Philadelphia Museum (“Peale’s Museum”)

Watercolor of the Long Room, 1822

OTHER IMAGES

TIMELINE & QUICK FACTS
  • 1782. Charles Willson Peale opens a portrait gallery of Revolutionary War heroes out of his home in Philadelphia.
  • 1786. The portrait gallery is combined with an institution for the study of natural law and the display of natural history and technological objects. On 18 July Peale’s Museum opens to the public. Admission is 25 cents.
  • 1794. Peale retires from portrait painting — partly because his revolutionary activities had ostracized Philadelphia's upper classes and made it difficult for him to acquire patrons, but especially to focus on his museum.
  • 1794. The museum moves from Peale’s home to Philosophical Hall, rented from the American Philosophical Society.
  • 1802. Running out of space, the museum moves to the top floors of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) until 1827.
  • 1816. Financially this is the museum’s best year with nearly $12,000 in revenue.
  • 1820. The museum contains over 100,000 objects — including 269 paintings, 1,824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fishes, over 1,000 shells, and 313 books. Unlike European museums which display specimens against a plain white background, Peale invents the diorama, giving the displayed animals a more naturalistic three-dimensional setting against painted backgrounds.
  • 1827. The Philadelphia Museum moves from the State House to the Arcade Building, Philadelphia's new mercantile center and the first shopping mall.
  • 1838. The museum moves again, this time to a building erected just for the museum. It includes a stage that accommodates both lectures and musical performances.
  • 1849. Falling on hard times due to changing tastes and poor management, Edmund Peale, C.W. Peale’s grandson, sells the collection — except for most of the paintings — to P.T. Barnum.
  • Aftermath. The Peale collection is divided and then largely destroyed by fires in 1851 and 1865. Eventually, a number of specimens end up at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where some have been identified and can be viewed today.
LINKS
FURTHER READING

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Willson Peale’s exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of the mastodon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth in his celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized exhumation in American history. Peale’s discovery electrified the country and put the word mammoth on everybody’s lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of mammoth bread. In Washington a mammoth eater ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes. And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a mammoth cheese, six feet in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)