Headed to the seashore before the summer ends? Maybe you’ll see some of the species pictured above, which Joachim Johann Nepomuk Spalowsky described, many for the first time, in 1795. Though the scientific value of his descriptions is indisputable, the plates are truly mesmerizing. Many were highlighted with a metallic material to mimic the iridescence of the shells in real life.

T. II and T. VIII from Prodromus in systema historicum testaceorum

Some lovely shells from J. Spalowsky’s Prodromus in systema historicum testaceorum (1801 edition)recently uploaded to the Internet Archive, this title has been available on our website since 1999.

It is among the rarest of published books on mollusks and other shelled organisms from this period. Of particular note are the beautiful hand-colored plates.

Although the text … is of little interest, the manner in which the hand-colored plates capture the iridescent quality of the shells has never been surpassed. This was achieved through the use of gold and silver leaf, in some cases heavily overpainted with watercolor, for the shiny inside surfaces of shells, such as the Haliotis, or abalone.

–Finlay and Garvey, A catalogue of an exhibition of the Philip Hofer Bequest in the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts.1988

Read more about this book in an essay accompanying the text by Alan Kabat (formerly) of our Division of Mollusks here in the National Museum of Natural History.