Building the Museum

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Museum Contributor's Pledge Form

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American Philosophical Society

Peale largely eliminated the moving picture show by 1786, using its space for the artifacts and specimens he began acquiring, and expanded his property at Third and Lombard Streets in 1785, which made room for the live specimens that were among the donations. For several months in 1786 he published an appeal in the Pennsylvania Packet and other newspapers for "Natural Curiosities."1

A pattern of work and life around the museum established itself early. Specimens and artifacts were received either through donation or exchange with others, or were gathered by family members. Hunting expeditions were frequent occurrences, especially for birds. Charles Willson wrote constantly to friends, men of science, and European institutions, seeking advice or specimens to exchange. He published public notices, appealed to political leaders for funding. Meanwhile, the arrangement of the museum occupied much of his time, especially preserving and mounting specimens. There was a constant search for ways to enhance the museum and keep the interest of the public.

The entire operation was very much a family affair, and the Peale family was large. Charles Willson's first wife, Rachel, died in 1790, his second, Elizabeth DePeyster, in 1804, and his third, Hannah Moore, in 1821. Altogether they bore him seventeen children, ten of whom survived past their twenty-first birthday. Growing up a Peale was an experience like no other, being surrounded by all types of animals, stuffed and mounted or yet alive, someday to be mounted; meeting important people, seeing the daily crush of ordinary citizens; being the first to greet a ship's captain bringing something new to donate from Tahiti or Africa; closely involved behind the scenes in the creation of the grand institution that often dazzled its visitors.

The Peale boys especially were deeply involved. The eldest, Raphaelle (1774-1825), a talented painter of still-life, worked extensively preserving animals, in the process ruining his hands in the harsh chemical solutions. He and his brother Rembrandt (1778-1860) attempted to establish a museum in Baltimore (some years later Rembrandt himself succeeded), and Raphaelle even presented lectures at the Philadelphia museum in which his performing skills shown, but he died relatively young of alcoholism.

Rembrandt Peale was the most dedicated and artistically successful painter among the Peale children, but he never could quite make a living at it and used museum work to subsidize his painting. Rembrandt and Rubens ran it from 1810 until 1822, their father relinquishing museum operations to enter a very busy retirement on a farm he named "Belfield." The siblings worked hard to increase the profitability of the museum. While the institution maintained primarily a scientific nature, exhibits and "curiosities" that were purely entertaining were often introduced, among them a tattooed human head, programs featuring human prodigies such as a six-year-old mathematical genius from Vermont, and the first penny weighing machine in the United States.

Titian Ramsay (1799-1885), the second son by that name, and Franklin (1795—1870) ran the museum after their father's death. Both had literally grown up with it, having been born in Philosophical Hall after the family and its museum moved there. Franklin would eventually obtain a position as Chief Coiner at the United States Mint. Titian was the most accomplished naturalist among the Peale sons.

He served as assistant naturalist on Stephen Long's government-sponsored expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1818-1821), creating many drawings of plants and animals. Many of the expedition's specimens ended up in Peale's museum. He did the same on Charles Wilkes's Expedition to the South Seas (1838-1842). His main responsibilities were to preserve specimens of birds and animals and to draw pictures of them in their native habitats. Among the books Titian contributed drawings to were Charles Lucien Bonaparte's continuation of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, Thomas Say's American Entomology, and John Godman's American Natural History.

Digging for Bones

The Mastodon

Mastodon reconstructed

American Philosophical Society

In 1821 Titian Peale created this analytical study of the mastodon skeleton, showing the bones his father had excavated at the farm of John Masten, near West Point, New York, in 1801. The lighter ones represented those the Peales had simulated, on the advice of Caspar Wistar, to produce the reconstruction for their exhibit.

The ups and downs and changes in the museum over its life (roughly 1784-1845) could be discussed at length, participating as it did in so many ways in the early history of the United States, but we'll content ourselves here with addressing only two aspects of the museum's history:  its growth, and the unearthing and exhibiting of the "mammoth."

