Hidden Treasures: FDR’s Rare Bird Books

By Paul Sparrow, Director FDR Library

As a young boy Franklin Roosevelt would explore the thousand acres of forest along the Hudson River that was his backyard. He loved to collect birds and he learned taxidermy so he could preserve his specimens using a form of arsenic soap. His work was good enough for the American Museum of Natural History to accept some of his preserved birds. This was no passing fancy. FDR became a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union as a teenager and he kept detailed bird diaries of his sightings. His passion continued for the rest of his life, even participating in an annual bird counting event in the Hudson Valley while he was president. His mother gave him the book Audubon and His Journal’s while he was at Groton and they become the foundation for lifelong obsession with collecting books on birds.

The FDR Library and Museum holds many remarkable and valuable personal items collected by Franklin Roosevelt; historic prints and manuscripts, paintings, ship models and of course books. His world-class collection of first edition illustrated books on ornithology, including all of the John James Audubon (1785-1851) editions is truly extraordinary. You can search the book collection here.  Some of the rarest and most valuable of those books were published by the man who inspired Audubon, Francois Levaillant (1753-1824.)  

Levaillant spent several years traveling through the area around Cape Town in what is now South Africa. Upon his return to France he began publishing books about his experience in study of the regions indigenous people, the flora and fauna and the region’s magnificent birds. He was among the first naturalists to use color plates for illustrating birds and to use arsenic soap to preserve his specimens. He later sold his arsenic soap recipe to the Paris Natural History Museum. He mounted specimens in lifelike positions so illustrators could show them in natural poses. The primary artist behind these masterpieces of scientific illustration was Jacques Barraband (1767-1809) well known in his day for using a new technique of combining color printing with hand coloring. They are considered to be some of the finest ever produced.

From Histoire naturelle des Promerops, et des Guepiers, No.17,  le promerops multifil (multiwire sugarbird)

Levaillant’s first book, Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique published in 1789, describes his travels through the South-western region of Africa and is filled with detailed accounts of his adventures.

The book presents its author as an adventurous master of his exotic surroundings, with some liberties taken. Levaillant delivers sharp criticism of the Dutch colonial overlords and their vicious mistreatment of the indigenous people. In the book’s illustrations Levaillant is shown wearing bright colored jackets, carrying a rifle and surrounded by his obedient dogs.

Encampment in the Pays des Grands Namequois

He made scientific history by bringing back the first giraffe specimen for the Paris Natural History Museum, along with many other species. His first book created a sensation in France and King Louis XVI, who was fascinated by it, was given a giant map (9’ x 6’) tracing Levaillant’s travels and illustrated with images from the book. Levaillant describes several close friendships and his personal respect for the people he encountered on his travels. He praised his guide and companion “the Hottentot Klaas,” and named a bird after him. Klaas is pictured in the center of the King’s Map. However, in terms of ethnography, Levaillant’s writing often echoes the European attitude of racial superiority of his time.

Ian Glenn, one of the world’s leading authorities on Levaillant and the author of “First Safari : Searching for Francois Levaillant” described him this way:

“Besides Levaillant’s contribution to scientific ornithology, he also shaped a range of media genres: the hunting narrative; the safari… the illustrated and mapped first-person account of travel we associate with the National Geographic… and the investigative report on colonial brutality. Whether we turn to bird books, wildlife documentaries, casual birding, hunting… or accounts of the effects of racial prejudice, we are in some ways following in his footsteps.”

 In the back of the book is a very large fold out map which shows the areas he traveled through. (I did not unfold it completely fearing it might be damaged in the process.)

Franklin Roosevelt bought this book in London in 1905, during his honeymoon. There are several references in his letters home to his mother regarding his book buying passion including this one from June 22, 1905  – “I went on a book hunt and spent all I owned in the first shop I went into…”

Levaillant followed up on the success of his first book with the two-volume Second voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique published in 1795. The Library’s copy bears FDR’s signature, and a note “rare.”

Levaillant then began publishing a series of books that changed the field of ornithology and inspired a new generation of naturalists. Because the books were published in France and some overlapped with the French Revolution, they are very rare in America. FDR may have purchased some of these during his honeymoon while he was traveling through Europe. On July 8th, 1905 he wrote his mother from Paris – “Also I got an old library- about 3,000 books –and had them shipped to London.” The books now in FDR’s collection include first editions of all of Levaillant’s publications. (digitized versions can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library .)

 Levaillant’s Histoire naturelle des Perroquets (Parrots)is one of the rarest and most valuable of the editions, and FDR’s copies are very fragile and in need of conservation. Only the first volume was opened for photography and few pages turned to prevent any damage.  But the images are still beautiful and the colors vibrant.

Le’Ara Ruana,  No. 3, (Blue and Yellow Macaw)

FDR’s copy of the Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis et des Rollier   (Birds of Paradise and Rollers) is in excellent condition and once again the illustrations are magnificent.

Levaillant’s Histoire naturelle des Promerops, et des Guepiers(Sugarbirds and Bee Eaters) is in near perfect condition and details some of the remarkable birds Levaillant encountered during his travels.

Le Guepier Vulgaire No.1 ( The Vulgar Bee Eater, male)

But his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique (Birds of Africa) is truly historic and beautiful. It is his first study of the birds of Southern Africa. Published in subscription form from 1799 until 1808 in six volumes, it presents 300 color plates of extraordinary quality with descriptions of the birds and their behaviors.

Le Grand Duc (the Grand Duke)

He was the first to use musical notation to capture their songs and sometimes named the birds based on their behaviors.

Many collectors rebound these rare editions to better preserve them, and the Birds of Africa edition in FDR’s collection appears to have seven volumes instead of six. That’s because the 7th book is actually Histoire naturelle d’une d’oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l”amerique et des Indes. (New and Rare Birds from America and India)

Levaillant was prolific and published a total of 16 volumes, in both large format (folio) and regular size. Levaillant identified many new species and several have been named after him. However, he has also been criticized because some of his selections were mis-identified and he did not follow the scientific naming protocols of the period. When you consider the difficulties of bringing thousands of specimens from a remote part of Africa to France in the 1780’s some errors are to be expected. There is no question that Levaillant’s work and his publications stand as both important and influential to the field of ornithology.

FDR’s investment in Levaillant’s books illustrate several key characteristics of his personality.  His deep knowledge of the origins of ornithology, his love of fine scientific illustration, his collector’s instinct for items of historical significance, and his unique ability to connect his hobbies with real world political actions. Here we see the intersection of his book collecting, his love of birds and his commitment to scientific study. And they are consistent with his lifelong efforts to protect endangered bird species, from his high school days with the American Ornithologists’ Union to his presidential policies creating wildlife refuges along established migratory flyways stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. He had a remarkable ability to compartmentalize the many duties and responsibilities he faced as President. But in his own mind there was always a connection between his passions and his presidency. Stamp collecting gave him a comprehensive knowledge of world geography and international diplomacy. Birds taught him about ecology and the interconnectedness of human activity and natural habitat which helped him deal with the Dust Bowl and other environmental issues. His ship models, nautical prints and naval history books helped him to be a great military leader during World War II. 

Perhaps most importantly these books show the incredible generosity of Franklin Roosevelt, as they are just a tiny portion of the many personal collections he gave to the American people.