200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 91: “Mystery Solved ”

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antique bank note
A three-dollar note from the Bank of Norwalk featuring Audubon’s illustration of the heath hen, a now-extinct subspecies of the pinnated grouse, or prairie chicken.

Mystery Solved

If you’ve been following our 200 stories, you’ve heard of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. But did you know that Audubon’s first foray into commercial illustration took place in 1824, three years before the publication of The Birds of America? Audubon’s drawing of the heath hen was printed for use on a New Jersey bank note. At the time, paper money was issued by individual banks and not by the federal government. Engraving firms composed sheets of images—including vignettes of animals, portraits, and patriotic scenes—from which independent banks would draw to create their bank notes. The illustration of the heath hen became the first publication of an Audubon bird.

Though the illustration is referred to in two separate entries in Audubon's journals, the image itself had never been found until Academy Senior Fellow Robert M. Peck and his co-investigator Eric Newman, a numismatic (currency) historian, discovered three sample sheets of images issued by the engraving firm Fairman, Draper, Underwood & Co. of Philadelphia (1823–1830). Two of them featured Audubon’s scurrying bird. Peck and Newman subsequently found sample bank notes with the Audubon heath hen from banks in Norwalk, Ohio, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Peck made front-page news in The Philadelphia Inquirer and headlines around the world. The Associated Press, Reuters, and other wire services picked up the story, and NPR highlighted the news with a prime-time interview with Bob. Peck’s article about the discovery was published in the fall 2010 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. Follow-up stories appeared in Antiques, American History, Audubon, Coin World, and Journal of the Print World.

See more of Audubon’s work every weekday at 3:15 pm in the Academy’s library during the daily page turning of The Birds of America, or learn more about the discovery of Audubon's missing bird.

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