As with all collecting institutions, Peale's museum never seemed to have enough space. In 1794, the property at Third and Lombard proving inadequate, Peale launched his first major attempt to obtain public funding for a museum building. The state legislature was spared having to make a funding decision when the prestigious American Philosophical Society offered to rent most of its own Philosophical Hall to serve as both a museum and the Peale family home. The museum's live animals could be caged on State House Yard (today's Independence Square). The move to the Hall took two weeks, the climax of which was a parade of the collection. As Peale recounted in his Autobiography, he:

hired men to go with the hand barrows, but to take the advantage of public curiosity he contrived to make a very considerable parade of the articles, especially of those which was large, and as Boys generally are fond of parade, he collected all the boys of the neighbourhood & he began a range of the[m] at the head of which was carried on mens shoulders the American Buffalo, then followed the Panther, Tyger Catts and a long string of Animals of smaller size carried by the boys. The parade from Lumbard to the Hall brought all the Inhabitants to their doors and windows to see the cavalcade. It was fine fun for the Boys.2

The spectacle saved Peale money, gained him free publicity, and only cost him the loss of two minor items.

1801 was an important year for the museum. Jefferson was simultaneously president of the United States, president of the APS, and president of the museum's Board of Visitors. The "mammoth" (in reality a mastodon) had been excavated and reconstructed. Public funding seemed ever closer. More space was needed. Peale proposed a lottery to fund a building on State House Yard and had his friend, the architect Benjamin Latrobe, design one. The looming success of the venture and the potential loss of the park induced the City of Philadelphia and the APS to strongly recommend the state let Peale use the State House (Independence Hall). On the conditions that Peale maintain the building and provide use of the Declaration Chamber on election days, the Assembly in March 1802 granted the use of most of the building. For the next decade the museum enjoyed its golden age; it was in the State House that the Lewis and Clark artifacts were first displayed to the public.

The mammoth remained in Philosophical Hall until 1801, when Rubens consolidated the museum in the State House. The City first began charging rent in 1815, the charge being preferable to maintaining the building. In 1816, the State sold the building to the City, which, learning how much the museum made, quintupled its rent to $2,000 per year, a potential disaster for funding improvements and programs. In 1819 the rent was reduced to $1,200. Two years later, to prevent the museum's moving from the city, a stock company was formed, with Charles Willson, who had again become active in museum affairs, was at first the sole stockholder. The rent was cut to $600 per year, but nothing in the collection could leave Philadelphia without Peale paying double its value to the City.3

The museum stayed in the State House until 1827. Plans were made for a new building—the first office building in America—designed by architect John Haviland. The building, on Chestnut between Sixth and Seventh, could have a third floor added for the museum. Peale did not live to see the museum move to Haviland's building. After his death that year his sons and family associates took over the corporation.4

One constant in the museum from 1801 on was the skeleton of the mastodon, often called a mammoth, although the two words soon came to denote two different species (and William Clark played a key role in that process). It's hard to overestimate the effect that the discovery and display of the animal had on people at the time. The exhibit was so popular that a separate fifty-cent admission could be charged for it—double the museum admission—and "mammoth" quickly became a popular adjective to describe anything that was huge. Apparently it began its migration into the vernacular in 1802 with its application to a 300-pound cheese that President Jefferson received as a gift.

Fossil evidence of the "American Incognitum" had been emerging for some years. David Rittenhouse and Andrew Ellicott (one of Lewis's Philadelphia-area tutors) had found a tooth of one on the upper Susquehanna River in 1786. Peale drew a picture of the tooth, which appeared in Columbian Magazine.5 George Turner, a member of the American Philosophical Society, had read a paper on the supposedly ferocious, presumably carnivorous beast.6 Jefferson, who did not believe any species could become extinct, thought Lewis and Clark might find a specimen on their expedition. Lewis, descending the Ohio River, wrote Jefferson a long letter describing the bones gathered by Dr. William Goforth at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. In 1807, Jefferson engaged Clark to conduct a dig there on his way to assume his government post in St. Louis.7

News that a farmer in Ulster County, New York, wished to dispose of some bones he had found three years previously drew Peale to the farm of John Masten. It was indeed an Incognitum, damaged and incomplete but recognizable. Masten had showed the bones for money, but, as interest was waning locally, desired to sell them. "Peale, all eagerness, was careful not to seem too eager," according to Charles Sellers, and at first only asked to make drawings.8 Eventually a deal was struck: $300, a shotgun for Masten's son, and gowns for his daughters.

