Birds in the Library

John James Audubon showed birds as they seemed in life, frenetic or graceful, stealthy or soaring.
  1. Chapter 1 The First Book

    The committee’s title was grand — “The Committee for the Library, Philosophical Apparatus, and Cabinet of Natural History” — but its members had done next to nothing for months.

    So Dr. Zina Pitcher, impatient for action, decided to make the first move on his own, committee be damned.

    It was a February morning in 1838. Pitcher was in Ann Arbor, meeting with his fellow regents of the University of Michigan.

    Barely a year had passed since Michigan joined the Union, and barely six months since the state announced that a new university would be built in Ann Arbor after a rocky 20 years in Detroit.

    But so far the university consisted of only words on paper and this group of men ostentatiously designated as “regents,” a term normally reserved for the de facto rulers of sovereign principalities. So far, they ruled precisely nothing.

    The regents had appointed the Committee on the Library, Philosophical Apparatus, and Cabinet of Natural History [translation: books, research equipment, and museums] and told the members to get things going.

    But these were busy men of affairs from all over the state. It wasn’t easy to meet. Not much was happening.

    The work had to start somewhere, Pitcher reasoned.

    Before all else, a university needed a library, and a library had to begin with a book.

    Pitcher said he had just the book in mind.

    * * *

    Its title was The Birds of America. It was a collection in multiple volumes of 435 life-sized color engravings made by a strange, obsessed man named John James Audubon, an artist, frontiersman and entrepreneur.

    Each over-sized piece of handmade paper, 39.5 inches by 28.5 inches, teemed with images that seemed almost frighteningly alive — birds attacking, birds diving, birds straining and twisting in acrobatic feats. No one had ever painted birds this way, certainly not in the abundance of The Birds of America, an artistic encyclopedia of every avian species catalogued so far on a continent that was still mostly wilderness.

    In time, the book would be seen as both a foundational work of American science and a glorious expression of American art.

    In the eyes of collectors, it would also become the single most valuable book in the world.

    Pitcher couldn’t have known any of that. But he was a man of science. He was not only the leading physician in the city of Detroit but an accomplished amateur botanist. He may have seen samples of Audubon’s work, possibly even the entire book. In any case, he knew it was an important scientific work, and thus a fitting first purchase for a great library-to-be.

    So it was moved, seconded and approved — “That the Secretary of the Board be authorized to subscribe for one copy of Audubon’s Ornithology for the use of the University.”

    The ayes and nays were not even recorded. The regents adjourned.

    • Regent Zina Pitcher, a leading physician in the newborn state of Michigan, was an expert amateur scientist. His specialty was botany, but he knew enough about Audubon’s pioneering work in ornithology to judge that it would make a fitting first purchase for the University library.
      Regent Zina Pitcher, a leading physician in the newborn state of Michigan, was an expert amateur scientist. His specialty was botany, but he knew enough about Audubon’s pioneering work in ornithology to judge that it would make a fitting first purchase for the University library.
      Image: Bentley Historical Library
  2. Chapter 2 “The Intention of My Wishes”

    In 1838, the year Pitcher made his motion, John James Audubon was 53 and approaching the end of some 20 years of monumental labor.

    Born in Haiti to a wealthy French planter and his mistress, he had spent most of his childhood in France, where his father had encouraged him to watch birds. “He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger,” Audubon remembered, “their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.”

    At 18, Audubon fled Napoleon’s military draft for Pennsylvania, where his father owned an estate near Valley Forge. There, in his late teens and early 20s, his interest in birds deepened into total absorption.

    To study their migration, he devised a form of bird-banding, the first American to do so. Gifted in the arts, he yearned to capture birds’ living forms and intricate movements with pencil and paint.

    Equally gifted with a muzzle-loading shotgun, Audubon shot and trapped birds by the hundreds, brought their bodies back to his table, and filled page after page with sketches and paintings. This was no good.

    “They were dead to all intents,” he wrote, “and neither wing, leg, or tail could I place according to the intention of my wishes.” His renderings were as lifeless as the corpses.

    Finally – or so he claimed later; he was prone to theatrical exaggeration – he had a dream that offered a solution. He rushed to the nearest town, bought stiff wire, cut it into short lengths and sharpened the ends. Then he pushed the wires into a bird’s body so he could bend its wings and tail to make lifelike poses.

    This was a breakthrough. His work began to show birds as they seemed in life, frenetic or graceful, stealthy or soaring. The images were dramatically different from the dull, two-dimensional drawings that typified scientific illustration of the day.

