Early Techniques


Religious uses of Preservation

Ancient techniques for preserving entire or parts of animals and humans were secret arts, frequently associated with religious ceremonies and mystical rites. Protecting the dead from decay was variously understood as a means of easing the transition of the spirit between this world and the next, harnessing supernatural forces, or accessing knowledge of the natural and supernatural worlds. Preserved body parts were links to the after world and were appropriately revered as symbols of strength and worldly representations of unworldly powers. In an effort to ensure abundant harvests, the Maori sometimes placed the skull, bones, and dried heads of ancestors around cultivated lands to recruit symbolically ancestral aid. Some North American First Nations peoples were known to use the preserved heads of porcupines, foxes, raccoons, and eagles to decorate their clothing and equipment. In the Ecuadorian and neighboring Peruvian Amazon, members of the Jivaro Tribe wore the shrunken head, or tsanta, of their enemy as trophies to harness the powers of the victim's spirit and to enhance the wearer's prestige and. If the head of a slain warrior was not obtainable, the Jivaro substituted the head of a tree sloth, which many of the tribes in the region believed to be a direct ancestor of humans and endowed with human qualities.

Image: the Cathedral of Seville, taken from Ramon Jackson's
website: A Crocodile, Elephant Tusk and La Giralda

The Western Christian tradition also revered relics of the deceased. Bodily fragments of saints displayed in early Christian churches were venerated by pilgrims for their power to heal and alleviate suffering and physical pain.  Medieval Christian also frequently hung preserved exotic items from the rafters of churches to evoke awe at the wondrous variety of God’s creations. In 1260 a crocodile was given to King Alfonso X by the Sultan of Egypt. When the animal died, its body was dried and hung in the Portal of the Lizard (named for the reptile) which leads from the cloister to the Cathedral of Seville. The crocodile eventually decayed, however, and was replaced by a wooden replica.


Image: from the National Library of Medicine's online gallery,
Dream Anatomy

Even early natural history collections, the precursors to modern day scientific institutions, had religious overtones. Nature was God’s creation, and as such reading the book of Nature was a means of knowing His works and ways. Collections of body parts were used a moral exemplum. Fredrick Ruysch (1638-1731), for example, sculpted pieces of human bodies – kidney stones, gallstones, dried organs – as landscapes on which tiny skeletons enacted various emotional scenes of piety, despair, and tribulation.




The ancient Egyptians developed perhaps the most sophisticated methods of bodily preservation, which was used on humans and well as animals. Cats, dogs, bulls, mice, hawks, ibises, crocodiles, and other pets of rulers or sacred animals were also carefully preserved and entombed. After removing the internal organs, the body was washed inside and out with astringent palm wine and then filled with pounded aromatics such as myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon. The body was then kept covered in natron, a type of salt mined from dry lake beds near the Nile River which accelerated the dehydration of the body. After a period of several months, the body was washed again and wrapped with bands of fine linen smeared on their inside with gum, which the Egyptians used instead of glue. Essentially, mummification prevents decay by allowing the body to slowly release moisture; the skin and muscles become rigid and the tissues shrink, adhering to the skeleton.

Image: a nineteenth-century dehydrated crocodile head
taken from Finch & Company, online dealers in curiosities.
Although mummification was capable of preserving the features of the deceased with amazing accuracy, since the technique involved drying bodies rather than removing and stuffing the skin, mummification cannot properly be considered taxidermy. However, the methods of preventing decay with spices, salts, and fragrant substances were later used by taxidermists.  For this reason, it is not surprising that some of the earliest taxidermy was prepared by apothecaries (an early word for pharmacists), who had knowledge of secret herbal formulae and access to all variety of spices and preservatives as well as the curious creatures worthy of preservation that merchants were returning with from distant lands.


