Unnatural History

I have no idea what I was searching for, but somehow I came upon some images from Henry Louis Stephens’ Comic Natural History of the Human Race this past weekend and was immediately captivated: anything anthropomorphic always has that effect on me. This book represents both actual people (mostly from the Philadelphia area where Stephens lived and worked) and stereotypes in the guises of those birds, insects, animals and fish that match up with their natures. I imagine that Stephens got away with his particularly unflattering caricatures by using general types (a sanctimonious religious moralist, for example, is depicted as a blood-sucking vampire; there are several rats) rather than specific people. Published in 1851 by Samuel Robinson of Philadelphia, the book is also an early example of color lithography, with plates by Louis Rosenthal and Peter Kraemer.

Here are some of the images, beginning with the only name in the book that I recognized:  P.T. Barnum, portrayed by Stephens as a “Hum-Bug”. The “Stool Pigeon”, the “Woodpecker” (William P. Gihon, an engraver), the “Bird of Paradise”, and the “Taylor Bird” (Mary Cecilia Taylor, an opera singer) follow. On the title page, Stephens presents himself as the hen that hatched this egg, thus mitigating any hurt feelings that might have ensued.

Henry Louis Stephens, The Comic Natural History of the Human Race (Philadelphia: Samuel Robinson, 1851), accessed via Internet Archive.

2 responses to “Unnatural History

  • Sinclair 3168

    These are excellent. They remind me of an old pack of Happy Families playing cards that my mum still has from when she was little. Although they don’t have animal qualities, the caricatures are grotesque, hilarious and lots of fun. Thank you for sharing these!

  • Giants’ Shoulders #48 » clerestories

    […] Donna Seger shares more colorful, if not always flattering, caricatures from Henry Louis Stephens’ The Comic Natural History of the Human Race (1851). […]

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