The estimated reading time for this post is 5 minutes.
By Ilja Nieuwland
Parisians who visited a newsstand or book store in the spring of 1886 were confronted with the frightening prospect of a dinosaurian intrusion into their sixth-floor apartments. It was introduced to them by a poster that was part of the advertising campaign for French author Camille Flammarion’s new book (and newspaper serial) Le monde avant la création de l’homme (‘The world before man’s creation’).The whole approach of the publicity campaign turned out to be a good indication of the tone of the book. Flammarion’s book was a work of popular science, and sought to awe and entertain its readers as much as inform them. Although the rather overweight dinosaur here borrows heavily from the reconstructions made about fifteen years earlier by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins for the Crystal Palace exhibition, the image of a dinosaur standing next a high building looking into its top floors would prove compelling enough to last.
A pivotal element in the portrayal of dinosaurs has always been their size and, often, little else. The (literal) otherworldiness of these animals came to light even more when they were placed in surroundings familiar to us. The contrast between such huge, unwieldy and chaotic animals, and our own comfortable and controlled surroundings would increase our awe of them (and, of course, our fear). In fact, the very first ‘real’ dinosaur movie was based on this theme.
In Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) Winsor McKay shows us an animal that drinks lakes and eats trees, but is not unfriendly or agressive. That would change rapidly. Harry Hoyt’s film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure romp The Lost World (1925) already features dinosaurs that seem set on making poor humans’ lives as miserable as possible. The Japanese Godzilla series (1950s-present) contained a similar dinosaur (enhanced with fire-breathing and nuclear abilities) as its main protagonist, wreaking havoc to entire cities. And more recently, the Jurassic Park films adopted (one might say: copied) the same approach.
But what makes all of these portrayals so compelling is still, as with Flammarion, the confrontation between the ‘other’ and our own daily experience. Godzilla’s tail destroys our seemingly safe and comfortable surroundings; in Jurassic Park, Tyrannosaurus rex chases a vehicle no modern animal would be able to pursuit. It’s a juxtaposition of scale and unpredictability of the animals, and our estrangement with what we hold obvious.
As we have seen, the habit of emphasizing a dinosaur’s size by having it peep into a high-rise building therefore dates back to at least 1886. However, the picture from 1898 below (like Gertie would later be, a product of the Hearst press) probably portrays its most famous application, also because it sparked off Andrew Carnegie’s interest in (and subsequent sponsoring of) the excavation of dinosaurs in the American West (Rea, 2001).
The New York Journal and Advertiser, front page, 11 December 1898. “When it ate, it filled a stomach large enough to hold three elephants” A ‘Brontosaurus giganteus’ is seen peeping into the 11th floor (sorry, that’s the 10th floor) of the New York Life building.
The article is accompanied by typically hysterical Hearstianisms and a level of factual inaccuracy that would become typical for press attempts to cover scientific subjects. The skull, for instance, although portrayed as the plant-eating Brontosaurus, is in fact Ceratosaurus nasicornis, a very nasty-looking thing indeed that doubtless was deemed more impressive than the rather undaunting Brontosaurus skull (which in fact once belonged to a Camarasaurus, but let’s not confuse the issue even further).
The way in which the cover for Flammarion’s book was copied (this is not the only instance) by Hearst’s artist is something we see happening over and over with reconstructions of extinct life. Adán Pérez-Garcia of the Madrid Natural History Museum stumbled across yet another copy of this meme in an interesting article from the 1925 Spanish magazine La Esfera (“the Sphere”). The article (PDF) shows how dinosaurs entered the Spanish public’s imagination after one of Andrew Carnegie’s Diplodocus copies had entered their natural history museum in 1913. La Esfera was a staunchly orthodox Roman Catholic magazine, and like some of its contemporaries it adopted an ambiguously creationist stance. This article sought to prove how man and Diplodocus had lived together, and offered a cave drawing from Arizona as evidence. Particularly, it compared the drawing to (an already adapted form of) Charles Knight’s erect Diplodocus best known as a cover for the June 15, 1907 issue of Scientific American.
Of course, this was a very atypical rendition of Diplodocus, and one that the AMNH’s Henry Fairfield Osborn (on whose initiative Knight fashioned this particular reconstruction) had received considerable criticism for. When it was reproduced in the Mentor World Traveler in 1922, a human figure was added in for scale. As usual, it was depicted far too small, and so both emphasized the dinosaur’s size and the human’s vulnerability.
It was this image that La Esfera adapted in order to compare it to a cave drawing. To give it credit, Esfera‘s author does not tackle the issue uncritically despite his agenda. Despite its caption, calling the right picture a ‘picture [of a dinosaur] discovered in Arizona (United States) scratched into a rock of Triassic age’, it also quotes an unidentified scientist as saying “that the picture tries to mimick the lines of a Diplodocus, but may rather be of a mammal of the era […], or a mere fantasy of the artist”.
However, considering La Esfera‘s audience’s likely suspicion of scientists, the suggestion of cohabitation is hardly diminished by that statement. La Esfera‘s illustration of the standing Diplodocus seems to originate in the same drawing from The Mentor we saw above. Considering the ‘Arizonean’ origin of the ‘drawing’, I would have expected this to crop up in American publications as well, but I’m not aware of any such thing. If it rings a bell to anyone, please let me know.
All these uses of rearing dinosaurs are meant to inspire awe at their size and strength, and at our own vulnerability. Titillation, after all, sells. In their own way these images are all unashamedly commercial: they sell books, newspapers, ideas. And they do so by representing dinosaurs ‘turned up to eleven’. Luck had it that in 1905, a dinosaur was discovered that was the publisher’s dream: if you want to know why Tyrannosaurus rex seems so omnipresent, there’s your answer.
- “The Largest and Smallest Animal; How Man Would Have Looked Beside a Dinosaur.” The Mentor 10 (1922): 34–35
- Beasley, Walter L. “Diplodocus: the Greatest of all Earthly Creatures.” Scientific American June 15 (1907): 491–492 & front
- D.R. 1925. “Un grabado de hace doce milliones de años.” La Esfera XII (595).
- André Gunthert, “Le dinosaure, figure des pouvoirs de la science. Compte-rendu du séminaire d’André Gunthert du 8 avril 2010”. L’atelier des icones. Le carnet de recherche d’André Gunthert (http://culturevisuelle.org/icones/518). Accessed October 3, 2012.
- Osborn, Henry Fairfield. “Fossil Wonders of the West.” The Century. Illustrated Monthly Magazine LXVIII (1904): 680–94
- Pérez-Garcia, Adán. 2010. “Paleocriptozoología en la prensa Española anterior a la Guerra Civil: Los grandes saurios terrestres.” Cidaris 30: 235-241. Adán’s article contains a number of similar cases, and I can only recommend that you read it. In case your Spanish is not up to scratch, Google translate can be a worthy ally.
- Tom Rea (2001), Bone Wars. The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), p. 31.