Ford’s Zoological Supplies in the 1950s

In my post of 9 October 2015, I mentioned advertisements from the 1950s for Ford’s Zoological Supples Ltd of 186 Woolwich Church Street, Woolwich, London SE18. Ford’s had fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and during the 1950s were regular advertisers in the weekly, Cage Birds, and in Water Life magazine.

Ad Fords 1950

I knew absolutely nothing about Ford’s. They did not seem to be very active from the late 1950s onwards and did not get a mention in any of the books that appeared around that time. However, from the late 1940s for about ten years, they regularly advertised what was available, whether it was common foreign birds, ‘Hyacinthine Macaws’. ‘finger-tame hand reared grey parrots, red tailed, selected from our own aviaries in Africa’ or a ‘tame white-faced Chimpanzee, perfectly docile’.

Mellissa Crowley, John Charles Ford’s grand-daughter, read my article and sent me photographs and an article on her beloved grandfather.

Ford WLThe article is from an issue of Water Life from August 1950. It describes how John Ford travelled to British Guiana (Guyana since 1966) to collect freshwater fish and transport them to his premises in Woolwich. At the time, tropical fish-keeping was enjoying a surge of interest in Britain with more and more households setting up heated aquaria and more and more dealers being established to meet that demand. Air transport was being established but was expensive. Moreover, stringent currency exchange and import controls were in place. Post-war Britain was broke, there was real austerity with food and most goods still rationed. British Guiana must then have been an attractive proposition. There were lots of fish; it belonged to Britain and was included in the Sterling Area so there were no difficulties with imports or exchange controls.

The article describes John Ford’s travels in April and May 1950; only three weeks separated the two. In the first he brought back 57 fish (mainly Corydoras catfish). To get to British Guiana he took the ‘banana boat’ Ringdrude from London to Kingston, Jamaica on 9 March; he is shown as ‘naturalist’ in the passenger list. The second trip resulted in many hundreds of fish being successfully transported to London. The fish were transported in five-gallon cans (no polythene bags then); some heating was required and the water was aerated by rubber bladders inflated by a foot pump. Ford thanked the airline staff profusely for assistance at each change of aircraft. There were no long-hail flights then and the journey from Georgetown to London involved stops at Dakar in Senegal, Lisbon, Madrid, Nice and Amsterdam. The cost was very high. Transporting the water alone cost £300 (about £9,000 in today’s money) so it is not surprising that tropical fish in retail shops were far more expensive than they are now.

Ford WL4

Ford WL2

Ford WL3

Among the species collected in profusion was the Marbled Hatchet fish (Carnegiella strigata). The article describes where John Ford collected them and other fishes: ‘up the R[iver] Demerara to Warratilla Creek, a distance of some 150 miles’. Intrigued, since 150 miles up the Demerara would take much longer to reach than John Ford spent in the country, I realised that the place is Waratilla Creek 15 and not 150, miles from Georgetown and, moreover, that I have actually been there and through the waters John Ford collected his fish from.

Waratilla Creek (now the site of a bauxite mine) is a tributary of the Kamuni River (or Creek) which enters the Demerara River opposite the international airport on the other bank. The place looms large in Charles Waterton’s (1782-1865) classic account of the natural history of this region in Wanderings in South America.

Guyana Map for Blog

This image from Google Earth shows the location of Waratilla Creek

Fifty-six years after John Ford was working Waratilla Creek, the Kamuni and Demerara rivers, we were staying as a Naturetrek party at Timberhead, a ‘resort’ no longer in operation it appears, on the Kamuni River. Each morning, fish that had leapt from the water in attempts to foil predators were in the bottom of the boats moored there. The vast majority were Marbled Hatchetfish and I remarked to others in the party that anybody seeking the then highly-prized hatchetfish for aquaria in the 1950s would not have had to look much further than here. I had no idea that John Ford had done just that in 1950.

Grandad and snake

Grandad with McCaw

John Eva and Tortoises

John’s wife, Eva (1913-2000) and son, John with the tortoises mentioned in the ad in Water Life

Daily Graphic of John and friends

John Ford junior

IMG_0844-1

John Ford in later life with two grand-daughters (Mellissa and her sister)

It would seem that Ford’s Zoological Supplies was a pretty important London animal dealer – wholesale to the ‘pet’ trade as well as retail – in the late 1940s and early- to mid-1950s. My guess, from seeing the photographs below, is that John Ford was a direct importer and possibly an exporter as well. Like a number of individuals in post-war Britain, a burning interest in exotic animals found its outlet in dealing in them and travelling to collect them; some were successful entrepreneurs while others quickly failed. It was an activity that enjoyed public support, press coverage and interest into the 1980s.

