1902 Encyclopedia > Taxidermy


TAXIDERMY, the art of preserving the integument, together with the scales, feathers, or fur, of animals. Little is known of the beginnings of the practice of the "stuffing" or "setting up" of animals for ornament or for scientific purposes ; and it is highly probable, from what we gather from old works of travel or natural history, that the art is not more than some three hundred years old. It was practised in England towards the end of the 17th century, as is proved by the Sloane collection, which in 1725 formed the nucleus of the collection of natural history now lodged in the galleries at South Kensington.

It was not until the middle of last century that any treatise devoted to the principles of the then little understood art was published in France, Réaumur’s treatise (1749) being probably the first. This was followed at intervals by others in France and Germany, until the beginning of the present century, when the English began to move in the matter, and several works were published, notably those by E. Donovan,1 W. Swainson,2 Capt. Thomas Brown,3 and others. These works, however, are now inadequate; and since the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the Germans and French taught British taxidermists the rudiments of scientific treatment of natural objects, several works have appeared upon the subject from the pens of American and English authors, such as J. H. Batty,4 R. Ward,5 and Montagu Browne.6

The first principle governing the art is that, after the specimen has been procured, in as fresh and clean, a state as may be, it should have the skin stripped from the body in such a manner as not to disturb the scales if a fish or a reptile, the feathers if a bird, or the fur or hair if a mammal, To do this correctly requires a small stock of tools, as well as a great amount of patience and perseverance. The appliances comprise several sharp knives (some pointed and some obtuse), a pair of scissors, a pair of pliers, a pair of nippers or "cutting-pliers," some tow, wadding, needles and thread, also an "stuffing-iron," some crooked awls, a pair of fine long flat-nosed pliers, and a camel-bair brush. The preservative compound is often the original (Bécoeur’s) "arsenical soap," made by cutting up and boiling 2 lb of white soap, to which 12 oz. of salt of tartar and 4 oz. of powdered lime (or whiting) are added when dissolved; to this mixture, when nearly cold, 2 lb of powdered arsenic and 5 oz. of camphor (the latter previously triturated in a mortar with spirits of wine) are added. The mixture is put away in small jars or pots for use. Like all arsenical preparations, this is exceedingly dangerous in the hands of unskilled persons, often causing shortness of breath, sores, brittleness of the nails, and other symptoms; and, as arsenic is really no protection against the attacks of insects, an efficient substitute has been invented by Browne, composed of 1 lb of white curd soap and 3 lb of whiting boiled together, to which is added, whilst hot, 1 1/2 oz. of chloride of lime, and, when cold, 1 oz. of tincture of musk. This mixture is perfectly safe to use when cold (although when hot the fumes should not be inhaled, owing to the chlorine given off), and is spoken of as doing it, work efficiently. Solutions of corrosive sublimate, often recommended, are, even if efficient, dangerous in the extreme. Powders consisting of tannin, pepper, camphor, and burnt alum are sometimes used for "making skins," but they dry them too rapidly for the purposes of "mounting." Mammals are best preserved by a mixture of 1 lb of burnt alum to 1/4 lb of saltpetre ; this, when intimately mixed, should be well rubbed into the skin. Fishes and reptiles, when not cast and modelled, are best preserved in rectified spirits of wine but this, when economy is desired, can be replaced by "Möller’s solution" (bichromate of potash 2 oz., sulphate of soda 1 oz., distilled water 3 pints) or by a nearly saturated solution of chloride of zinc. The cleaning of feathers and furs is performed by rubbing them lightly with wadding soaked in benzoline, afterwards dusting on plaster of Paris, which is beaten out, when dry, with a bunch of feathers.

The preparation and mounting of bird specimens, the objects most usually selected by the amateur, are performed in the following manner. The specimen to be operated upon should have its nostrils and threat closed by plugs of cotton wool or tow; both wing-bones should be broken close to the body, and the bird laid upon a table on its back; and, as birds—especially white-breasted ones—should seldom, if ever, be opened on the breast, an incision should be made in the skin under the wing on the side most damaged, from which the thigh protrudes when pushed up slightly ; this is cut through at its junction with the body, when the knife is gently used to separate the skin from this, until the wing-bone is seen on the open side. This is then cut through by scissors, and by careful manipulation the skin is further freed from the back and breast until the neck can be cut off. The other side now remains to be dealt with ; from this the wing is cut by travelling downwards, the remaining leg is cut away, and very careful skinning over the stomach and upon the lower back brings the operator to the tail, which is cut off, leaving a small portion of the bone (the coccyx) in the skin. The body now falls off, and nothing remains in the skin but the neck and head. To skin these out properly without unduly stretching the integument, is a task trying to the patience, but it can be accomplished by gradually working the skin away from the back of the head forward, taking care to avoid cutting the eyes or the eyelids, but, by cautious management, to cut the membranous skin over those parts, so that the eyes are easily extracted from the orbits without bursting. The skin should be freed down nearly to the beak, and then the back of the head, with neck attached, should be cut off, the brains extracted, all the flesh cleared from the skull and from the bones of the wings, legs, and tail, the skin painted with the preservative, and ultimately turned into its proper position. When "skins" only are to be made for the cabinet, it is sufficient to fill the head and neck with chopped tow, the body with a false one made of tow, lightly packed or loose according to the genius of the preparer, to sew up the skin of the stomach, and to place a band of paper lightly pinned around the body over the breast and wings, and allow it to remain in a warm position, free from dust, for several days or weeks, according to the size of the specimen. It should then be labelled with name, sex, locality, and date, and put away with insect powder around it.

