The Double Elephant Folio: No Elephants in Sight

When was the last time you tried to lift a 60 pound-book the size of a small table? Our treasured copy of John James Audubon’s famous book Birds of America, published in 1858, is called a Double Elephant Folio. This name does not refer to the subject matter of the book, but rather its gargantuan size.  

Audubon conceived of the Birds of America with pages of 40 inches by 30 inches, large enough so that all the species of birds could be represented life size, even egrets and herons, the turkey, and the flamingo. Indeed we joke about the book as being, literally, a “coffee table book” since it is big enough to serve the purpose! When we need to turn the pages, we have to recruit several people to assist. We turn the page once every three months in order to protect the images from exposure to light, as well as to give our visitors the chance to see a new page of the 150 plates represented.

This extremely rare and valuable book came to the San Diego Natural History Museum back in the 1930s, when it was donated to us by a Museum supporter who lived in Iowa but spent his winters in San Diego—smart man. It traveled from Iowa to San Diego by train in a very heavy wooden box.

Featuring the Birds of America in Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science has given us the opportunity to share this extraordinary book with the public for the first time—it had previously resided in our Rare Book Room for decades.

Even if you are familiar with many of Audubon’s bird images from reproductions on calendars or notecards, the impact of these very large detailed pictures of American birds is hard to beat. Audubon made it a point to illustrate male and females, as well as juvenile birds, and often showed them in a dramatic context that revealed something about their natural history or habits. For example, the Carolina Parakeet, which was our only native parrot before going extinct, was painted in a very gregarious grouping on the page, as these birds were very social and gathered together in noisy flocks. Looking at this gorgeous illustration, you can almost hear their loud communications. Luckily for us, Audubon painted them so vividly before they became extinct; at least we can see them on paper, even if no longer in real life.

Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science is a permanent offering for our guests and is located on Level 3 of the Museum.  

Green Heron: Audubon has chosen to show this heron about to snatch a Luna moth for a meal.

This page, which consists of two plates showing various species of flycatchers, is noteworthy for Audubon’s superlative sense of both color and composition.

Reddish Egret: This bird has both a dark form, which is where the “reddish” adjective comes from, as well as a white form. Audubon tried to represent as many forms and aspects of the birds as possible.

This photograph shows Book Conservator Melissa Behar repairing one of the pages of the Audubon folio with the image of a Turkey displayed.

We had this very large locked case and vitrine custom-made to fit the size of the Double Elephant Folio.

Posted by Research Library Director and Curator of Extraordinary Ideas Margaret Dykens on April 12, 2017

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