WILSON, Alexander (1766-1813) and George ORD (1781-1866). American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States. Philadelphia: Robert Carr for Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-1812 [vols. I-VI]; Philadelphia: Thomas H. Palmer for Samuel F. Bradford, 1824 [vols. VII and VIII]; Thomas H. Palmer for J. Laval and S.F. Bradford, 1825 [vol. IX].
9 volumes (13 4/8 x 10 4/8 inches). 76 engraved plates after Wilson by Alexander Lawson, G. Murray, Benjamin Tanner and J.G. Warnicke with contemporary hand-color (some occasionally heavy browning, spotting and oxidization as usual, some marginal tears with minor loss to text leaves, plate 38 bound upside down, plates 29, 54 and 66 with tears, most plates offset to text). Contemporary half red roan, marbled paper boards, the smooth spines gilt-ruled in six compartments, gilt lettered in two, the others decorated with small gilt tools (extremities a bit worn with some small surface tears).
Provenance: with the University of Chicago Library bookplate, in memory of Edward Carson Waller (1845-1931), and their ink library stamp recording deaccession in 1984 on the front paste-down of each volume, their sale, Christie's 22nd April 1994, lot 65
"THE FIRST TRULY GREAT AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGY AND ALSO THE FIRST TRULY OUTSTANDING AMERICAN COLOR PLATE BOOK OF ANY TYPE" (Bennett)
First edition of volumes one to VI, Ord's revised editions of volumes VII-IX.
Pre-dating Audubon "...this was the first American work to use color plates to convey scientific information, and the first real combination of text and color illustration produced in the United States. the project's success proved that an American audience would support such a large undertaking. Works of natural history and science, with a concrete function, proved to be more commercially viable in America than luxury works such as view books" (Reese 3.)
Wilson and his nephew emigrated to America from Scotland in 1794. Legend has it that Wilson's interest in the birds of America began the day after their landing in Delaware. His eye was caught by a glimpse of a brilliantly plumaged bird (a red-headed woodpecker), so he shot it, and immediately regretted it. Some years later he found himself living near the famous American botanist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson's growing interest in birds. "Nancy Bartram, William's niece, helped Wilson learn to draw them. On 1 June 1803 he wrote to a friend that 'I am now about to make a collection of all our finest birds', and on 12 March 1804 he confided in fellow Scot Alexander Lawson, a Philadelphia engraver, that he was 'making a collection of all the birds in this part of North America' (Hunter).
Publication of the first volume of Wilson's "American Ornithology" with plates engraved by Lawson, was in 1808. "Wilson hoped to publish ten volumes, with ten plates each, but the great strain of producing it contributed to his death before completion. There were nine volumes with seventy-six plates, and it was the most extensive publication by any American author. A prospectus and specimen plates were printed, and Wilson agreed to obtain 200 subscribers before volume 1 was published. He travelled around the United States obtaining orders and studying birds. Early subscriptions from Robert Fulton and Jefferson helped persuade other subscribers. Volume 1 appeared in September 1808, and soon the printing was increased to 500 copies per volume. Plates were printed uncoloured and then coloured by hand. It was tedious work and when colourists quit, Wilson did the job himself" (Frank N. Egerton for DNB). Wilson died before the final three volumes were published. George Ord completed the remainder from Wilson's notes. Anker 533; Bennett, A Practical Guide to American Book Collecting (1663-1940) p.44; Fine Bird Books (1990) p.155; Nissen IVB 992; Zimmer p.679. Catalogued by Kate Hunter