary and what amendments need to be made to the standard procedure. It takes a creative and receptive mind to roll with all the punches a bad specimen will throw.

Taxidermists of History

As more naturalists and hunters became interested in preparing their own pieces, the practice began to entice well-known scientists like Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. Infusing science with the arts made taxidermy a valuable tool for Natural History Museums, as well. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the American Presidents, was another famous individual who was also a taxidermist.

While several polymaths dabbled in the art, few taxidermists are household names. Carl Akeley is known as the Father of Modern Taxidermy, but most will have never heard of him, let alone his wife Delia, who also took part in the practice. Few folks will have ever heard of Sinclair Clark, Leon Prey, or Martha Maxwell. In this series, I will be highlighting some of the most popular pieces and pioneers of the industry. I will be especially focused on obscure history and “Women in Taxidermy” will be a a regular installment as part of the newsletter for our Taxidermy Tech Alumni.

Alice Would | Published 04 Jul 2018. (n.d.). The curious creatures of victorian taxidermy. History Today. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/curious-creatures-victorian-taxidermy

Carr, J. (2020, March 24). A brief, gross history of Taxidermy. Museum of Idaho. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://museumofidaho.org/idaho-ology/a-brief-gross-history-of-taxidermy/

Ikram, S. (2014). Creatures of the gods: Animal mummies from ancient egypt. AnthroNotes : National Museum of Natural History Bulletin for Teachers, 33(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.5479/10088/22463

Martha Ann Maxwell. Martha Ann. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://faculty.weber.edu/kmackay/martha_ann.htm

Poliquin, R. (2012). The breathless zoo taxidermy and the cultures of longing. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Smith, J. (2019, May 7). The history of Taxidermy. Ranker. Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.ranker.com/list/taxidermy-history/jodi-smith

Taxidermy (n.). Etymology. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2022, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/taxidermy

The Art of Falconry
https://archive.org/details/McGillLibrary-rbsc_art-falconry_casey-wood_SK321F87-18001/page/n15/mode/2up

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