Cabinets of Curiosities

The spice trade in early modern Europe was a highly profitable business: nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves commanded exorbitant prices, and taxidermic methods benefited from the trade. Although spices were more financially lucrative, shrewd merchants would also return home with exotic specimens, which were eagerly purchased by inquisitive and curious naturalists and apothecaries, who frequently used dried animal parts including pieces of mummies in their preparations.

Etchings of early apothecary collections such as those of Ferrante Imperato and Francesco Calzolari show how a wide variety of zoological specimens which would have required some means or preservation.  Most likely they were preserved either by rubbing the skins with various spices and salt, and then stuffed with straw or soft material or were embalming by a drying process similar to mummification and then varnished.  Whether stuffed or dried and varnished, it is highly unlikely that birds, animals, and especially the fish, frogs, and lizards hanging from the ceiling would have appeared as fresh and free from decay as the images would seem to suggest.


Image taken from: Finch & Co. self-described as two eccentric collectors dedicated to create the greatest of 21st Century cabinets of curiosities at the antique shows they participate in. The fish was still available for sale as of November 2006.

Above is a hollow-eyed, wizened example of preservation techniques that leave much to the imagination. The fish is actually from the nineteenth century, but similar examples surely could be found from an earlier date, that is, if they still existed. The label reads:  'Flying Fish - The common flying fish is a marine species of gregarious habit and remarkable in being able to take a skimming flight, from which it derives its name. The ordinary length of a flying fish is from ten inches to a foot, its chief characteristics are the great length of the pectoral fins and blunt head. It is quite certain that these fish take their flights to escape their enemies. It must be clearly understood that the flight is not prolonged by any flapping of the fins, its continuance being entirely due to the original impetus of the leap." The earliest taxidermic specimens include a rhinoceros in the Royal Museum of Vertebrates in Florence, Italy about 1500 and a preserved aviary of exotic birds from the West Indies owned by a wealthy Hollander, also dated to the early sixteenth century.   As legend has it, the birds suffocated during the voyage home, and the owner, determined to reap some advantage from the mishap, had the skins preserved with spices also brought from the Indies. Neither have survived the ravages of insects over the intervening years.  Among the oldest surviving pieces of taxidermy include a crocodile prepared in 1623 still on display at the museum at St. Gallen, Switzerland, and the Duchess of Richmond's African Grey parrot, which can be seen in Westminster Abbey, London.


Later Developments

Although the earliest known pieces of taxidermy date from the beginning of the sixteenth century, the development and perfection of taxidermic techniques are intimately linked to Western Europe’s fascination with the natural world through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  From the late seventeenth century onwards, the improvement of taxidermic practices is inseparable from the scientific investigation of the natural world.

birds.jpgWhat began as an essential practice for naturalists in their investigations of nature, became in the nineteenth century nothing sort of a fashion craze: in Europe, Britain, and North America the general public quite literally fell in love with nature whether it was alive or dead.  Far from being a quaint hobby, the nineteenth-century passion for natural history changed the way people understood and interacted with nature. The love of nature was only increased with knowledge of its many and various parts and was therefore not incompatible with shooting, skinning, and displaying animals in museums, parlour, and even on hats.


Charles Waterton (1782-1865) 

Charles_Waterton"Were you to pay as much attention to birds, as the sculptor does to the human frame, you would immediately see, on entering a museum, that the specimens are not well done. This remark will not be thought severe, when you reflect that, - that which once was a bird, has probably been stretched, stuffed, stiffened, and wired by the hand of a common clown. Consider, likewise, how the plumage must have been disordered, by too much stretching or drying, and perhaps sullied, or at least deranged, by the pressure of a coarse and heavy hand, - plumage which, ere life had fled from it, was accustomed to be toughed by nothing rougher than the dew of heaven, and the pure and gentle breath of air."
Charles Waterton, On Preserving Birds for Cabinets of Natural History, 1828.

