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.

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!

Lucky You!

Saint Patrick’s Day has us thinking about leprechauns, so Katie and I delved into Cotsen’s special collections vaults to see what we could find! Happily, we discovered The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies : with Assorted Pixies, Mermaids, Brownies, Witches, and Leprechauns (Golden Press, c1951). It’s a collections of stories and poems selected by Jane Werner, and illustrated by the famous Garth Williams.

Garth Williams has a signature style that’s most often associated with his illustrations for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and the Little House series. The Giant Golden Book, however, is considerably more whimsical, teeming with mythical creatures and fanciful settings. And just look at these moody, evocative end papers:

There is still quite a bit of adorableness, of course. One story featured a walnut carriage drawn by mice:

And a tiny suit of armor composed of fish scales and a robin’s feather plume:

And this amazing “little crinolined dress made of one hundred rose petals”…

We’ll leave you with a charming leprechaun poem by Jane Werner herself:


Images from The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies : with Assorted Pixies, Mermaids, Brownies, Witches, and Leprechauns. New York : Golden Press, c1951. Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library