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Have you ever wondered about the history of taxidermy?

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Well, admittedly it’s not the most exciting thing – taxidermy history. But, if you’re in a business you ought to at least know a little bit about where it came from.

Theories and information about the history of taxidermy are somewhat scattered, but in all actuality, when you consider that taxidermy is the process of preserving a dead specimen in effort to avoid the unpleasant process of physical decomposition – for whatever reason – we can venture a guess back even further by giving consideration to the earliest homo sapiens who may have used skulls and skins as false idols in both worship and ceremony.

Much like the deer head on my living room wall, those, too, would have required some ancient form of preservation.

By this definition, yes, even King Tut was “taxidermied“, and the history of this art is quite old indeed.

Historical Taxidermy in the News:

—(2006) Around the time that the great pyramids were built in Egypt and Stonehenge was erected in England, a young woman living in what is now Iran lost an eye and was fitted with a prosthetic device.

No, she wasn’t stuffed or otherwise preserved as a taxidermy model, but the use of an artificial eye is quite interesting indeed as the manafacturing and use of life-like eyes would play a significant role in the success of taxidermy throughout history.

Have you ever wondered about the history of taxidermy?

It wasn’t until the 1800’s though that preserving animals for both personal and museum use became wide spread. Initially the work was crude, at best, with the hides stuffed with straw (or other materials) then sewn shut.

Although preserving skins at the time was nothing new, preserving the skins for the use in taxidermy was – therefore the quality of these early mounts was lacking while their (second) life-span was often short.

During the mid 1800’s is really when the modern history of taxidermy started. As world-travel became popular among the higher classes, the gathering of unique and foreign specimens became the fad for the new wealthy exhibitionists . Likewise, museum collections grew, fueled by both the general public‘s fascination in these foreign animals and the new abundance of specimens to exhibit made possible by modern collectors.

With this grew what later became the art of taxidermy.

As the twentieth century dawned, a young man named Carl Akeley began to stretch the boundaries of taxidermy again. Finally, it was realized that to “stuff” an animal was one thing, but scientific taxidermy was another. This awakening brought with it a reform in the rules and methods of the art. By developing a new technique of using manikins to create very life like anatomy, Carl Akeley has been considered by some as the father of modern taxidermy. Some of his methods are still employed today.

A quarter of a century later, Akeley’s methods became accepted as the standard throughout the world, and remained so for more than another quarter of century.

Finally in 1960 there was a break in the monotony. A new chapter in the history of taxidermy was penned as Dr. Harold T. Meryman of the Naval Medical Research Institute at Bethesda, Md., stumbled onto a new type of preservation. Freeze drying.

The freeze-dry technique is not new, but Meryman was first to apply it to taxidermy.

Finally a new revival in the field of taxidermy began to take root in the 1970’s and brought with it the National Taxidermists Association in 1972.

Early on, most taxidermists seemed to have a background in bigger things, and were often considered “naturalists of no small merit“ (The Washington Post; 1903) However, with the coming of simpler techniques came the typical string of mass-production shops where quantity far outweighed quality.

Unfortunately that theme is still prevalent today. As with anything that becomes hugely popular virtually over night as taxidermy has over the past decade, two things happen: so-called experts crawl out of the woodwork declaring themselves professionals as they prey on the innocent, and, more gradually, new science and techniques are born which will eventually advance the art further.

Regardless of your place in the history of taxidermy, as a taxidermist of any reputation, one must remember those long ago taxidermits of historical significance by striving to be a “naturalist of no small merit”.

You simply cannot reproduce what you do not know intimately.

Be a good steward of our wild kingdom as you go forth to make your own place in the taxidermy history books of the future.