As the English naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) makes clear, preparing skins of animals and birds for display has never been a simple process of arrangement. Taxidermy was an act of artistry, requiring a delicate hand and a sensitive touch. For Waterton and nineteenth-century nature lovers, taxidermy was an art form which revealed a deep respect for nature and a fascination with all the exuberant diversity of its fauna. Ideally, taxidermy not only to defended the carcasses of birds from decay, insects, and the ravages of time, but also presented specimens as if they were still alive, preserving the vibrancy of their plumage and the elegance of their form. As Waterton assert, any common clown could “stuff” a bird or, a frequent error of amateur taxidermists, to overstuff the skin. But to craft a specimen which gave some suggestion of the proportions, musculature, and harmony of the whole form “so much admired in animate nature, so little attended to in preserved specimens,” required a great deal of experience not only with a knife, some cotton, and a needle but also with living nature.

Waterton advises that the taxidermist must have a complete understanding of ornithological anatomy and retreat “to the haunts of birds, on plains and mountains, forests, swamps, and lakes” in order to scrutinize each species’ attitudes and expressions. Once you have learnt the precise angle of each bird’s wings, neck, head, and tail, your eagle will be commanding, your magpie will seem crafty, the vulture will show his sluggish habits, and your “sparrow will retain its wonted pertness, by means of placing its tail a little elevated, and giving a moderate arch to its neck.” In short, taxidermy was the aesthetic contemplation of nature’s beauty and variety through art and imitation.

And Waterton certainly practiced what he preached. Waterton visited South America four times between 1812 and 1824 in order to study the flora and fauna which he chronicled in his highly popular Wanderings in South America published in 1828. He also established one of the first nature reserves on his estate, Walton Hall. He constructed an enormous wall around his lands to keep poachers out, built birds nests, frequently boasted he spent more time climbing trees to study birds than on the ground, and in the process developed his own distinct taxidermy procedure to establish himself as one of the preeminent taxidermists of the early nineteenth century, not to mention, becoming the most famous fraudulent taxidermist, perhaps of all time. As biographers and historians delight in noting, the aristocratic Victorian Yorkshireman was a kook, a verifiable eccentric, with more than one man's share of hangups and peculiarities.  


How to Make a Wolf

These images of a step-by-step timber wolf are from the American Museum of Natural History's image archives.  The phographs were all taken by Robert Logan in 1947.




Check out other images of taxidermists at work here: http://images.library.amnh.org/photos/ptm/browse/4?ipp=25&p=2&view=grid



Mammal Mounts

The number and proficiency of mammal taxidermy lagged behind avian mounts well into the nineteenth century: beasts – particularly murderous, snarling, dying beasts – were significantly more difficult to prepare than birds daintily placed on branches. Defects in ill-stuffed birds were not so obvious:  "the feathers assist in a great measure to conceal such deformities," as one Victorian taxidermist said.  

A black monkey photographed by Julie Dermansky. See all her natural history shots here + Plus, bigger, more articulated bodies meant that more things could go wrong, artistically speaking. There was the musculature in the animal’s legs, the tension across the back, the folds of skin at the neck, not to mention the facial expression of animals. As Thomas Bewick lamented in his General History of Quadrupeds first published in 1790, a large number of his apes and monkeys were “wholly impossible to trace from a stuffed skin, void of every kind of expression; the muscular parts, which should convey the idea of action, being generally ill supplied, or entirely wanting,” so that the greater part of his monkey tribe was without illustration.

If taxidermy was immensely popular from the early nineteenth century, it hardly holds that taxidermy improved as the decades proceeded. The Director of the Natural History Museum, London commented in 1881 that “I cannot refrain from saying a word upon the sadly-neglected art of taxidermy, which continues to fill the cases of most of our museums with wretched and repulsive caricatures of mammals and birds, out of all natural proportions, shrunken here and bloated there, and in attitudes absolutely impossible for the creatures to have assumed while alive.”  This is not to say that there were no good taxidermy being produced, only that the majority of taxidermy was ill-conceived and structural specious.

