September 05, 2009

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An Entomological Coloring Book for 19th-Century Ladies Would a fine 19th-century British lady be likely to shriek and swoon onto a fainting-couch upon seeing these images of monstrous-looking insects? Or would she eagerly pick up a paint brush and contemplate which colors she should use for the thorax and stinger? The English author, physician and scientist John Hill (1714?-1775) was certain that the sight of an amazing creature like the Mottled Saw-Fly, with its bulging eyes and curly antennae, would catch the fancy of artistically-inclined ladies. How do we know? The following two-line advertisement printed on the title-page verso of Hill's book, A Decade of Curious Insects (London: Printed for the author, 1773; QL466.H646 1773 SCNHRB) provides the answer: "Ladies who may chuse [i.e. choose] to paint these insects themselves may have sets of the cuts on royal paper printed pale for that purpose." A prolific author renowned for his literary quarrels with such luminaries as the satirist Henry Fielding and the Shakespearean actor David Garrick, John Hill helped to popularize the study of natural history. These insects are carefully engraved in larger-than-life detail (their actual size is illustrated by the smaller versions at the foot of each plate). Hill proudly noted on the title page that his illustrations were created with the assistance of the recently invented "lucernal microscope," which used an artificial light source such as an oil lamp to enhance the magnification of scientific specimens. Although none of the plates in the Cullman Library's copy of A Decade of Curious Insects are painted, there...
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Bio—Leslie K. Overstreet Leslie K. Overstreet came to the Libraries in 1980. After eight years in the anthropology and zoology libraries in the National Museum of Natural History she moved to the Special Collections Department, where she served as the Reference Librarian from 1990 to 1997 in the Dibner Library for the History of Science & Technology. In October 1997, she was named Curator of Natural History Rare Books and now heads the Libraries’ new rare-book room, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. For the opening of the Cullman Library in 2003 she curated a small exhibition, Wonder Bound, in the National Museum of Natural History on early natural-history cabinets of curiosities. Her primary research interest is the 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby; she served as a consultant to, and appears in, the film The Curious Mr. Catesby, broadcast on PBS stations in 2009, and is preparing for publication a census and bibliographic study of the first edition of his The Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. In addition, she has written numerous essays accompanying the Libraries' digital editions, has co-authored two articles in the archives of natural history, and has given talks and published articles on the personal library of James Smithson. She also wrote the text for the book Botanicals: Butterflies and insects, published in 2008 by Assouline. Overstreet holds a B.A. (1971) in English literature from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a M.L.S. degree (1988) in rare-books librarianship from the University of Maryland.—Liz O'Brien

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