Cotsen Ghosties

book cover 3Last Halloween season we took a stroll through our special collections pumpkin patch. Today, we’re looking for ghosts! And we found them in this amazing optical illusion book titled Spectropia; or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing ghosts everywhere, and of any color. Published by J.H. Brown in London in 1864, the book teaches the concept of “the persistency of impressions, and the production of complementary colours on, the retina.”

The illusion is very simple. In the image above, stare at the small black dot by the ghost’s neck for 20-30 seconds. Then look away at a white wall or ceiling. Her ghostly image will appear in your vision, except in different colors (in this case green wreath, blue ghost)!

Scientifically speaking, this is called an afterimage. The color receptors in your eyes work in pairs (red/green, blue/yellow, etc.). When you stare at the drawing and one color fatigues your receptors, the other receptor will step in and dominate for a bit.

The book has a very lengthy description of this concept, as well as viewing instructions that include having the “gaslight turned low.”

Spectropia also has a disclaimer at the beginning: “As an apology for the apparent disregard of taste and fine art in the plates, such figures are selected as best serve the purpose for which they are intended.”

I wish they might have reprinted the disclaimer before THIS image, which honestly is going to haunt me clear through December:

The book concludes with a grand finale image that is not a ghost, but a rainbow! Definitely try this one, because it is so cool to see the colors flip in the afterimage!

Looking more more optical spooky fun? Try making our tabletop Pepper’s Ghost illusion!


Images from Spectropia; or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing ghosts everywhere, and of any color. J.H. Brown, London. Griffith and Farran.1864. Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Ode to the Toad

Last week, we delved into the fascinating world of alchemy at the current , “Through the Glass Darkly: Alchemy and the Ripley Scrolls 1400-1700” exhibit. In our journeys, however, we did notice one thing. Both in history and alchemy, toads get no love.

In alchemy, the toad represents the “prime matter” an alchemist would use at the start of an experiment. Prime matter was the humble, plain, basic, ugly stuff that would eventually transform into greatness. Unfortunately, the toad was chosen to represent this undesirability. As expressed in this natural history book from 1809:

A Natural History of British Quadrupeds, Foreign Quadrupeds, British Birds, Water Birds, Foreign Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Serpents, & Insects. Alnwick, England. W. Davison. 1809.

Well, this makes us sad. Toads are great! So the Cotsen team dug into the special collections vaults to find some awesome, jolly, and sweet historical representations of toads to share with you today…

Goldsmith’s History of Fishes, Reptiles and Insects & c. Thos. Tegg & Son. ; London. ; Smith, Elder, & Co. 1838.

Sad garden toad : and other stories / by Marion Bullard. New York : E. P. Dutton & Co., c1924.

Toad / by Carol Cunningham. [Mill Valley, Calif.] : Sunflower Press, 1983.

Die Honriche : ein Märchen / von Christian Bärmann. München : Hugo Schmidt, c1923.

Bronze toad coin. Place: Luceria, Apulia, Italy. Earliest date: -300. Latest date: -280


Special thanks to Cotsen intern, Aubrey Roberts, for researching this post :)

C is for Cotsen

C is for Canoe 4

From African A.B.C. by Norah Senior. Pan-African Books. ; West African Publishing Co., 1959. Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library.

It’s time for the annual #ColorOurCollections, hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine! Each year libraries, archives, and cultural institutions around the world share free coloring sheets based on their collections. You might recall the Coloring Feathers post we did in 2021…but this year, we went alphabetical with “C is for Cotsen,” celebrating some of the cool alphabet books we have in our special collections vaults!

Our coloring pages consist of seven images spanning 1805-1959, including this hilarious one from 1840, “C is for Collision.” It was so completely random for an alphabet book, Katie and I had a good laugh over it

C is for Collision 2

R. Cruikshank’s Comic Alphabet by Robert Cruikshank. Darton and Clark (Holborn Hill), c1840. Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library.

You can see our complete coloring pages here. In addition to the coloring activity, we thought it would be fun to revisit some of our fun alphabet posts. Here there are, in no particular order, starting with some tabletop topiary letters:

so very verdant

A story time where we rounded up some letters on the ranch!

hey uA popular DIY keychain project we designed for a community event table:

red letter day Our review of some awesome spelling straws:

sip n spellWe discover the cutest alphabet tactile toys, ever:

alphabet playtime

A gorgeous letter art activity for teens and tweens:

We test out some amazing vanishing paper for some free floating fun:

laserjet-testAnnnnnnd there was that time we filled our library with 130 giant inflatable alphabet letters:

balloons in entry 3