Friday, July 9, 2010

Webster's Birds of America

Audubon's image of four pileated woodpeckers on a branch. Without question one of the most stunning books in our collections is the elephant folio, first edition of John Audubon's Birds of America. A lot has been written about this book, and a simple web search can give you far more information than we can give you here, but what you won't find is the unique quality of our particular copy.

The three physical volumes on permanent display in Rauner originally belonged to Daniel Webster, Class of 1801. In 1836, while Audubon was in the United States seeking subscribers to the work, he received an order from Webster for the first 300 plates, all that had been issued up to that time.  Our bound volumes were delivered the following year.

Why Webster never acquired the fourth volume remains a mystery.  Chronically embarrassed for ready cash, Webster was often tardy in meeting his financial obligations; and, as late as 1842, Audubon was still pressing the then Secretary of State for the balance due him on the first three volumes. Perhaps, as Audubon was also in financial straits in the late 1830s, he felt that Webster's subscription for volume four would be a poor financial risk.

The three-volume set remained in Webster's library throughout his lifetime. When his library was sold in 1875, the Audubon was acquired by the Haverhill (Mass.) Public Library where it remained until 1965 when it came to Dartmouth College through a generous gift in memory of Andrew B. Foster, Class of 1965.

Audubon's image of a yellow shank at the edge of a body of water.
Take a break and cool off this summer in Rauner where you can see the stunning images in Birds of America (we turn the page every week or two, so there is always something fresh to enjoy).