John Charles Ford (1908-1985) must have been successful since Mellissa records that he drove a Bentley, later to appear in Downton Abbey. I do not recall, though, advertisements or news of the existence of the company in the early 1960s. I suspect that John Ford was operating at a much lower level in later years because the company was dissolved on 28 July 1965 (London Gazette).

Little is recorded, other than in the popular press or through old advertisements, of the trade itself or of its magnitude. Dealers were pretty secretive especially about their contacts overseas some of whom proved to be reliable exporters of healthy animals, others not. But they were the intermediaries supplying zoos, circuses, pet shops and, in turn, showing real live animals to the public. In those days, travelling and seeing animals in their natural habitat seemed like an impossible dream.

Finally, some more advertising for Ford’s from Cage Birds in the 1950s:

 

 

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Sheila Dorrell (née Greenhalgh, later Fisher): Illustrator of Soderberg’s Books on Foreign Birds

My post of 15 January 2014 deals with the four volumes in a series, Foreign Birds for Cage and Aviary, written by Percy Measday Soderberg (1901-1969) and published in 1956. The colour plates were by Sheila Dorrell about whom I could find little information. I am pleased that thanks to her niece, Alison Greenhalgh, I am able to provide much more information.

Alison writes (with any additional information in square brackets):

Sheila Greenhalgh was born in Lancashire in 1918 and lived in Turton, she studied at the Manchester College of Art until this was interrupted by the war, she worked on a lathe in a factory (I think) and was proud to be able to set up the lathe herself.  She moved to London after the war. At some point [1949 in Hampstead] she married Anthony Dorrell, like her a communist and artist, the marriage failed, and I have no recollection of Anthony but it was at this time that she must have come into contact with people like Ken Sprague and Wilfred Willett (who bequeathed his library to her) all sharing common ground.  As a strange coincidence I went to school with Ken’s daughter, and it was not until many years later on a chance meeting with him that I learnt that he was a life-long friend of Sheila. 

She moved to Laxfield in Suffolk in 1968 possibly due to work she was collaborating on with Paxton Chadwick (she had met him at the Manchester College of Art [he also illustrated Soderberg’s first volume]). There is a rumour that because of her communist leanings and the company she was keeping of like minded people that her phone was being bugged etc, and she moved to find peace.  Here she bought her beloved 16th century cottage.

She continued to paint, exhibiting at the Rotunda Gallery in 1970. ( I am sure there were a couple of other London shows, but I have no knowledge of where of when these were.) In 1971 she exhibited at the Yoxford  gallery getting a mention in the East Anglian Times: ‘seldom have I seen such exquisite little paintings with so much detail….’ 
 
She married again in her 60’s [in Suffolk to George A Fisher in 1977] (at some point she reverted to using her maiden name) and when married became Sheila Greenhalgh Fisher, all her later pictures are signed SGF.
 
The highly detailed picture of birds and flowers etc continued to be her main source of inspiration, and if not drawn from life, there were always specimens in the freezer, frequently posted by friends who thought she would be interested.
 
In 1996 she collaborated in the publication of Life Histories (Puffin Book 116) by Paxton Chadwick.  The book was published posthumously and I am not sure if Sheila added drawings or finished drawings, the information is sketchy*.

Puffin Final
 She held exhibitions at her cottage, and latterly started to paint on board in a slightly more abstract way but still in detail of flowers etc.  She was a founding member of the Laxfield Museum and even designed the village sign.
 
She died in May 2014, aged 96 able to remain in her much loved cottage and is buried in the cemetery at Laxfield.
 
Of interest to you perhaps is that the drawings for Foreign Birds, were taken from life at London Zoo, she also did work (I believe) for either the Natural History Museum or the British Museum, not absolutely sure which.
 
As I say probably far too much information, but I am still putting bits together, trying to put some facts to vaguely membered childhood recollection. You don’t realise when you are young just what interesting lives some people are leading.

She provided both black-and-white drawings for Soderberg’s books as well as colour plates. The book jacket states:

A special feature of the other three books, dealing with specific birds, is the series of lovely colour plates, reproduced by six-colour lithography, drawn by Sheila Dorrell, of the birds described in the text.

