I collect books on fish and have for nearly as long as I can remember. Specifically, I collect pre-20th century books, manuscripts, and ephemera on the natural and social history of fishes. The natural history portion of my collection includes color plate books, taxonomic descriptions, species lists, anatomical descriptions, attempts at classification, etc. Whereas the natural history books are the meat of my collection, the social history works provide the spice.
My social history collection includes items that document how the layperson has interacted with fish in society, such as a mid-1800s handbill advertising the exhibition of an extraordinary fish named “Mango,” an 18th-century Spanish manuscript describing the poisoning of a patio fish pool owned by the future King of Spain, and several 19th-century children's chapbooks that feature fish as main characters in parables. Taken together, these two themes intertwine to provide a holistic story of fishes in society from my earliest work (a leaf from a 13th-century “Laughing Carp” Psalter) to my latest (a 1900 color plate book about the fishes of Puerto Rico).
[Archive of 128 original drawings of Indian freshwater fishes and 96 annotated lithographs of Indian freshwater fishes].
A fantastic archive of 224 original drawings and annotated lithographs of Indian freshwater fishes that served as the source material for Beavan’s publication, Handbook of the Freshwater Fishes of India (London: L. Reeve & Co., 1877). Reginald Beavan and his brother, Robert (also a zoologist), were both stationed in India in the latter half of the 19th century. Apart from a few small academic journal articles, this is Reginald Beavan’s only scientific publication.
The Fishes of North America That Are Captured on Hook and Line.
New York: The Fishes of North America Publishing Company, 1898.
William Harris’s magnum opus, a work that took him nearly 25 years and over a million dollars (today’s equivalent) to complete. The book was issued in 20 fascicles, each containing two spectacular large chromolithographs and a quire of text. Harris intended for the book to serve as a “primer of ichthyology” for anglers and was to include 80 plates in two volumes. Unfortunately, production stalled after one volume and the second was never completed.
Mrs. [Mary] Cockle.
The Fishes Grand Gala. A Companion to the "Peacock at Home." Part 1.
Philadelphia: Benjamin C. Buzby, 1809.
I delight in collecting 19th-century children’s chapbooks featuring fishes, and this is one of my favourites. The story describes a lavish party attended by many fishes and other sea creatures. The dress, personality, and even occupation (Cod, “a noted physician”) of each attendee is described in humorous detail, but the poor seal is turned away for not being fully aquatic! My copy, though well-loved, retains its original wrappers and is complete.
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque.
Fishes of the River Ohio [final two parts of Ichthyologia Ohiensis serialized in The Western Review and Miscellaneous Magazine].
Lexington, KY: William Gibbes Hunt, 1821.
Ichthyologia Ohiensis is a foundational work of American ichthyology but also contains one of the greatest “scientific pranks” of the 19th century. Rafinesque visited the home of John James Audubon, where he destroyed one of Audubon’s prized violins, using it to knock a bat from the air. As revenge, Audubon provided Rafinesque descriptions of several outlandish (and fake!) fishes that the credulous naturalist published in this work, including the “bulletproof” Diamond Jack Devil Fish.
Charles Hallock [Debra Frances binding in lake trout skin].
The Fishing Tourist: Angler's Guide and Reference Book.
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873.
I typically do not include “fishing books” in my collection, but the exception proves every rule. This book contains the first substantial account of the Michigan Grayling, a fish that I collect with great interest. Although first “discovered” in the 1860s, the fish was functionally extinct through anthropogenic impacts by the early 1900s. Because of the significance of this title, I have treated it to a fine fish skin binding by Winnipeg binder, Debra Frances.
[“Laughing Carp” Psalter]. Psalter in Latin.
Text from Psalms 136 and 137 with zoomorphic fish line fillers.
Likely Germany, ca. 1250.
Fish imagery has long been associated with Christianity, tracing its origins to the acrostic, Iesous Christos Theou Huious Soter, or ICHTUS, the Greek word for fish. This single leaf, with the text of Psalms 136 and 137, includes 7 charming line fillers of fish in blue and red ink in addition to 17 illuminated initials. It was once in the collection of infamous biblioclast Otto Ege, mounted in his characteristic cream-coloured folder.