    Audubon rushed into years of turmoil and movement. He survived yellow fever. He married and fathered four children, two of whom died. He went into business selling goods to settlers in the trans-Appalachian West. Outgoing, even charismatic, he made friends among the Shawnee, the Osage and the fraternity of frontier riflemen. When his steam-powered sawmill failed, he declared bankruptcy and briefly went to prison for debt.

    But his businesses were secondary to his true vocation. Wherever he went, east or west, in far-flung settlements in Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Louisiana, he was always collecting and drawing birds. He loved his wife and children, but he left them for long stretches to wander far into wild country in search of more species. At home he labored endlessly to improve his technique as an artist.

    To keep the family solvent, his wife began to teach. In the early 1820s, Audubon told her he could no longer keep his business going. He must execute the extraordinary ambition that had taken root in his mind.

    • An illustration of the Audubons' home in Henderson, Ky., the artist's base during part of the period when he was painting the plates for The Birds of America.
      An illustration of the Audubons' home in Henderson, Ky., the artist's base during part of the period when he was painting the plates for The Birds of America.
  3. Chapter 3 “I Will Not Engrave Them”

    To those in the know, Audubon’s notion seemed redundant at best. Why compile a comprehensive collection of pictures of American birds? That had been done already.

    The author of that book, as every well-educated American knew, was Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), a founding father of science in the United States. His American Ornithology was definitive. What could Audubon add?

    He was showing birds as they actually lived, he replied. By comparison, Wilson’s birds looked like mechanical drawings.

    But the scientists were dubious. As art, Audubon’s work was impressive, they had to admit. But these depictions of birds in motion against backdrops of forests, fields and shorelines were simply not scientific. Take them to an art museum, they advised him. But art fanciers turned up their noses at Audubon’s preference for watercolors and pastel crayons over oil, the preferred medium of fine art.

    So Audubon began to develop a plan to reach a well-to-do audience by selling the paintings – or rather, color copies made by the laborious process of copper engraving – by subscription, as a book. It was a common way for books to be sold, including works of scientific interest. Parts were published one by one, making up the finished work over a period of time. The massive Oxford English Dictionary, for example, would be published in just this way over a period of many years.

    Audubon took his idea for engravings to the capital of American science, Philadelphia. This was precisely the wrong place to go. Georg Ord and Alexander Lawson, the publisher and engraver, respectively, of Wilson’s American Ornithology, paged through Audubon’s portfolio and grimaced. These images simply were not accurate, they said.

    “I will not engrave them,” Lawson said. “Ornithology requires truth in the forms and correctness in the lines. Here are neither.”

    * * *

    Audubon went back to the woods and resumed the hunt, his obsession unabated.

    He was not the sort of naturalist who appeals to green-minded Americans of the 21st century. He was no Thoreau or John Muir, contemplating the wilderness for its spiritual rewards. He trapped, hunted and killed every species without the slightest regret.

    Yet he deeply loved birds in the vigor of life. He had no scientific training, but through intense observation, year in and year out, he became the most knowledgeable ornithologist of his time, an expert not only on birds’ anatomy but on their behavior in all its complexity.

    He concluded that goldfinches were among the most intelligent species when he saw them repeatedly devise clever tactics for detaching themselves from the sticky lime he used to catch them. He thought the nighthawk was the most acrobatic. He observed that the brown pelican catches fish by a direct dive from on high, while its close cousin, the white pelican, swims after its prey underwater.

    His favorite species was the imposing wild turkey, whose intricate social life fascinated him. But he felt nearly as much admiration for the delicate hummingbird. “No sooner has the returning sun again introduced the vernal season,” he wrote, “and caused millions of plants to expand their leaves and blossoms to his genial beams, than the little Humming-bird is seen advancing on fairy wings, carefully visiting every opening flower-cup, and, like a curious florist, removing from each the injurious insects that otherwise would ere long cause their beauteous petals to droop and decay.”

  4. Chapter 4 One Set of Five Each Month

    In 1826, two years after his rejection in Philadelphia, Audubon sailed for England with 250 completed paintings.

    Now, at last, his fortunes turned.

    Englishmen and Scots were in a fever of fascination with the American wilderness. An older European tradition had viewed the natural environment of the New World as stunted and inferior. But that image had been shattered by, among others, Thomas Jefferson, who praised the richness of his nation’s flora and fauna in his popular and influential book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

    Now, in the buoyant figure of Audubon, Londoners saw a bona fide man of the American frontier carrying extraordinarily lifelike images of North American birds in their verdant, unspoiled native habitats. In the age of color photography, we are all too used to stunningly realistic imagery of animals. Not so for the people of the early 1800s. They were mesmerized. As Audubon gave exhibits and lectures in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, enthusiasm for his work mushroomed.

