The Boy Who Never Grew Up: Dinosaur Books and Realia from the Collection of Edward J. Valauskas

Date: 4 July 1998 – 12 October 1998
Location: Dome Room, UVA Rotunda
Curated by: Edward J. Valauskas

It’s hard to imagine a world without them, but until about 150 years ago our collective vocabularies didn’t include the word dinosaurs. The British zoologist and anatomist Richard Owen (1804–92), one of the first great paleontologists, created the word dinosaur by combining the Greek word deinos (terrible) with sauros (lizard). The occasion was the 1841 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where Owen presented a paper that described dinosaur fossils found in Europe.

People around the world have encountered dinosaur remains for thousands of years, long before Owen gave them their famous name. Ancient Chinese experts thought that dinosaur remains proved the existence of dragons. The Sioux Indians viewed fossils of dinosaurs as evidence of huge serpents, struck by lightning. The ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus explained fossil bones as the by-product of a plastic component in the Earth; his vis plastica dominated thinking in the Middle Ages on fossils. Other scholars in the Middle Ages thought that fossils were the remains of victims of the Biblical Flood. Only in the later ninteenth century, with the establishment of both geology and paleontology as scientific disciplines, did scientists dismiss the theory that the Deluge killed the dinosaurs.

Fossils provide evidence that life has been part of Earth’s history for millions of years, and that species are born, develop, expand, flourish, and then sometimes become extinct. The early 19th-century French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) used the remains of fossils to support his ideas on extinction – an uncomfortable concept to some persons: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, thought that too much of the world remained unexplored to be sure. He hoped that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would bring back evidence of the survival of some of these “extinct” species from their 1803-1806 expedition into the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

Fragments of dinosaurs found in Europe hinted at a larger picture which was eventually filled in by remarkable discoveries in the United States. Dinosaur track-ways were abundant in Connecticut and Massachusetts (for decades misidentified as the trackways of giant birds or “Noah’s ravens”), and the partial remains of one dinosaur were uncovered in New Jersey in 1858. In the 1850s and 1860s, the discovery of fossils in the American West by scientists accompanying military excursions turned the attention of two paleontologists to the possibilities of discoveries in Colorado and elsewhere. Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–99) and Edward Drinker Cope (1840–97) uncovered hundreds of new species in the sediments of the West, including the ones we know today as Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus. Together, Marsh and Cope named 1700 new animals and gave the general public its first introduction to these marvelous creatures.

In 1878, Belgian coal miners discovered thirty complete Iguanodon skeletons in a shaft. Thanks to the efforts of paleontologist Louis Dollo, these remains became the crown jewel of the Royal Museum of Natural History in Brussels, where they drew crowds by the thousands. Their popularity was so great that one Belgian soap manufacturer began to put colored cards containing prehistoric scenes into his soap packages. These cards were among the first efforts to enlist dinosaurs as advertisers and entertainers.

Newly-founded natural history museums in the United States and Europe began to put their accumulation of dinosaur fossils on public display at the end of the nineteenth century. The size, alien shape, and sheer antiquity of dinosaur fossils attracted wide-spread interest—and none were more excited than the young. The early dinosaur exhibits prompted the growth of a scientific literature designed specifically for children. Jennie Irene Mix’sMighty Animals: Being Short Talks about Some of the Animals Which Lived on This Earth before Man Appeared (1912) was one of the first books to tackle paleontology for children. Mighty Animals, complete with photographs of expeditions conducted by the American Museum of Natural History in the West, discussed how dinosaurs lived and where their fossil remains could now be found.

Dinosaurs became a fixed feature of fairs and exhibitions, a tradition started at the London Great Exhibition in 1851. No fair would lack dinosaurs, especially in this century. The Sinclair Oil Company began to use a dinosaur as its logo in 1930, starting a long tradition of life-size Sinclair models at World’s Fairs such as the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago and the New York Fair in 1964.

The expeditions of the American Museum’s Roy Chapman Andrews (1884–1960) in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert fueled a fever for dinosaurs for several generations. Sent to the Gobi to find human ancestors, Andrews failed; but on 23 July 1923, Andrews and his expedition succeeded in a totally unexpected way when they found the first large cache of dinosaur eggs ever to be discovered. Their great find encouraged generations of paleontologists from around the world to return to the Gobi over and over again. In his retirement, Andrews wrote about his Gobi work in the book All About Dinosaurs (1953), the most popular dinosaur book of all time.

The materials in this exhibition come from the collection of Edward J. Valauskas, a Chicago-based librarian, writer and Internet consultant. Valauskas’s early interest in things prehistoric led him to Roy Chapman Andrews’s All About Dinosaurs. His collection continued to grow in the 1960s when he spent his summers in the Geology Department of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, working as a volunteer for paleontologist and curator Eugene S. Richardson, Jr. Eventually, Dr. Richardson interested young Edward in matters bibliographic as well as paleontologic, pointing him toward catalogs from antiquarian book firms specializing in out-of-print and rare paleontological literature.

Original Exhibition Webpage

The Valauskas collection has several focal points under the general rubric of children’s literature on dinosaurs. Some of the books are here because they are early in the field. Others are present because of the excellence of their illustrations or the imaginative details of their production. Dinosaurs have a world-wide audience, so there are books in Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Lithuanian, Thai, and other languages. Some of the books shown in The Boy Who Never Grew Up take a decidedly unscientific stance: Valauskas is interested in any interesting dinosaurs. The Boy Who Never Grew Up: Dinosaur Books and Realia from the Collection of Edward J. Valauskas runs in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, 9 a.m.–4:45 p.m., 4 July–15 September 1998. The exhibition was mounted by Caroline Breashears, a doctoral student in the University of Virginia’s English Department.