Here is one of the drawings and one of the colour plates from the volume on waxbills, weavers and whydahs:

1

2

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*Life Histories was not completed by Paxton Chadwick before he died. Sheila by-then Fisher completed it for Chadwick’s widow. It was published by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 as a limited edition of 100 copies along with a booklet explaining why it had not been published earlier; this limited edition was printed in 1995. Sheila Fisher’s signature is on the back cover which also shows stages in the development of a frog.

Writers as ‘Experts’, or Experts as Writers

Anyone who knows what was written on keeping reptiles, amphibians, fish or mammals over the past century will realise that writers copied information—and often misinformation—from earlier authors. The keeping of all forms of livestock is, therefore, confused by perpetuated myths and legends. The views of ‘writers’ of books were often disparaged rightly or wrongly by keepers or self-appointed ‘experts’ who grumbled in the background but who did not or could not write.

To illustrate what was happening, I reproduce below a copy of a letter to the Aquarist in the November 1975 issue:

Clarification Requested

     In the September issue of The Aquarist Mr. Whiteside quotes a letter from a Mr. Bave of Hammersmith in which he states that a friend of his in the publishing business told him “of two ‘experts’ who had written a book on tropical fishes and who at the time of writing the book had not kept a single fish between them.”
     As Mr. Bave goes on to say that he started the hobby some 20 years ago, a number of people have drawn the conclusion that his reference to two experts who had written about tropical fishes without having kept a single fish between them, and had obtained their information from the books of others, is a reference to the undersigned, because during the last 20 years or so they are the only two experts—at all events in this country—who have collaborated in writing books about aquarium fishes.
     The facts are that G.F.H. kept fish before the war, during the war and right up to some 15 years ago when he remarried; and that J.H., except for the war years when he served with the Royal Army Pay Corps, has kept fish ever since he was a boy and still keeps them though he is not far short of retirement age.
    They deprecate what Mr. Bave has written because it is likely to prove damaging to their books that are now on the market, namely: The Goldfish (Faber and Faber) and a Guide to Freshwater Aquarium Fishes (Hamlyn) published in England; the Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Freshwater Fishes published by Doubleday in the U.S.A. and Zoetwater Aquarium-vissen published in Belgium and Holland.
     These being the facts, they think it proper to ask Mr. Bave to make the amende honorable by asking Mr. Whiteside to make it clear that the passage quoted from his article, “What is Your Opinion?”, in the September issue is not a reference to either of them.

George F. Hervey Bagshot, Surrey and
Jack Hems, Leicester.

I am not surprised that Harvey and Hems complained about the What is Your Opinion? article. Such articles based on letters from readers giving their opinion on topics raised by a Mr Billy Whiteside appeared in every issue of the Aquarist. They were an early manifestation of uninformed opinion being taken as seriously as informed opinion; the comments on the BBC News website are a current example of how to debase a source of informed and reliable information. It was lazy populist publishing then and it is lazy populist publishing now.  Thus were Myths, legends and mischief born and perpetuated.

Water Life Magazine 1936-58. Part 15. The First Volume, 1936

A few days ago, a bound copy of volume 1 of Water Life arrived; I have been looking for this final addition to the pre-war volumes (1-7) for several years. I have now scanned the articles on herpetology and uploaded the extract (see the Downloads page above). Before discussing what gems are in there, I will describe what I uncovered about the early history of the magazine together with a few non-herpetological snippets that caught my eye.

Margery Elwin, the editor, began with a full-page editorial on 9 June 1936:

FELLOW AQUARISTS! Here at least is the paper for which so many of you have been asking—a weekly paper published particularly for you. In presenting this first number, with a selection of articles which are intended to please all branches of our hobby, we want to convey to you our sincere wish that you shall feel WATER LIFE to be your own paper…
The greater space available in WATER LIFE will enable us to give you a far bigger selection of articles than we could hope to do in Aquaria News*…

*Note.—This paper began five years ago as a supplement to Bird Fancy, the bird keepers’ weekly paper, known as Bird Fancy and Aquaria News. With this issue the two papers are divided to devote themselves exclusively to their own hobbies.

I have never seen a copy of Bird Fancy and Aquaria News, which first appeared in 1931, presumably to compete with Cage Birds. It was taken over and incorporated into Cage Birds by the Poultry World publishing empire, probably at the same time as Water Life, after the Second World War (for some time the full title was Cage Birds & Bird Fancy). There are several books on bird keeping which were published by Bird Fancy and Aquaria News in the 1930s, including a well-known one by Ian Harman on the grassfinch family.