    In London he met a father and son, Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr., who had experience engraving illustrations of animals. They reached an agreement. While the Havells began the massive project of engraving all of Audubon’s work – which he added to, month by month – he travelled from city to city throughout the British Isles and France, giving more lectures and signing up subscribers.

    For the equivalent of $1,000 – $20,000-$25,000 in the 21st century – he sold subscriptions to members of the royal family of England and the deposed royal family of France; to baronets, earls and well-to-do parsons; retired military officers and comfortable doctors; philosophical societies and libraries.

    Orders began to arrive from the United States, where the pro-Wilson faction had been swamped by news of Audubon’s vogue in Europe. Even Philadelphians signed up, as did the legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana; Harvard University; the Boston Society of Natural History; and the American statesmen Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

    For their money, subscribers received one set of five engravings delivered in a tin box every month. Most sets included one large bird, one of medium size, and three small. Many paintings, especially of the smaller birds, included more than one individual, and all included the leaves, flowers and fruit of the subject bird’s preferred foliage. (The botanical art was provided by an assistant, a Scottish ornithologist and artist named William McGillivray.) Every painting was life-sized, based on Audubon’s scrupulous measurements. The only text was the identification of the bird. Original subscribers were expected to have the prints bound at their own expense, though Audubon later issued the complete work in bound sets.

    The Havells’ work was a great publishing enterprise. It went on for years, with Audubon adding paintings of stuffed specimens from the Rocky Mountains and the Far West that explorers shipped to him.

    He had hoped to sell 200 subscriptions. His final total was 279. But in 1837 the American economy crashed, and many U.S. subscribers quit their monthly payments. The Havells made plans to wind down their engraving and publishing operation. Audubon was starting other projects – a reference work on birds to accompany the paintings and a new effort to paint America’s mammals.

    That was when he learned that people in far-off Michigan wanted The Birds of America.

  5. Chapter 5 Nine Plates Short

    Minor mysteries shroud the question of exactly how the University’s edition of The Birds of America was assembled and acquired. There are so few records left from the regents’ early years that blanks in the story can be filled in only by guesswork. And the transaction occurred just when Michiganders were struggling with complicated new realities. Their state had just joined the Union, and they were coping with a severe depression in the wake of the Panic of 1837, which swept through the frontier states like a terrible storm.

    First, there’s the odd fact that in November 1838, just three months before the regents decided to buy The Birds of America, the brand-new Michigan legislature had signed up to buy its own copy of the book. Gov. Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s dashing “boy governor,” authorized the order in a direct communication with Audubon.

    But at some point that winter, it appears that Mason, who was not only governor but president of U-M’s regents, decided that one copy of Birds was enough for the strapped young state. His original order was cancelled.

    Once the regents had agreed to the purchase, Regent Pitcher set out to acquire the book not from Audubon himself but from a New York City dealer named William Colman, who sold fine books and art prints in a popular shop on Broadway. Behind thick glass windows reinforced by iron bars, Colman displayed “the most elaborate products of European skill,” a writer said, “so captivating to the sight that not a blooming belle nor courteous beau could pass the establishment without pausing to criticize the art works temptingly exposed.”

    Why Pitcher chose to deal with Colman instead of Audubon is not known. Probably he learned he could save the University a little money. But as it turned out, that decision led to a long delay.

    Colman had committed to selling the University a copy of The Birds of America, but he didn’t actually have one to sell – not a full set, anyway.

    He was nine plates short of the full 435.

    The dealer had acquired his not-quite-complete Birds from a Baltimore man named Joseph E. Walker. (It’s a good bet that Walker, like many others, had found his fortune reduced by the depression. Probably he let his subscription to The Birds lapse, then sold his incomplete set to raise cash.)

    Now Colman had to scramble to fulfill the regents’ order.

    First the dealer wrote to Audubon in London, asking for new engravings of the missing nine birds.

    Impossible, Audubon replied. Five of the nine plates Colman needed were “not only the largest fig[ure]s but some extremely full and difficult to Colour…” His engraver, Audubon said, “would not undertake to go through them without charging a most extravagant price.” The special set-up for engraving and printing Birds was about to be disassembled, so from that point on, “few will indeed there be [sic] Copies to be had by any one, who has not subscribed to the ‘Birds of America!’” (Here Audubon’s first language, French, peeps through his elaborate English syntax.)

    The regents probably had no reason to know it, but in Colman they were dealing with a man widely disliked and distrusted – “an inveterate puffer,” one New Yorker said, a “rascally citadel of humbug.”

    Audubon had no use for Colman either. “He is not a good man,” the naturalist wrote one of his sons, who was helping with Audubon’s business affairs in the United States, “and the sooner you have done with him the better.”

