Impeccable Science: Finny Tribes, Horse Fishing, and Dental Apparatus

Today’s post highlights science writing which is not only impeccable, but also delightfully florid, with selections from Dr. G. Hartwig’s The Harmonies of Nature, or, the Unity of Creation (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866). The book itself is an interesting reflection on homeostasis within ecosystems through predator satiation, various instinctual behaviors, and a balance of “passive and active defences“.

The Harmonies of Nature includes some satisfyingly grotesque scientific diagrams, like this cross-section of the “dental apparatus of the Lamprey, & fang fixed to the roof”.


If that fang fixed to the roof isn’t enough for you, take a gander at this illustration of horses being used to capture electric eels. Hartwig describes it as a “highly entertaining and animated scene”.


(In the spirit of scientific inquiry/ morbid fascination with this mass of writhing aquatic horses, I had to investigate whether Hartwig’s described equine fishing method was a real thing. Apparently 18th and 19th century scientists were very interested in electrical impulses within animals’ bodies, and did scores of somewhat ghastly experiments including one where the charge from an electric catfish stimulated the sciatic nerve in a recently-amputated frog’s leg, causing the leg to kick a little bell. I can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, among the electrically-curious minds of history was that of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who convinced understandably leery Guayquerie Indians to help him capture electric eels for study and documentation. In his account of this process, the Guayquerie drove about 30 wild horses and mules into the river, where the animals thrashed about, driving the eels out of the mud and subsequently tiring them out by absorbing numerous benumbing shocks. The exhausted eels could then be pulled to shore with small harpoons. You can read the text of von Humboldt’s distressing account of ‘horse fishing’ here.)

Steering our conversation back to The Harmonies of Nature, let me leave you with one of the most impressive and reassuring sentences I’ve read in a good while:


Under the protection of an Almighty Lawgiver the equilibrium of the inhabitants of the ocean is thus constantly renewed though constantly assailed; and though the scythe of death is indefatigably mowing throughout Neptune’s domain, it is but to celebrate the eternal triumph of life.

From a current perspective, Hartwig’s earnest confidence in the resilience of Nature’s systems is almost touching. Let’s all keep our collective fingers crossed for the oceanic eternal triumph of life.

Bad Children of History #4

Meet John. He’s a fairly nice little boy, but he’s also an apple thief. He couldn’t resist pocketing a few of Butcher Wharton’s “rosy-cheeked apples”. (Better than the pallid apples at home?)


Here’s a picture of John, the pilfered apples, and the “worthy, though eccentric” butcher (alongside an unidentifiable, suspended piece of meat and a terrifying hatchet).

John’s mother caught him in his fruity transgression and ordered him to return the apples. In a classic whoops-but-I-don’t-want-to-anger-the-guy-with-a-hatchet move, John returned to the butcher shop with the apples, and:

On reaching the door of the shop he noticed some other customers in, and a way of getting out of the difficulty at once occurred to him, and one which would not bring him into contact with the butcher, and this was to roll the apples into the shop from the door. So, taking one of them, he rolled in gently along the floor, and doing the same with the second, he set off home in high glee.

Alas, John’s high glee was short-lived, as his mother did not agree with the genius of his solution and sent him back to apologize– to the eccentric fellow with the hatchet and the sharp hooks.

Yes, it was very hard for little John to face up to his erroneous ways, but as the butcher was, as previously mentioned, worthy, he accepted John’s apology and gave him three apples to take home for himself and his siblings.

Let’s hope they were just as rosy-cheeked as the originals.

(Image and moralistic tale from an 1878 issue of Chatterbox, a weekly illustrated newspaper with stories for children.)

Impeccable Science: Give Your Lungs a Bath

This week’s impeccable science post features one of our favorite texts, an 1839 health tract entitled Thoughts on Bathing.

Thoughts on Bathing is a trove of essential information. For example, bathing of the entire body is important because it cleans your skin and invigorates your circulation. Cold bathing is particularly beneficial, and can even be fun!

A further explanation delves into the specifics of how the skin breathes and helps “renovate” the blood.


Whatever changes take place in the lungs, by the action of the air upon the blood in the small vessels of those organs, to purify and renovate it, take place also all over the surface of the body; that in this respect, therefore, the skin may be regarded as a sort of appendage of the lungs; and that if the skin be varnished over with a mixture of oil and dust, so that it cannot perform its office, an unreasonable burden will be thrown upon the lungs, which will thereby be weakened, and predisposed to disease.

Not bathing = colds or lung disease. Makes sense, kind of. But to whom is bathing most important? This is where the truly impeccable science kicks in.


This temporary suspension of the offices of the skin is, however, peculiarly dangerous to those who are of light complexion, slender form, with a long neck, and narrow shoulders projecting almost like wings, indicating a chest whose internal organs as well as external dimensions are comparatively small and feeble, and therefore poorly prepared to do that work which belongs to other parts or organs.