Early mammal taxidermy involved building animals up from the barest internal armature by stuffing skins with straw, paper, tow, or some other soft material. Early taxidermied beasts still on display in natural history museums are often cracked, the split skin revealing the creatures’ straw underpinnings.) Certainly skins were bulked up , but the method only allowed the most rudimentary suggestion of muscles and tension. The worst problem was how skins tightened as they dried. Any hollows or wrinkles created to mimic natural skin undulations became flat and taut like a drum. This shrinking was particularly a problem with thin skinned animals such as lions or antelopes: shaggy fur or woolly coats hide innumerable problems. But even with hairy beasts, such early methods of “stuffing” could never achieve a true sense of anatomical correctness and vigour.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a new method of preparing large animal mounts became popular in Europe and North America. Instead of stuffing skins, an internal sculpture was made. The method with various idiosyncratic variations developed almost simultaneously by taxidermists across Europe and North America, each declaring to have developed the method himself. The process began similarly to traditional stuffing: four leg wires – bent to proper shape – were attached to a vertical centreboard of wood. Two additional rods supported the skull and another for the tail, if required.


This armature or “manikin” was wrapped tightly with thinly shaved strands of wood, known as excelsior, and bound with twine until it perfectly resembled the creature in every possible undulation and arch. To make up thick muscles in the legs, a bunch of excelsior was bound in place with twine. Smaller protuberances and muscles were made with soft, long fibre tow. The process was slow, meticulous, and required the constant critical assessment of a naturalist’s eye and comparison with the skin. Attention to the most minute of details was imperative. For example, to bring out the prominent muscles in the leg, William Hornaday, one of America’s greatest nineteenth-century taxidermists, recommended sewing through the leg along a vertical line “to produce certain depressions that exist between the larger muscles.” Achilles tendons were made with a twisted wire attached as the heel and wrapped with tow. The key was never to make the manikin too big – it could always be built up but removing layers of twine and excelsior was an arduous labour.

But the real secret to an anatomically correct mount lay in the next step: adhering a skin to the manikin. And on this subject, Hornaday was the self-proclaimed inventor of the clay-covered manikin, rather than other materials such as paper-maché or plaster. While the skin was absorbing arsenical soap on the inside and arsenical water on the outside, Hornaday instructs his readers to mix up enough clay – soften enough to smear – in order to cover the entire twine and wood sculpture with an eighth to a quarter of an inch thick coat. When the manikin was completely covered in clay from nose to tail – “a complete clay statue of the animal” – the skin was pressed into the clay leaving no air bubbles or looseness. Next, the skin was sewn up. “You can actually model the skin down upon the body,” Hornaday writes, “and it will not only take the exact form of the manikin – every depression and every elevation – but it will also keep it.” The taxidermist had to work quickly while the skin and clay were still wet (Hornaday recommended two taxidermists work together on a large mount, and the skin could be kept damp with towels). The efforts were enormous, but the result was a perfectly moulded skin, perfectly forming to every undulation and muscle. “There is a supreme pleasure in crowning a well-made manikin with a handsome skin, and seeing a specimen take on perfect form and permanent beauty as if by magic. It is then that you begin to be proud of your work; and finally you revel in it. You say to yourself, “This is art!” – and so it is."

A male lion by Rowland Ward from www.taxidermyemporium.co.ukThe next stage was the facial expression and mouth modeling. “The large Felidæ (tiger, lion, leopard, etc.) are the finest subjects for the taxidermist that the whole animal kingdom can produce. They offer the finest opportunities for the development of muscular anatomy, and the expression of higher passions.” As Waterton had profusely expressed over bird taxidermy in the last chapter, Hornaday was equally adamant: “In the first place, strive to capture the spirit of your subject.” How open should the mouth be? Unless it is represented in the act of seizing something, the jaws should not be opened too widely or the animal will “seem to be yawning prodigiously, instead of snarling.” The thick, fleshy parts around the nose and upper lip will lift and bunch together, the skin crowds the nostrils, and the lower lip falls away from the incisors. The eyelid are drawn over the eyes, and the eyebrows drawn together “until the scowl becomes frightful.” The ears should be flattened to the next and the tongue (if the mouth is open) “also pulls itself together, contracts in the middle, curves up at the edges, and makes ready to retire farther back between the jaws at the instant of seizure.”


