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 :)

A Library for the Birds

A heads up for our readers…in addition to eggs and nests, this post contains multiple images of bird taxidermy, which some may find unsettling. If you do, no problem! Skip this particular post, and we’ll see you on the blog next Tuesday!

Deep within Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, there is a plain door with a fairly innocuous sign mounted nearby:

Behind that plain door, however, is an amazing treasure trove of natural history. It’s the Princeton Bird Collection, which contains a taxidermy catalog of over 6,000 bird specimens, some of which are over 150 years old! Many were collected by William Earl Dodge Scott, who was appointed Curator of the Department of Ornithology in 1879.

Princeton’s bird room contains a multitude of hulking gray metal cabinets. While I’m used to our library’s special collections cataloged and ordered on regular bookshelves, the bird room’s cabinets open to reveal horizontal wooden drawers containing various specimens. These collections are available for teaching and research, including the Stoddard Lab’s research on avian coloration and morphology.

The drawers also contain nests and eggs, which are similarly laid out for researchers:

There are larger nests as well, including this amazing one that I’m pretty much ready to curl up and take a nap inside:

Beyond the drawers are a fantastic assortment of standing taxidermy, both large and small. Below are just a few the staff unwrapped for me to photograph…from top left to bottom…an emu, ground hornbill, kiwi, barn owl, macaw, snowy owl, and golden eagle.

And check out this! It’s a quetzal, which hails from Central America. It was was considered sacred by the Ancient Mayas and Aztecs. The photo really doesn’t do it justice. The coloring on the bird is simply exquisite.

The bird collection also contains the documents and journals of Charles Roger, a professor of ornithology at Princeton from 1920-1977. The journals, which he began as an eager boy of eleven and continued until he was eighty-four are a fascinating and informative body of work. You can read more about the digitization of his works, and find some awesome coloring pages from our special collections here (as well as a couple fun bird projects!).


A very special thank you to Cassie Stoddard, Assistant Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, for arranging for me to photograph the bird room, and answering my questions about ducks!

Flowers for Ferdinand

It’s warm, it’s raining, it’s spring, and that means FLOWERS! If there’s one character close to Katie’s heart, it’s the peaceful, flower-loving Ferdinand the Bull. Pair this simple project up with a nifty wildflower identification activity, and you have yourself a nature walk!

We recommend The Story of Ferdinand, written by Munro Leaf, and illustrated by Robert Lawson (Viking, 1936). Read aloud here by Brighly Storytime. This tale of a peaceful bull who would rather enjoy flowers then battle in a bull ring is a children’s classic. And if you’d like to read Alexis Antracoli’s excellent essay during banned Book Week 2019, click over to the curatorial blog!

You’ll need:

  • 1 toilet paper tube
  • Brown and white construction paper
  • Scissors and glue for construction
  • Markers for decorating

Use the materials above to craft a bull, then head outside with your camera! Keep an eye out for plants and flowers, then take a photo of Ferdinand enjoying them.

Now to identify your botanical finds! Katie discovered this awesome website for flower identification, Wildflower Search. You can set your locations with the assistance of Google Maps and the site will generate an illustrated list of the wildflowers in your area. It’s an awesome resource!

Using the site, Katie was able to identify a bunch of flowers, as evidenced in this lovely spring photo montage. I think the Bull Thistle is my favorite:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you live in a more urban area, not to worry! Enter your location and see what happens…you might be surprised to find that there are more flowers then you expected. The screen shot of results I took for this post? That’s not New Jersey! I selected a location in New York City, Financial District, Manhatten. The site of famous Charging Bull statue to be exact.