Denison Bird Collection

Original content by: Amanda Keenan

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About This Artifact

If you wanted to see an exotic bird, how would you do it? Today, you can watch television or use the internet to see photos or videos of any living creature. People in the 19th Century loved nature, just like we do today, but they did not have the luxury of high speed cameras and videos. Many Victorian naturalists tried to take live birds from around the world back to Europe and the United States, but they typically did not survive the long sea voyages. However, after arsenic soap was developed in the early 19th century it was possible to prepare and mount animals in order to preserve them. James Cook and Charles Darwin were among the early practitioners of taxidermy. It was used to support scientific study and ships provided a means of obtaining and bringing back previously unknown or little-known species. Due to the influx of stuffed exotic animals from sea voyages, it became incredibly popular to have stuffed or mounted birds and other animals in Victorian homes.

This case contains 84 birds and is currently on display in the Thomas Greenman House at Mystic Seaport. It belonged to Isaac Denison, his son, Frederick Denison, and later his granddaughter Eliza Schoonover. Although many Victorians had taxidermy displays in their homes, having more than a dozen birds in one display was unusual. The display’s large size indicates that the Denison family loved nature and had the financial means to purchase such a collection for home decoration. Their monetary success was thanks to the prosperity of their general store, I.W. Denison & Co. , in downtown Mystic, Connecticut.

Taxidermy animals were not only popular to own, but provided a fun hobby for Victorians to practice! Both men and women were taxidermists, both professionally and as hobbyists. The front page article in the Mystic Pioneer on June 4, 1859 entitled, “The Art of Bird Stuffing” gave step by step instructions for residents of Mystic to try their hand at taxidermy. This particular display was professionally done by John L. Bode, a German immigrant and well-respected New York taxidermist. Bode died on January 9, 1866, so this collection of birds were stuffed before 1866, or done by an employee working under his name. Bode won several medals for his work in taxidermy and his successor, J. Wallace, did taxidermy work for the famous showman P.T. Barnum.

The birds spent most of their life on display in the Denison family home on 28 Broadway, Mystic Bridge, CT. Out of the 84, only 35 species have been identified. There are numerous humming birds that are difficult to distinguish between species. The birds that are familiar to North America are: hooded merganser, Virginia rail, clapper rail, California quail, horned lark, pileated woodpecker, wood duck, blue jay, blue bird, ruby throated humming bird, elegant trogan, great kiskadee, Baltimore oriole, American red start, indigo bunting, common yellow throated warbler, and scarlet tanager.

Central and South America: turquoise tanager, black-throated magpie jay, woodcreeper, pompadour cotinga, green and black fruiteater, white bibbed manakin, quetzal, golden headed manakin, oriole blackbird, plum throated cotinga or swallow tanager, bay headed tanager, blue dacnis, red capped manakin, red-crested cardinal or yellow billed cardinal, red crowned parrot, and blue capped tanager.

Others: Eurasian Jay (from Europe and Asia) and red-crowned barbet (from South Eastern Asia).

Of the birds that have been identified only three are listed as threatened or endangered. The quetzal and red-crowned barbet are both near threatened and the red-crowned parrot is endangered due to loss of habitat and being capture for pets.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. If you could have a collection of your own taxidermy birds, which birds would you select and why? Would they all be displayed in the same case? Where would you put them in your home?
  2. Today, taxidermy is not as popular as it was in the 19th century. What decorative items do you think will be out of fashion 100 years from now?
  3. If you inherited this artifact from your great-grandparents, what would you do with it? Would you keep it? If so, where? Would you donate it? If so, to what institution would you give it to? What requirements would you put with your donation?