To explain why children love dinosaurs so much, biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously gave an answer ‘proposed by a psychologist colleague: “big, fierce, and extinct”’. The folksy wisdom of this nameless social scientist has been continually re-quoted ever since. But how can we historicise and contextualise the mythic appeal of bigness, fierceness, and extinctness?
I wouldn’t say that dinosaurs have always been the elephant in the room at PopPalaeo workshops – for reasons that include a recently-acquired paranoia about mixed metaphors – but they do eat more than their fair share of the sandwiches. In the first workshop, Mark Witton suggested that, despite their formidable reputation, dinosaurs have chiefly been of interest to enthusiasts and children, and that, by over-relying on this group of animals, modern popularisers potentially miss out on other demographics. Considering similar issues, Elsa Panciroli and Mark Carnall explored how to interest wider audiences in less spectacular specimens. These key questions about audiences for palaeontology were integral to last year’s follow-up, PopPalaeo 2017. Different academic fields, however, require us to approach the same questions from different ends. While modern popularisers grapple with reaching out beyond one-dinosaur-fits-all approaches to popularisation, cultural historians can look back to a time when dinosaurs didn’t have such overwhelming powers of suggestion.
Gould was fascinated by the often child-oriented ‘dinomania’ of the late-twentieth century. The Dinosaur Renaissance and its media are indeed crucial subjects of study, although historians of science have long recognised that parallels drawn between the era of Jurassic Park (1993) or The Land Before Time (1988) and the period when the word ‘dinosaur’ first gained cultural power can be superficial. For my part, I’d like to know much more about what dinosaurs meant to children (and the young at heart) before dinomania but after the well-known early- and mid-Victorian vogue for antediluvian saurians.
Nowadays, the joke goes that children are more aware than their parents of what is or isn’t a dinosaur, and of how to pronounce polysyllabic names like Carcharodontosaurus. When did children’s authors (or at least those writing in English) start to trust that their young readers possessed this expertise? Before the American discoveries of the ‘Bone Wars’, the word ‘dinosaur’ was generally considered unimportant or relegated to a bashful footnote, even in books for adults and specialists. Dinosaurs only occasionally enjoyed prominence over their extinct confreres the pterodactyls, ichthyosaurs, mammoths, and megatheria. They were often drowned by lengthy discussions of geological processes that are more likely to be quickly dispensed with today.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, when mounted and articulated dinosaur skeletons first started to populate museum galleries and shift copy, the word lumbered into the vernacular. Early popular writings that paid attention to dinosaurs for dinosaurs’ sake include John W. Dawson’s The Story of the Earth and Man (1873), Henry N. Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters (1892) and Frederic A. Lucas’s Animals of the Past (1901).
From this time on, the word seems to have lost its taboo status (although that’s not to imply it meant the same things that it means today). In E. D. Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland (1901), young Jenny objects to the idea that dinosaur is a ‘hard’ word, to which her brother concedes “[t]hat’s an easy one” (p. 7). The cheerful title of Winsor McCay’s classic 1914 short film, Gertie the Dinosaur, attests to the word’s decreasing ‘hardness’. The earliest writers confident enough to use ‘dinosaur’ in general-interest book titles were two palaeontologists: W. D. Matthews of the American Museum of Natural History in Dinosaurs (1915) and W. E. Swinton of the London Natural History Museum in The Dinosaurs (1934). I suspect that to keep track of books called ‘Dinosaurs’ after the 1970s would be an exercise in futility.
Undoubtedly, during the Long Gilded Age and for many decades thereafter, dinosaurs were accompanied in the popular imagination by the titanotheres, dinocerata, and ancestors of modern elephants and horses that have not enjoyed a late-twentieth-century Jurassic Park surge. All the same, there was a growing sense of distinctness. While it may be ahistorical to consider the Crystal Palace dinosaurs a manifestation of ‘dinomania’, the term is not quite so misleading when discussing the famous arrival of Diplodocus carnegii at the Natural History Museum in 1905 or the stop-motion effects of the 1925 film The Lost World. The concerns of interwar audiences can still be very alienating, however. During the adventures of Joc & Colette at the Natural History Museum by Vera Barclay (1935), the titular children spend only a few pages with the dinosaurs, but even their rather dense friend Jane knows that ‘some of those old dinosaurs who lived ages ago had another little brain’ in their tail (p. 135).
My talk at the most recent PopPalaeo tentatively probed these questions by focusing on a small but telling phenomenon that I explore in my PhD: the entry of terms from the books of Lewis Carroll into the language used to describe extinct animals. This language was put to considerable use as a journalistic cliché, as when someone or something was flippantly dismissed as being ‘as extinct as the Mammoth or the Jabberwock’, but it was also applied more earnestly. When Richard Owen coined ‘Dinosauria’, the dinosaurs had all been similarly reptilian quadrupeds, although the word caught on only when it signified a far more heterogenous group, from kangaroo-birds to lizards with long necks or rhinoceros horns. For the earliest popularisers of these new dinosaurs, such as Henry Hutchinson, beasts like Carroll’s Jabberwock from Through the Looking-Glass (1871) presented an attractive analogy.
Despite his best efforts, many of Hutchinson’s readers found the illustrations of dinosaurs like Triceratops in his books to be almost as incredible and grotesque as the Jabberwock. As dinosaurs quickly became more familiar, Wonderland turned into a less volatile metaphor. It was used in sophisticated works of popularisation for children like Cuming’s Wonders in Monsterland and odd hybrids like E. O. Bray’s Old Time and the Boy or Prehistoric Wonderland (1921). Nowadays, dinosaurs could probably function as gateways to Carroll’s books as much as Carroll’s tales work as hooks into palaeontology.
Of course, for the cultural historian convinced that there remains something interesting to say about dinosaurs, but who is simultaneously trying to shrug off the albatross of Jurassic Park, the moments of relative indifference to dinosaurs are as telling as the moments of enthusiasm.
What I’ve talked about here certainly aren’t uncharted territories in terms of academic study. Nonetheless, they are uneven ground. I suspect there’s still more to learn from the media of popular palaeontology between the 1870s and the 1920s, when ‘dinosaur’ (just about) became a household word, and especially from media consumed by or addressed to children. There is also, surely, more subtlety to add to what Wikipedia calls the era of ‘moribund dinosaurs’ (the 1930s to the 1970s). The cultural construction of the dinosaur from the 1870s to the 1970s encompassed changing ideologies of evolution, new forms for the communication of science in the mass media (including cinema), the shaping of national identities, and many other evocative issues. Recreating this dinosaur will require a few more trips through the looking-glass.