The oldest stag in the world

What's that, you say?  It could be the oldest taxidermised deer in the world on display at the Danish Museum of Hunting and Forestry in Hørsholm.  The stag is apparently over 300 years old and was owned/killed? by King Frederik IV (1671-1730).  Crazier still, researchers have x-rayed the ancient beast to determine exactly how it was put together.  The answer? A ridiculouar number of pins.  

The images were taken from Markus Bühler's website here +  Learn more about the early history of taxidermy here +




Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur (1718-1777)

Taxidermy got its great leap forward in the mid-eighteenth century with the innovative chemical experiments of Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, a French pharmacist and naturalist from the town of Metz in north-eastern France. In 1738, Bécoeur began experimenting with 50 different chemicals to determine which were most effective against insects. He tested one chemical on 50 different specimens, leaving the birds exposed to any type of hunger worm or mite or fly which might be passing by. After four years only four specimens were free from insect attacks. He decided to mix these four chemical – ground arsenic, camphor, potassium carbonate, and powdered calcium hydroxide - together with soap in a preparation which has become known as arsenical paste. 

After years of tests and trials, failures and eventual unparalleled success, Bécoeur was keen to trumpet his success but loath to divulge his secret preparation. He resolved to send several of his specimens to the most distinguished collection in France, the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, where hopefully the excellent quality of his birds would publicise his remarkable achievement. His decision was inspired. The renowned naturalist Buffon, the museum’s director, was more than impressed as were all the museum’s visitors who were shown Bécoeur’s birds as exceptional examples of taxidermy. Where most specimens only survived several years unless sealed airtight behind glass, Bécoeur’s survived in the open air. Buffon wrote to Bécoeur in 1758 not only to inform him that all the birds were still “in excellent condition” but also requesting more specimens. Despite everything, Bécoeur went to the grave without divulging his hard-earned secret.

Bécoeur was himself an avid collector of birds, animals, and insects, and established a notable collection which purchased seven years after his death by Karl III August Christian, Duke of Pfalz-Birkenfeld Zeibrücken (1746-1795). What happened after that is somewhat of a mystery. Bernardin Pierron visited soon after Bécoeur’s death:

Had Bécoeur lived in ages past, he would have been accused of witchcraft and enchantment. What wonders has this excellent naturalist not been able to unite in his cabinet. These are truly immortal animal. The dog barks (or so it seems), the monkey changes posture, tile hedgehog hides below its spines, the timid hare lifts its ear to listen, the sloth fears to move in search of food …. The birds soar or play with their feathers painted in a thousand different colours. They are marvelously assorted in the bird of paradise, which has a golden head, a green collar, a bright red back and wings equal to the rainbow in beauty; yet it is not inferior to the humming-bird whose lively brightness surpasses all masterpieces of art. The feathers of the cock-of-the-rock seem to compete with the first rays of dawn. The toucan with its curved beak, the cardinal, the American blackbird - but I would struggle in vain to mention all the birds, which Bécoeur assembled.

The envy which follows all great men could not leave Bécoeur alone; but the cloud will soon pass. The flame of truth will dissipate the clouds of the lie; posterity will do justice to the merit of this great naturalist. Paris will bemoan, when it is too late, that I never took the service of this estimable citizen."

Bécoeur was unwilling to publish the recipe for commercial reasons and succeeded in keeping his formula secret during his lifetime. However, the formula was eventually popularised by French taxidermist named Louis Dufresne (1752-1832) in 1820.