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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Justin Hanisch

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).

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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.

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[“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.