I cannot find reference to any library keeping copies of Bird Fancy and Aquaria News or of any book seller having a bound volume on their shelves, so I have no idea if articles on herpetology appeared in it before the splitting off of Water Life as a separate publication, or whether Margery Elwin was editor of the Aquaria News section before it became Water Life.

What becomes evident is that Margery Elwin, before becoming editor, taught at a preparatory school (For readers not in the U.K. a preparatory school prepares pupils for the common entrance examination to ‘public’ schools; both types of school are ‘private’ in that the parents pay fees and neither receives public funding via taxation. In the 1930s, as in the 2010s, only the wealthy could afford to send their children to such schools.). She wrote in an editorial of 15 December 1936:

…Having myself had considerable experience of aquariums in preparatory school, I am fully convinced that these are invaluable adjuncts to the Nature Study class…Several boys at the school in which I was teaching became so enthusiastic that they saved up their pocket money and installed small aquariums in their own homes…

On the Television

The issue of 1 December 1936 contained this snippet of news:

 The Editor made history on Friday last by making the first television of fishes, when some of the exhibits for Water Life and Bird Fancy Exhibition, including cold-water and tropical fishes and some of the larger Foreign Birds, were included in a programme arranged by Cecil Lewis and broadcast from Alexandra Palace.

The BBC Television Service had been launched as the first regular television service in the world three weeks earlier. Details of the programmes have recently become available online. This is what the record says for Friday 27 November 1936:

Cats, Birds, and Fishes. Some champion exhibits from the National Cat Club Show and the Combined Bird and Aquaria Show, described by W. Cox-Ife, F. Hopkins, and L.C. Mandeville. Arranged by Cecil Lewis.

Only a subset of the very small number of people owning television sets could have seen the programme because at that time the BBC broadcast on alternate weeks the incompatible Baird and Marconi-EMI systems of television.

L.C. Mandeville was, of course, Margery Elwin’s husband and she did not get a mention in the BBC record. Did he do the talking and she the fish wrangling, or was there just a mix-up with who did what? Cecil Lewis was a co-founder of the BBC, First World War fighter ace and author; he wrote the classic, Sagittarius Rising, and died, aged 98 in 1997.

A photograph of the Water Life Exhibition stand:

Water Life Stand

 

Gulliver Aquarium Shop

The 14 July 1936 issue contains a photograph of Gulliver Aquarium, a shop “opposite Whiteley’s”. That would make it in Queensway, Bayswater, London. I can find no other details because the free publicity does not seem to have induced Gullivers to place an advertisement in the magazine. Google Streetview now shows the whole block redeveloped.

Gulliver

Obituary of A.E. Hodge

Water Life of 29 September 1936 carried an obituary of A.E. Hodge, founder and editor of the Aquarist:

It is with deep regret that we have to announce the death on September 19. of Mr. A.E. Hodge, F.Z.S. In 1927 [it was actually 1924], when the keeping of fishes was a new and rare hobby, Mr Hodge took courage and founded The Aquarist and Pondkeeper. No aquaria paper had ever been published before in this country and the enterprise which started it, and the unceasing hard work which was necessary for it to prosper, claim our greatest admiration…

Maxwell Knight and the Neon Tetra

An article by Maxwell Knight appears in the issue of 24 November 1936, A Fish to Dream About. Maxwell Knight was at this time a member of the Security Service or MI5 responsible for the successful of infiltration of fascist and communist organisations, the author of thrillers, an all-round naturalist and animal keeper. He was later to become a well-known broadcaster. I have described his book on keeping reptiles and amphibians previously.

He wrote:

Less than a month ago the first consignment of Neon Tetra was imported into England; there was only a score of specimens, and I count myself lucky in being one of the very first British aquarists to own this gem among fishes. I bought three pairs—or rather I should say six fishes—for they are very difficult to sex. Since the first arrival two further consignments have arrived and it is to be hoped that this fish will now become firmly established in the tanks of our really keen collectors.

Not being attracted to conspiracy theories when cock-up usually provides a more likely explanation, the thought did cross my mind though that given the editor’s political affiliations, as demonstrated earlier in this series, was the contact between the author of this article and the editor concerned solely with water life?

Leicester and an Attenborough Connection

I cannot help myself from including this family connection:

7 July 1936: Club Reports: Leicester Aquarists. Please Note! By kind permission of Mr F.L. Attenborough, M.A., Principal, the next meeting of the Leicester Aquarist Society will be held at University College on July 13 at 8 p.m. prompt.

