Rediscovering Audubon’s Birds of America Prospectus

The Birds of America Prospectus

After recently reading about a prospectus for Audubon’s Birds of America that was discovered bound into a copy of his Ornithological Biography, I looked into our holdings to see if we had a copy.

The Ornithological Biography is a 5-volume text that was meant to accompany the double elephant folio plates of the Birds of America. It contains complete descriptions of the characteristics, markings, diet, and habits of each species, along with Audubon’s notes and narrative descriptions of how and where he observed and obtained his specimens. The Ornithological Biography was published in 5 volumes in Edinburgh between 1831 and 1839, and a Philadelphia edition also appeared at this time. We have both editions of the work, along with a manuscript of Audubon’s description of the California Partridge. And bound into the back of the first volume of both editions is a 16-page prospectus for the Birds of America proper!

The Prospectus is dated 1831 and outlines the scope of the project, its progress to date, including excerpts from favorable reviews, and also includes the current list of subscribers. This was printed just before the University of South Carolina became a subscriber to the project later that year. Ultimately, about 180 complete sets of the Birds of America were produced, and most are now in institutional collections.

List of plates, in order, from the first volume

The Prospectus itself exists in two editions: Edinburgh and Philadelphia, in different settings of type, and fortunately we have copies of each bound into our respective copies of the Ornithological Biography. It seems to be quite rare; there is only one holding library for each edition of the Prospectus listed on WorldCat, though I would suspect that numerous other copies of the Ornithological Biography in institutional collections will also have copies of the Prospectus bound into them.

The Philadelphia (left) and Edinburgh editions of the Prospectus, as bound into the Ornithological Biography

For more information on Audubon and our copy of the Birds of America, see our “Audubon and Others” online exhibit here. There is also a short essay on the acquisition of our set here.



About Jeffrey Makala

The Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections is located in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. The department preserves and makes accessible rare materials and special research collections supporting teaching and research across a wide range of disciplines.
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