As Nature Shows Them

by John Holbo on November 23, 2017

If you are like me, you have Abebooks ‘wants’ out there – hopeful lines dragging through the stream of books. Here’s one that nibbled, but it’s still too rich for my blood. It’s As nature shows them : moths and butterflies of the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains : with over 400 photographic illustrations in the text and many transfers of species from life, by Sherman F. Denton (1900). Only $400. (Anyone wants to buy it for me?)

It’s an amazing curiosity in the history of color printing. I would love to see it in person. But for now the Internet Archive will have to do. What makes it so remarkable, you ask?

From the Preface:

The color plates, or Nature Prints, used in the work, are direct transfers from the insects themselves: that is to say, the scales of the wings of the insects are transferred to the paper while the bodies are printed from engravings and afterward colored by hand. The making of such transfers is not original with me, but it took a good deal of experimenting to so perfect the process as to make the transfers, on account of their fidelity to detail and their durability, fit for use as illustrations in such a work. And what magnificent illustrations they are, embodying all the beauty and perfection of the specimens themselves!

As I have had to make over fifty thousand of these transfers for the entire edition, not being able to get any one to help me who would do the world as I desired it done, and as more than half the specimens from which they were made were collected by myself, I having made many trips to different parts of the country for their capture, some idea of the labor in connection with preparing the material for the publication may be obtained.

I’m sure someone can make use of this peculiar mode of auto-iconographic representation for some weird Wittgenstein philosophy of language example.



Fred W. Bacon 11.23.17 at 3:47 pm

You should do a search on if you want to find a reasonably priced copy. Don’t put in the full title. Just “As Nature Shows Them”. It turns up some softcover copies on various sites around the world. I frequently find books like this in other countries, so you may have to order from someplace like France or Spain or Germany, but they show copies from there for like $34. You sometimes have to wait weeks for them to arrive, but it is the best way that I’ve found for locating hard to find out of print books.


Michael 11.23.17 at 4:57 pm

A notable and mind-boggling find.

Thank you. I think.

What does this do with Peirce’s standard trio of symbol, index, or icon? Hmmm? That’s what I’d like to know. Is the body an icon while the wings are … what?


John Holbo 11.23.17 at 10:34 pm

“It turns up some softcover copies on various sites around the world.”

The POD folks would just give me a print based on the PDF. (That’s how these things go.) I if I just wanted that, I could do it myself! I want butterfly bits! I’m afraid POD won’t do.


Plucky Underdog 11.24.17 at 3:59 pm

It sounds like a remarkable artefact, and I HATE to pour cold water, but …

You’re in Singapore … is that thing even legal to ship, internationally? From the description, it’s got to contain animal material from multiple extinct or endangered species. I’d hate for you to get summoned to Changi Airport Customs & Excise for ritual excoriation or whatever it is they do.


Mike Huben 11.24.17 at 11:01 pm

It might be cheaper to buy the actual specimens.


John Holbo 11.24.17 at 11:55 pm

“You’re in Singapore … is that thing even legal to ship, internationally?”

Ha, no worries I’m too cheap to buy it. But point well taken. But I’m sure that the sheer weirdness of the production would cause it to sail through with ease. Who is going to suspect a book is made of butterflies?


Belle Waring 11.25.17 at 5:38 pm



Z 11.25.17 at 8:16 pm


Truth be told, the hint was rather conspicuous…

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