Listen up, thin pale people, you’d better remember your weekly cold bath. Your life could depend on it.

You can see more gems from Thoughts on Bathing in the Spring 2012 issue of Occasional Nuggets, which deals with health and exercise.

Bad Children of History #3

Today’s post features one historically bad attitude, courtesy of Lily from the eponymous 1870 Lily’s Lesson. Look at her pout!


Not only was Lily feeling grouchy, but she was making sure that everyone could tell she was in a foul mood. In case it’s hard to tell from the above illustration, here’s what she was doing:

One round fat shoulder was pushed up out of her dress; the small hands, which should have been busy about some light work or pleasant play, were pettishly dragging to bits a sheet of white paper which might have been turned to some good use, and littering it about the door, where some one must have the trouble of picking it up; and kick, kick, kick, went the toe of the pretty shiny little boot against the rough door-step.

During the course of this 217-page tale, Lily rapidly progresses from paper-tearing and doorstep-kicking to taking off down the road without her mother, carrying her sister’s kidnapped satchel and a purloined umbrella.

Of course, in the spirit of any good cautionary tale, Lily is then mistaken for a beggar, loses the umbrella, drops the satchel (which is used as a football by even worse children), gets lost while taking a shortcut home through the woods, and falls into a frigid river.

But don’t despair, dear reader: Bruno the Dog pulls Lily from the roiling waters, and after some soul-searching and Ten-Commandments-based-reflection, she makes a full recovery while lying in her own warm bed. It’s quite heart-warming.


Impeccable Science: Final Exams Edition

This week’s installment of Impeccable Science is chosen in a spirit of empathy for the many students who are currently mired in final exams while longing for carefree time in the May sunshine.

As we all know, intense study can be harmful to your health. For proof, look at this 1833 volume by Amariah Brigham, a doctor from Connecticut.


What terrible things can excessive studying do to your body? For starters, it can give you dyspepsia.


Dyspepsia is generally considered a disease of the stomach primarily. But I apprehend that in a majority of cases, especially among students, it is primarily a disease of the brain and nervous system, and is perpetuated by mental excitement.

It can hamper your immune system’s ability to fight off disease, especially if you’re studying hard while you’re still young.


I have seen several affecting and melancholy instances of children, five or six years of age, lingering awhile with diseases from which those less gifted readily recover… The chance for the recovery of such precocious children, is in my opinion small, when attached by disease…

And finally, the mental excitement caused by excessive study can case rampant insanity- but only if you’re studying the arts and humanities. Chemists and physicians never suffer from insanity.

In all countries, the disease [of insanity] prevails most among those whose minds are most excited. Aristotle noticed, in his day, the great prevalence of insanity among statesmen and politicians. It is said, the disease prevails most among those whose minds are excited by hazardous speculations, and by works of imagination and taste; and but little among those whose minds are exercised only by calm inquiry. The registers of the Bicetre, in France, show, that the insane of the educated classes consist chiefly of priests, painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians; while no instance of the disease in naturalists, physicians, geometricians or chymists has occurred.

Bad Children of History #1

Today marks the first installment of a new series of Special Collections highlights: Bad Children of History.

Our Edith Wetmore Collection of Children’s Books is a veritable treasure trove of illustrations: it contains 1,850 children’s books in 20 languages spanning more than 500 years of grammar instruction, rhyming poetry, anthropomorphized animals, Bible stories, and, yes, naughty children.

We’re starting off the series with an illustration from a truly classic book of misbehaving youth: Struwwelpeter, first published in 1845. These photos come from an 1890 English translation published by Porter & Coates.


Here’s a picture of Pauline lighting a match, despite the exhortations of her pet cats:


And what happens to children who light matches when their mother is away? That’s right, they burn into a tragic pile of ash.


So she was burnt with all her clothes,
And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.

Wonderpictures, Russian Checkers, Toy Printing, Irish Certificate

Just a quick post with updates on some of the latest additions to Special Collections.

Thanks to donor David Nudelman, we’re now home to 356 Russian books on checkers. They join our already rich Haynes collection on checkers, and they should be of interest to anyone with an interest in Soviet book design. Here are two examples:


Another donor has given us a collection of toy printing/sign-making sets. They’ll join our Updike Collection on the history of printing.


We purchased a rare certificate of membership in the Repeal Association of Ireland:


And a very fun item that you’ll have to visit to get a proper sense of. “Stulz Wonderpictures” is a small advertising booklet that doubles as a visual toy. The images inside are printed in two colors and in such a way that the first image presents a scene and text (“Where are the fish?” for instance, with a picture of a fisherman). When the included red plastic sheet is placed over the image the original scene disappears and a new one takes its place (in the example above, fish swimming in a stream). Not only is it a whimsical complement to our children’s collections, it’s a fascinating piece of printing ephemera. And best of all, this amusing toy, seemingly aimed at children, advertises whiskey made by the Stulz Brothers company in Kansas City, Missouri.