Seashells, Societies & Scandals: Illustrated Marine Zoological Books of the 19th Century

Here in Tallahassee summer is in full swing with high temperatures already hitting the 90s.  In honor of the arrival of beach-going, sea shell-collecting days, the staff at Florida State University’s Special Collections & Archives invites you to explore the weird, wonderful and occasionally scandalous world of 19th century marine zoology.

FSU’s rare books collection contains numerous illustrated zoological and botanical works including a large selection of illustrated conchological texts and a nearly complete collection of publications from the Linnean Society and The Ray Society.  We picked three especially interesting and “beachy” books to feature in this special summer-themed post.  So, break out your sunscreen and prepare to brush up on your knowledge of marine zoology!

We begin with a foray into the sordid world of illustrated conchologies. For readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, conchology is the study of mollusk shells.

The Conchologist’s First Book
By Edgar Allan Poe, 1839

Cover of The Conchologist's First Book
Cover of The Conchologist’s First Book

The Conchologist’s First Book was originally published in 1839 and was the only work attributed to Edgar Allan Poe to be published in a second edition during his lifetime.

Poe, who was down on his luck and in financial straits at the time, was commissioned by the American naturalist Thomas Wyatt to write an introduction and lend his name to a revised edition of his Manual of Conchology.  Despite Poe’s assertion that he edited, revised and arranged the text in close cooperation with the original author, controversy arose over claims that the book violated copyright law and charges of plagiarism were bandied about.  Poe became so concerned with the damage the accusation might do to his reputation that he threatened to pursue legal action. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s own Manual of Conchology was likewise criticized for having borrowed heavily from Captain Thomas Brown’s The Conchologist’s Textbook which was published in Glasgow in 1837.1

This first edition of The Conchologist’s First Book features the original uncolored illustrations which appeared in color in the second edition, published in 1840.

Illustrations of  The Fossil Conchology of Great Britain and Ireland : with the description and localities of all the species
By Captain Thomas Brown, 1849

Plate 64

The second featured book comes from the very same Captain Thomas Brown of the Poe-Wyatt conchological controversy.  Illustrations of The Fossil Conchology of Great Britain and Ireland was published in 1849 and contains 98 superbly illustrated pages drawn by Brown himself.  Among Brown’s claims to Victorian naturalist fame are his membership in the Linnean Society, his presidency of the Physical Society and the honor of having a species of sea snail named after him.

A Monograph of the British Naked-Eyed Medusae: with Figures of all the Species
By Edward Forbes, 1848

Plate 9


With the final featured book we move away from mollusk shells and into deeper waters, so to speak.  A Monograph of the British Naked-Eyed Medusae is number 12 of a series of texts published by the Ray Society.  The Ray Society was established in 1844 with the expressed object of “the promotion of Natural History by the printing of original works in Zoology and Botany…”2  Unlike similar societies of the period, The Ray Society specifically sought to publish works of scientific merit that were unlikely to be commercially profitable and therefore unlikely to appear in print.  A Monograph of the British Naked-Eye Medusae is one of many fascinating and beautifully illustrated volumes in the Ray Society’s long list of publications which also includes Charles Darwin’s A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia: with Figures of all the Species and William Buckler’s Larvae of British Butterflies and Moths.

These beautiful and interesting books are part of a large collection of illustrated Natural History books to be discovered in Florida State University’s special collections.


1. Lienhard, John D., Poe’s Conchology. retrived 4 June 2013 from

2. Curle, Richard. The Ray Society: A Bibliographical History. London: Printed for the Ray Society; sold by Quaritch, 1954.

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