F.L. Attenborough is Frederick Levi Attenborough, father of Richard and David, my third cousin three-times removed and great friend, colleague and cousin of my great-uncle (grand-uncle in genealogical usage).

In my next post I will cover the herpetological articles that appear in Volume 1.

——————

One of the great joys of buying old books is finding a name on the flyleaf or some piece of paper left between the leaves. This volume has the name A.D. Joyce on the fly and a hand-written sheet amongst the pages of an invitation to form a local club for aquarists. I recall seeing the published notice either in Water Life or in the Aquarist. This is his draft:

Aquarists/Association with others interested in aquaria is of unestimable value. Many a wrough [sic] spot is made smooth through friendly comparison of knowledge. An endeavour is being made to local a local Aquarist Society to promote this interesting hobby. Mr Joyce 13 Ranelagh Rd would be pleased to meet others interested.

There are several Ranelagh Roads in England so I do not know where he was writing from.

Charcoal in Waxbill Diets

A reader of my book, Breeding Waxbills, has asked for my advice on feeding charcoal to waxbills. He saw a note in Cage & Aviary Birds to the effect that in a talk to a society, a speaker had advised against allowing access to charcoal (popular with some bird keepers) since it adsorbed vitamins and prevented their absorption by the birds. What did I advise? Well, charcoal has been included in animal diets for two reasons. First, as sufferers from traveller’s diarrhoea will testify, activated charcoal is a potent aid because it adsorbs bacterial toxins in the gut. Second, depending on the plant from which the charcoal is obtained, it contains a concentrated source of minerals including trace elements. Old experiments in which fairly large quantities of activated charcoal were included in the diet did show that some vitamins were adsorbed and were therefore unavailable for absorption. There are numerous observations of birds seeking out charcoal after bush and forest fires which suggests that on certain soils, charcoal provides a valuable source of minerals.

There are different sorts of charcoal and it is difficult to see just what sort is being talked about. What might be called ‘normal’ charcoal from burnt wood or vegetation has a very limited capacity to adsorb anything including vitamins; it does, however, contain minerals in a concentrated form that were part of the plant. Activated charcoal is a different kettle of fish; it is specially prepared to have a huge internal surface area and that is the stuff used to bind toxins when given medicinally. It is used in filtration systems (aquarium filters and gas masks, for example) to bind metals, oxidation products and the like.  Activated charcoal is sold for inclusion in livestock feed (and has been found to bind some vitamins) but whether it is this form which is sold as a supplement for birds I do not know. The adverts I have looked at do not help. However, because it may be of value in some livestock production systems, I suspect this may be the form being sold. However, it is the ‘normal’ and not the activated charcoal that birds have been known to seek in the wild presumably because of its mineral content or use in the nest (see below). Unless I was trying to get a bird over a gut infection, I would not use activated charcoal as a supplement.

Derek Goodwin’s (Estrildid Finches of the World, 1982) paragraph on charcoal is interesting:

Charcoal is recommended by some authorities. It can be purchased from food dealers or, I suppose, one can easily make it at home by burning small bits of wood, as I did when I was breeding Avadavats which, like some of the grassfinches, put charcoal in their nests. However, I have never seen any of the species I have kept eat it so I do not bother to supply it.

I followed Goodwin, so unless the black pigeon minerals I supplied contained charcoal in some form and the birds selected it while pecking over the contents of the cage floor, my waxbills nor any other species I kept had none.

The use of charcoal in nests is interesting, though. Do some birds use charcoal (even the non-activated form will have some adsorbing capacity) to purify the inside of the closed nest?

How does one tell the difference between activated and ‘normal’ charcoal? Well, you could add a little food dye to water. If you have activated charcoal, the dye will be removed leaving a clear liquid. Try different concentrations of dye and compare with some charcoal used for drawing or from a bonfire (which will have a much lower ability to adsorb dye). I would be interested to know what you find. You can e-mail me from the welcome panel to the right of this blog.

Sadly, in a number of websites I see charcoal promoted as some sort of magic potion for human and bird health. As in all nutrition, it is difficult to see what is real evidence and what is wishful thinking.

P.M. Soderberg and his books on Foreign Birds

A series of book on bird keeping I came across only decades of their publication was that by P.M. Soderberg in 1956. There were four volumes, all published by Cassell in the same year, under the generic title of Foreign Birds for Cage and Aviary: 1. Care and Management; 2. Waxbills, Weavers, Wydahs; 3. Finches; 4. Buntings, Cardinals, Lovebirds, Mannikins.