    Still, Colman made good on his arrangement with Pitcher. Somehow or other — perhaps by making inquiries with other collectors who, like Walker in Baltimore, had incomplete sets of The Birds – he managed to assemble the nine plates needed to complete the full set of 435. We don’t know which plates those nine were. Cathleen Baker, the University’s conservation librarian emerita, believes Colman may have managed, in the end, to purchase the needed plates from Audubon or the Havells.

    Finally, in March 1839, more than a year after the regents’ decision to buy, Colman wrote to Pitcher, saying The Birds of America was ready for delivery upon payment of the agreed-upon price of $970. They were bound in four volumes – whether in New York, Detroit or Ann Arbor, no one knows.

    In the 1830s, $970 was a very, very high price to pay for a book.

    It turned out to be the steal of the century, the next century, and the century after that.

    • The label of William Colman, the New York bookseller who assembled and sold the University its set of The Birds of America.
      The label of William Colman, the New York bookseller who assembled and sold the University its set of The Birds of America.
  6. Chapter 6 “Transmitted to Distant Ages”

    Once in Michigan, where did The Birds of America go?

    It appears they were stored in Detroit until the first campus buildings were constructed in 1840 in Ann Arbor. There, the volumes probably spent a short time in one of the four houses built for professors, including the house on South University that became the President’s House.

    In late 1841, they were carried over to what was first called the Main Building, then Mason Hall (alternatively North Hall), which stood about where the north wing of Angell Hall stands now.

    In a large room on the third floor, at the end of the building facing south, the University’s first library was set up. There The Birds were joined by a collection of 3,400 books amassed in Europe by Professor Asa Gray – the foundation of the library’s collection. Together, these volumes survived the heating and lighting systems – a wood stove and candles – though there was not much danger from students, who had access to the books only on Saturday afternoons. (The first librarian was a busy Methodist minister whose church was in Detroit.)

    More liberal hours came soon, and the students, faculty and staff were permitted free access to The Birds of America. The people of Ann Arbor, few of whom had seen so many books in one place, were delighted at the opportunity to page through the collection, and Audubon’s plates were as dazzling to them as to European noblemen.

    And who could object? After all, Audubon’s plates had been purchased to be looked at, not to be stored away in a sealed vault. “A Library supplies the daily food of the mind,” said Henry Philip Tappan, who became president in 1852 and showered funds on the library. He insisted that students have the run of the collection – though no books were allowed to circulate.

    Still, as the years passed and smudged fingerprints accumulated, the official custodians of The Birds felt some concern. In 1875, the U-M historian and librarian Andrew Ten Brook remarked: “It is now thirty-five years that the leaves of these ponderous volumes have been turned over constantly by students and visitors, excepting only a few years during which they were laid aside in the hope that by avoiding wear they might be transmitted as the property of the library to distant ages.”

    It was the age-old dilemma of the keeper of valuable books and archives – to share or to preserve? The question hung unanswered. After a while The Birds were moved to the library’s art gallery. But there, too, the engravings were still “exposed to inspection and handling by every visitor,” one student of the 1880s recalled.

    In the 20th century, the preservationists prevailed. Many plates, especially near the front and back of each of the four volumes, had become dog-eared and worn.

    But they were intact, and no plate had ever been stolen.

    In the 1910s, they were transferred to the new Rare Book Room in the General Library and have been kept under careful management in the century since. They are stored now in the Audubon Room on the first floor of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. There, under very strong glass, the staff displays one volume at a time, turning the page once every week.

    * * *

    Audubon died at his home in New York City in 1851. Despite his popularity and the overwhelming success of his great project, he once remarked: “I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America.”

    His original watercolors for the volumes were purchased by the New-York Historical Society in 1863. His personal copy of The Birds of America belongs to the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas.

    Roughly 120 complete sets of the original engravings are held around the world, mostly by museums and libraries.

    Five of those sets rank among the 10 most valuable books in the world.

    The highest price – paid at auction in 2010 – was $11.5 million.


    Sources included: Russell E. Bidlack, The Nucleus of a Library: A Study of the Book Collection of the University of Michigan; Bidlack, The University of Michigan General Library: A History of Its Beginnings (doctoral dissertation, 1954); William Souder, Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America; Waldemar H. Fries, The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon’s Birds of America; Fabien Grolleau and Jeremie Royer, Audubon: On the Wings of the World; “Storied Acquisitions: Highlights from the University of Michigan Library Collections”; Bill Collins, “Dr. Zina Pitcher — Bandages, Beaches, Botany, and Ballots,” Lakeshore Guardian