Peter Parley’s Tales of an Eclipse, 1836

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They have been the subject of legends, seen as dark omens for kings, and in the lyrics of popular songs. Unless you have been living on the dark side of the moon, you know about the total eclipse coming on Monday, August 21. While looking through Historic Columbia’s museum collection for a particular book, I recently discovered a volume that caught my eye because of its small 4-by-5 inch size.

The book’s cover read: Peter Parley’s Tales About the Sun, Moon, and Stars. With numerous engravings. Philadelphia, Desilver, Thomas & Co. 1836. Curious, I carefully opened it. I was immediately taken by the detailed and artistic engravings scattered through its pages. Going back to the introduction I learned that this was one in a series of children’s books. Since the average fourth grader knows more about astronomy than I do, I kept reading.

Among other astronomical facts and observations that Parley, the pen-name of author and publisher Samuel Griswold Goodrich, described was a total eclipse he had viewed some 20 years before. He observed it all through a piece of smoked glass. He was especially interested in the changes in nature and behavior of the animals around him:

“The air grew chill as if it were evening; the whole face of nature was dark as the evening twilight; the birds ceased their songs and retired to rest. I well remember to have seen an old hen, apparently much disturbed, retire to her accustomed shelter, where she gathered her brood of twelve chickens under her wing, as if for the night.”

The plain language and conversational tone of the book was different than a modern reader might expect from one published in the first half of the 19th century. While written for children, it does not talk down to them.

Some books in our collection are inscribed either on the blank front or back pages. Frederick Foster signed this book with his name multiple times in 1844. He did so in a hand that looks like a young person learning cursive and making the letters his own. Unfortunately, there are no other clues to help know more about Frederick, so for now his story is lost to time.

Goodrich (Parley) did a great job explaining the mechanics of how an eclipse occurs, but he also wrote fondly about their fleeting magic. On August 21, for those brief minutes I will do my best to forget about the how’s and why’s of the eclipse and focus simply on its natural wonder. If only I had some chickens to watch, too.

To learn more about Historic Columbia’s Total Eclipse Weekend programs and our upcoming Happy Hour Water Balloon Battle, visit HistoricColumbia.org.

By Fielding Freed, director of historic house museums, Historic Columbia

This article was originally published in The Columbia Star.

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