The bones caused a sensation with their arrival first in New York (Vice-President Aaron Burr came to see them), then in Philadelphia. A well-attended meeting of the APS was held July 24, 1801. Peale's request for a $500 loan for further excavation was granted unanimously, interest-free. Jefferson's help was also elicited, though in the end government assistance counted less than Peale's ingenuity.

The excavations of August and September, 1801, were the first scientific expedition in the new United States. While certainly not conducted with anything approaching modern techniques, the dig proved successful, unearthing from two locations bones enough to construct most of two skeletons, one for the museum and one to take on tour in Europe.

The bones had been found in watery marl, what we would recognize today as a glacially-formed bog. To retrieve more bones, the water had to be removed. Hand pumps had been obtained, but Peale devised a waterwheel and bucket system that could remove 1,440 gallons an hour.9 Workmen had to be paid to dig (Peale paid high wages and bowed to current medical wisdom in providing alcohol for the men working in water, though he diluted the spirits), but Peale enlisted local youth from the ever-present crowd to take turns walking inside the giant wheel to power it—a good example of Peale's sense of show as well as a way to save money. At one memorable point, a thunderstorm threatened the operation, but with all its flash and roar, only passed nearby.

When no more bones could be found at Masten's, the dig shifted to another area, where iron rods, devised by Rembrandt Peale and fashioned by a local blacksmith, were used to probe the soft ground for bones. One important bone missing from the first location—a lower jaw—was among the finds.

The entire operation required constant attention, and Peale succeeded admirably. He eventually commemorated the event in an epic painting in 1806-08, containing twenty family members and many workmen and bystanders, dramatized by the passing thunderstorm.

Once back in Philadelphia, much work was needed to assemble the skeleton, done with the assistance of Caspar Wistar, another of Lewis's Philadelphia mentors. Missing parts were created of either papier maché or wood, the replacement parts clearly marked. When mounted, the skeleton was 11 feet high at the shoulder and 17 feet 6 inches from tusk to tail. A special Mammoth Room was created in Philosophical Hall. Handbills were printed, but the skeleton was already famous, "one of those sudden revelations of the remote past, like King Tut's tomb, which capture both popular fancy and scholarly attention."10 Peale's effort was his most important contribution to science, a significant contribution to paleontology.11 Before Rembrandt Peale took the second skeleton on tour in Europe, he held a send-off dinner under the Hall's skeleton.12

1. Sellers, Museum, 22-24.

2. Peale Papers, vol. 5 (The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale), 224-25.  The Autobiography is written in the third person.

3. Sellers, Museum, 229-39.

4. In 1838 the museum would move again to yet another new building, at Ninth and George (Sansom) Streets. Financial difficulties and irregularities were then constants. Later deals left the Philosophical Society with ownership of the building, an arrangement which almost bankrupted the Society. The collection, already diminishing, was eventually broken up, some of it remaining in Philadelphia, some going to New York, other bits elsewhere. Many artifacts in Philadelphia were burned in a fire in 1851. The part bought by P. T. Barnum burned in New York in 1865. Some Lewis and Clark items wound up at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. See Sellers, Museum, 294-319. [Note: Many of Sellers' conclusions concerning Lewis and Clark's Indian artifacts purportedly contained in Peale's Museum and subsequently donated to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, were based on educated conjectures. Castle McLaughlin, associate curator at the PMAE, has corrected Sellers's misunderstandings in her study, Arts of Diplomacy: Lewis & Clark's Indian Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 4, 9, 128, 129, 160-62, 221, 275, 319n4, 320-21n2. –Ed.]

5. Sellers, Museum, 26.

6. Ibid., 126.

7. See Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Related Documents 1783-1854, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:126-132.

8. Sellers, Museum, 127.

9. Ibid., 138.

10. Ibid., 142-43.

11. See George Gaylord Simpson, "The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 86, 1942, 130-85.

12. The first survives today in the Geologisch-Mineralogische Abteilung des Hessischen Landesmuseums in Darmstadt, Germany. (See George Gaylord Simpson, "The Rediscovery of Peale's Mastodon," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 98, 1954, 279-281. The second is at the American Museum of Natrual History, though not on display.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program