Sod1

Neither I nor my friends who became interested in birds in the late 1950s had a copy nor did I ever see one in a bookshop, pet shop or library. I can only think they were in print for only a short period after publication. There are plenty of cheap copies available now through online booksellers like Abebooks and Alibris.

But who was P.M. Soderberg? He was certainly not a well-known author on birds, like Donald Risdon, for example. Cage Birds also published books at the time (Risdon’s Foreign Finches for Beginners was one of them) and I suspect Soderberg’s books got very little publicity. Google searches plus a little research in findmypast.co.uk soon came up with the answer.

Percy Measday Soderberg was born in Whitstable, Kent in 1901, the son of a schoolmaster and the grandson of a Swedish sea captain. He became the highly respected Headmaster of a preparatory school in Caterham where he was known, inevitably, to the boys as ‘Sod’. He died on 6 July 1969 in Brighton. For overseas readers, I should explain that a preparatory school prepared boys (hence ‘preparatory’ in the title) for the Common Entrance Examination of the Public Schools which are actually private and not funded by the public. So being head of a ‘prep’ school was a cut socially and educationally above being head of a publicly-funded primary school. A fuller account of his life can be found at:

http://www.geonius.com/family/rochester.html

He wrote other books as well as the ones on birds, on tropical fish, on butterflies and on cats (which he kept at the school). Several were published years after his death by Herbert R Axelrod’s TFH (Tropical Fish Hobbyist) empire. How this came about I do not know but anybody who has followed in the American press the story of Axelrod, his business practices, the accuracy of his publications, his conviction and gaol sentence, will be aware that the explanation will be far from straightforward.

The dustjacket says:

The author was brought up from childhood with a knowledge of and deep interest in the subject, his father, also, having been a foreign bird enthusiast. Since 1907 had his first pair of foreigners, he has rarely been without some of the delightful birds he describes. He has been, for some years, a frequent contributor from this country to America on birds and other animals and has broadcast on birds and other natural history subjects in BBC programmes. 

I have not been able to find anything on publications in the USA or on his BBC programmes. If anybody has further information, they can use the email link in the panel to the right.

The illustrator of Soderberg’s bird book was Sheila Dorrell. She illustrated other book in the 1950s but I have no other information on her. NOTE ADDED on 13 September 2015. See my post of this date for an update on Sheila Dorrell.

A plate by Sheila Dorrell

A plate by Sheila Dorrell

The illustrator (line drawings) of the first volume, Care and Management, was Paxton Chadwick, on whom there is a great deal of information: http://alasdairross.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/leiston-suffolks-little-moscow.html

Paxton Chadwick was born in Fallowfield, Manchester and educated at Manchester Art College. He settled in Leiston, Suffolk and had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain  (CPGB) by 1935. He was the first member of the party to be elected to Suffolk County Council. In the Second World War he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and rose to Captain in an anti-aircraft regiment. After the war he did the nature drawings for Penguin books until his death. He died in London in 1961 and the funeral address was given by John Gollan, general secretary of CPGB. His file in MI5 would, I am sure, make interesting reading. His simple plant drawings in Soderberg’s book are excellent, and I show one below.

Sod3

Drawing by Paxton Chadwick

Cuttlefish Bone: Who, When and Where?

Another post from my old site:

Everybody knows that cuttlefish bone is an ideal source of calcium for cage birds, as well as for reptiles like terrapins and day-geckos. Ideal because it is calcium carbonate and not calcium phosphate and thus helps achieve a better calcium:phosphorus ratio as well as providing calcium. But as I was writing the Breeding Waxbills book, I was struck by the fact that what I did not know is when the value of cuttle bone was discovered, how it was discovered and who discovered it.

There is no mention of cuttle bone in Dr Bechstein’s book, The Natural History of Cage Birds, the third edition of which was published in German in 1812 and in English in 1841. By 1883, Dr Karl Russ is including it in his book (the translation of the 1883 2nd German edition), The Breeding and Treatment of Foreign Aviary Birds. Similarly, cuttlebone appears both in the text of George H Holden’s Canaries and Cage Birds published by the author in New York in 1883 and in his price-list at the end (he must have been a dealer as well as an author). So my guess is that it must have come into use in the middle of the 19th Century.

Cuttle bone was used as a household scouring agent as well as for mould-making in light metalwork. I would guess that its availability for those purposes led to its use for cage birds but the basic questions remain unanswered.

Has anyone out there come across the answer. If so, I would be interested to know.