In 1829, when visitors were flocking to Mauch Chunk and Penn Forest to marvel at the Switchback Gravity Railroad and the Lehigh Navigation System, products of the burgeoning coal mining industry, one man was on a mission to paint its birds.
That man, 35-year-old John James Audubon, came to northeastern Pennsylvania to create images for a volume that would become Birds Of America. During his studies for the work, he identified 25 new species and a number of new subspecies.
In 1826, three years before coming to Mauch Chunk and Penn Forest, Audubon had begun to acquire subscriptions from wealthy English who were intrigued with his images of the American wilderness. Because of the large format, hand engraving of plates, and hand painting of images, the original printing cost $115,640 (over $2 million today).
In December 2010, a first edition copy of Birds Of America sold in London for approximately $11.5 million, the highest price ever for a printed publication. Of the 119 copies known to survive, only 11 are held in private collections.
In March 2000, a copy sold for $8.8 million. In December 2005, an unbound copy sold for $5.6 million.
The original prints were issued in sets of five, usually consisting of images of one large bird, one medium-sized bird, and three small birds. Audubon began his issuance of 87 sets of five prints – a total of 435 plates – in 1837, and it was completed in 1838. Birds of America was sold in England to subscribers on a pay-as-you-go basis. The plates were published unbound and without any text to avoid having to furnish free copies to the public libraries in England.
Because Audubon wanted to represent the birds as life-size, his first edition was printed on the largest stock available at the time – 39.5 by 28.5 inches – a size called the "Double Elephant Folio." The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used. After printing, each plate was watercolored by hand.
John James Audubon was an ornithologist, naturalist and painter. In 1803, at the age of 18, his family moved from his birthplace of Haiti to a 284-acre Mill Grove farm in Montgomery County, Pa.
At Mill Grove, Audubon roamed the wooded hills along the Perkiomen Creek and the Schuylkill River hunting, observing birds, collecting and drawing. While at Mill Grove he experimented with bird banding, and he developed his "wire armature," a device that allowed positioning of freshly shot specimens for Audubon to draw his bird sketches.
While working as a naturalist and taxidermist at a Cincinnati Museum, Audubon decided to paint images of all the birds in America. In 1820, he started in the southern U.S. states and in 1829, he arrived in Mauch Chunk for his 10-week ramble through the wooded areas along the Lehigh River.
He departed Philadelphia by coach, carrying the tools of his trade.
"These consisted of a wooden box, containing a small stock of linens, drawing paper, my journal, colours and pencils together with 25 pounds of shot, some flints the due quantum of cash, my gun Tear-jacket and a heart as true to nature as ever," he stated.
After spending the night in Mauch Chunk, he traveled the hills and was "disappointed at the extraordinary scarcity of birds." So, he arranged for a cart to take him to the Great Pine Swamp, today known as Penn Forest.
He traveled through a storm, passing through ground "overgrown by laurel and tall pines of different kinds, that the whole only presented a mass of darkness," finally arriving at the home of Jediah Irish, a millwright for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, and in charge of logging the Pine Swamp.
The storm cleared and the next morning went out searching for and shooting birds, and observing the logging operations,
"But no sooner was the first saw-mill erected, than the axemen began their devastations," he wrote. "Trees one after another were, and are yet, constantly heard falling, during the days; and in calm nights, the greedy mills told the sad tale, that in a century the noble forests around should exist no more.
"Before population had greatly advanced in this part of Pennsylvania, game of all description found within that range was extremely abundant. The Elk itself did not disdain to browse on the shoulders of the mountains, near the Lehigh. Bears and the Common Deer must have been plentiful, as at the moment when I write, many of both kinds are seen and killed by the resident hunters. The Wild Turkey, the Pheasant and the Grouse, are also tolerably abundant."
After leaving the Great Pine Swamp, Audubon wrote, "I wish I had eight pairs of hands, and another body to shoot the specimens, still I am delighted at what I have accumulated in drawings this season. Forty-two drawings in four months, eleven large, eleven middle size, and twenty-two small, comprising ninety-five birds, from Eagles downwards, with plants, nests, flowers, and sixty different kinds of eggs."
Birds of America includes images of six birds that are now extinct: Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Esquimaux Curlew, and Pinnated Grouse.
Audubon's Birds of America created a rich and timeless legacy, setting the standard against which all wildlife art is measured. Now, 182 years after its original publication, it is the most valuable published.