When, however, the specimen is to be "mounted," the operations should be carried up to the point of returning the skin, and then a false body of tightly wrapped tow is made upon a wire pointed at its upper end. This is inserted through the incision under the wing, the pointed end going up the neck and through the skull to the outside. When imitation body rests within the skin, pointed wires are thrust through the soles of the feet, up the skin of the back of the legs, and are finally clenched in the body. Wires are also thrust into the butts of the wings, following the skin of the under surface, and also clenched through into the body. A stand or perch is provided, and the bird, being fixed upon this, is, after the eyes have been inserted, arranged in the most natural attitude which the skill of the taxidermist can give it.

Mammals are cut along the stomach from nearly the middle to the breast, and are skinned by working out the hind legs first, cutting them off under the skin at the junction of the femur with the tibia, and carefully stripping the skin off the lower back and front until the tail is reached, the flesh and bones of which are pulled out of the skin, leaving the operator free to follow on up the back and chest until the fore legs are reached, which are cut off in like manner. The neck and head are skinned out down to the inner edges of the lips and nose, great care being exercised not to cut the outer portions of the ears, the eyelids, the nose, or the lips. The flesh being cleared off, and the brain and eyes extracted, the skull should adhere to the skin by the inner edges of the lips. All the flesh should be trimmed from the bones of the legs. The head, being shaped, where the flesh was removed, by tow and clay, is returned into the skin. A long wire of sufficient strength is tightly bound with tow, making a long, narrow body, through which wires are thrust by the skin of the soles of the feet. The leg wires and bones being wrapped with tow and clay into shape, the points of the wires are pushed through the tow body and clenched. They and the body are then bent into the desired position, and modelled up by the addition of more tow and clay, until the contours of the natural body are imitated, when the stomach is sewn up. A board is provided upon which to fix the specimen, artificial eyes are inserted, the lips, nose, and eyelids fixed by means of pins or "needle-points," and the specimen is then placed in a warm situation to dry.

Reptiles, when small, have their skin removed by cutting away the attachment of the skull to the cervical vertebrae, and by turning the decapitated trunk out at the mouth by delicate manipulation. When large, they are cut along their median line, and treated in the same manner as mammals.

Fishes, after being covered on their best side with paper or muslin to protect the scales. are cut along the other side from the tail to the gills, and are skinned out by removing "cutlets," as large as is possible without cracking the skin, which, indeed, should be kept damp during work. After being cured with a preservative, they are filled with sawdust or dry plaster of Paris, sewn up, turned over on a board the fins pinned out, and the mouth adjusted, and, when perfectly dry, the plaster may be shaken out.

A new school of taxidermists, with new methods, whose aim is to combine knowledge of anatomy and modelling with taxidermic technique, are now coming to the front, and the next generation will discard all processes of "stuffing" in favour of modelling. Within the limits of an article like the present it is impossible to do more than glance at the intricate processes involved in this. In the case of mammals, after the skin has been completely removed, even to the toes, a copy is made of the body, posed as in life, and from this an accurate representation of form, including delineation of muscles, &c., is built up in light materials; the model is then covered with the skin, which is damped, and pinned in to follow every depression and prominence; the study is then suffered to dry; and, models having been made, in the case of large animals, of the mucous membrane of the jaws, palate, tongue, and lips, these are truthfully reproduced in a plastic material. The ordinary glass eyes are discarded, and hollow globes, specially made, are hand-painted from nature, and are fixed in the head so as to convey the exact expression which the pose of the body demands. Birds, if of any size, can be modelled in like manner, and fishes are treated by a nearly identical process, being finally coloured as in a "still life" painting.

To give a life-like representation, attention is also paid to artistic "mounting." By this is meant the surrounding of specimens with appropriate accessories, and it is well exemplified by the new work shown in the natural history museum at South Kensington, where, for example, birds are arranged as in a state of nature, feeding or flying to their young, sitting on their eggs, swimming in miniature pools, or preening their feathers whilst perched lovingly side by side, and surrounded by exquisitely modelled foliage and flowers. This, with correct modelling of the specimens, which, except in rare instances, is not quite so striking in the new groups, indicates the future of the art, the, hope of which lies in the better education of taxi-dermists as designers, artists, and modellers. (M. B.)


FOOTNOTES (page 89)

(1) Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History, London, 1794.

(2) The Naturalist’s Guide for Collecting and Preserving Subjects of Natural History and Botany, London, 1822.

(3) Taxidermist’s Manual, Glasgow, 1833.

(4) Practical Taxidermy and Home Decoration, New York, 1880.

(5) Sportsman’s Handbook of Practical Collecting and Preserving, London, 1880.

(6) Practical Taxidermy, London,1879; 2d edition, 1884.

The above article was written by Montagu Browne; author of Practical Taxidermy and Collecting Butterflies and Moths.

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