Home > Pet Services > A History of Taxidermy

A History of Taxidermy

By: Margaret Paxton - Updated: 3 Apr 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Taxidermy Stuffed Mounted Specimens

Pikes suspended in glass cases, an elephant foot doorstop, horned heads on walls, stuffed woodland creatures wearing suits…welcome to the (sometimes) weird and (sometimes) wonderful scientific art of taxidermy.

Derived from the Greek words ‘taxis,’ meaning arrangement, and ‘derma’ meaning skin, the early beginnings of preparing, stuffing and mounting animal skins began when hunter-gatherers realized that the skins of animals, killed to eat, could be preserved. Once treated, these hides could be arranged over objects and implemented as part of their hunting rituals.

In a vaguely similar vein, the stuffed bodies of crocodiles were suspended, upside down, in the vaults of many churches to drive away demons, ignorance and disease.

Is Taxidermy the Same as Mummification?

No! Briefly, the processes involved in taxidermy are not the same as those used in mummification. In very crude terms, taxidermy is based on the skinning and stuffing of a specimen, and mummification on the drying of bodies for preservation, although some methods used by the ancient Egyptians-to prevent decay-were incorporated in early taxidermy.

Apothecaries

Mans’ scientific exploration of the natural world is inexorably linked to the more advanced sophistications of taxidermy. As eminent naturalists, like Charles Darwin, gained access to previously unexplored lands, more species of animals were discovered and so, the advances in taxidermy treatments progressed in order to preserve these rarities.

Apothecaries (pharmacists) were probably the first professional taxidermists. They knew more about herbs, spices and preservatives than most people and were always keen to purchase curious creatures from merchants.

During the 17th Century most small towns had a thriving tannery business: this development was due to the huge increase in demand for leather goods. Subsequently, taxidermists’ methods of preserving specimens quickly improved.

These early chemists’ had access to alum, arsenic, camphor, salt of tartar and lime and the white soap used as ingredients to make one of the preservatives used in taxidermy during Victorian times.

Pioneer Taxidermists

Sir Hans Sloane-his collection of specimens formed the basis of the Natural History collection at the British Museum around 1725.

Charles Waterton-taught John Edmonstone, a slave, on one of the Waterton family estates in Demarara. (Edmonstone later taught Charles Darwin in Edinburgh.)

Alfred Russel Wallace-British explorer whose book ‘The Malay Archipelago’ was one of the most influential scientific record of the 19th century.

Martha Maxwell (1831-1881) was a vegetarian naturalist whose explorations of Colorado Territory created the foundation of modern taxidermy. She was the first woman to prepare and mount skins of animals.

Walter Potter-created anthropomorphic works in which the stuffed, mounted, animals were dressed as humans as they played in cricket and croquet matches, classrooms, tea parties and other extraordinary dioramas.

Taxidermy Specimens

One of the oldest known taxidermy specimens still in existence is that of a crocodile in a Swiss museum. It was prepared in 1623!

For centuries, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been stuffed and mounted by taxidermists. Species of animals are thus preserved for study and zoological reference.

One of the first large-scale public displays of taxidermy took place in 1851 at the ‘Great Exhibition of Works and Industry of All Nations,’ where the mounted works of more than 14 taxidermists were exhibited. The huge structure erected for this great event was designed by Joseph Paxton and later became known as the Crystal Palace.

Trophy Hunters

During Victorian times big game shooting safaris became popular; especially in East Africa and India. The spoils of these trophy hunters were displayed in many Victorian homes as an array of gruesome-looking heads, pelts, feet and horns.

On a much smaller scale, fishermen and hunters in Great Britain sought the expertise of taxidermists to mount their prized catches. (Since 1947 taxidermists have been prohibited from handling non-game animals killed for sport.)

Taxidermist Skills

Far from being creators of the macabre, professional taxidermists’ are highly skilled naturalists. Their expert knowledge of anatomy, tanning, sculpting and painting is outstanding and vital in the preparation and mounting of specimens.

Taxidermists of today use the bodies of animals that have died of natural causes or road kill. All specimens are tagged, logged and their origins accounted for.

Endangered Species

Since the introduction of restrictions on the sale and trade of endangered species, it is hoped that this necessary accountability has reduced the illegal handling of such animals. COTES (Control of Trade in Endangered Species) have made it harder for unscrupulous poachers to offload their goods.

If you decide to invest in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ it is advisable to seek the professional advice of a professional taxidermist. That way you know what you’re buying and where it came from.

Otherwise, caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Why not be the first to leave a comment for discussion, ask for advice or share your story...

If you'd like to ask a question one of our experts (workload permitting) or a helpful reader hopefully can help you... We also love comments and interesting stories

Title:
(never shown)
Firstname:
(never shown)
Surname:
(never shown)
Email:
(never shown)
Nickname:
(shown)
Comment:
Validate:
Enter word:
Topics
Latest Comments
  • brooke
    Re: Work With Horses: Becoming a Stablehand
    hey im 16 and im looking for a job with horses i have trained and worked with horses all my life i want to become a…
    28 November 2020
  • charlie
    Re: Work With Horses: Becoming a Stablehand
    hi im charlotte, but you can call me charlie, im 15 years old and in grade 9 looking for a job with hands on…
    9 November 2020
  • Harliejay
    Re: Work With Horses: Becoming a Stablehand
    Hi I’m harliejay , I’m 14 , I’ve ridden a couple of horses when I was 7 , would like to work with horses on a stable…
    23 October 2020
  • Dafydd
    Re: Working for a Hunt
    What absolute load of nonsense! Fox hunting is illegal yet the hunts continue to do so. No trails are laid in fact it's illegal to import fox…
    19 October 2020
  • Ali
    Re: Run your own Animal Shelter
    I have 10 rabbits and 3 guinea pigs all of which were unwanted pets. I live alone and only work p/t. So can tend to them well. Im…
    9 October 2020
  • Jade
    Re: Work With Horses: Becoming a Stablehand
    Hi, I'm Jade. I'm 12 but I'll be 13 in 2 months. I'm obsessed with horses but can't afford my own. If anyone would…
    4 October 2020
  • ams
    Re: Training to be a Police Dog Handler
    i just want to be a dog handler because i am very good with dogs. i am only 13
    2 October 2020
  • corrinaclarise
    Re: What Does a Horse Whisperer Do?
    I've had my mind made up since I was 8 years old (nearly 20 years now) that I wanted to be an Equestrian Psychologist. I've…
    17 September 2020
  • Debs
    Re: Run your own Animal Shelter
    I have a big garden I would like to run a shelter for cats please assist me anyone to get started I will be living in the house
    6 September 2020
  • Chuy
    Re: Work as a Flying Groom
    Have more the 18 years experience with thoroughbred horses an more, like to join the team thank you.
    12 August 2020