It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
When eighteen-year-old Victoria was crowned queen of England in 1837, the British wondered and worried who their very young queen would marry. Whoever he was, he would have power and influence, so the queen’s choice was critical.
Victoria had many royal suitors and was getting advice from all directions about which alliance with which suitor would be most advantageous for England. But as the British quickly learned, their new queen had a mind of her own, and she had already picked Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg, an area of what is now Bavaria, Germany.
The British were shocked! Royalty often intermarried, so it wasn’t because Victoria and Albert were first cousins—her mother and his father were sister and brother—but because there was a great deal of anti-German sentiment in England at the time. Victoria didn’t care. He was her “dear Albert” and they were married in 1840 when they were both twenty-one. They loved each other and were determined that theirs would be a happy marriage.
The odds were against this. Neither Albert nor Victoria had grown up in happy families—in fact, both had been exposed to mostly miserable marriages—and Victoria was spoiled, stubborn, and had a quick temper. Fortunately, Albert was a kind man who understood her well and knew how to be patient with her. That patience was put to the test many times as they raised their nine children. Victoria disliked being pregnant and wasn’t fond of babies and toddlers. But Albert provided balance. He doted on their four sons and five daughters and was closely involved in their care and education.
The British public adored the royal family, and they came to love the scholarly Albert. He became a British citizen, was a wise political advisor to Victoria, and was active in public life. When he died from stomach problems in 1861 at age forty-two, the British grieved for him.
Victoria went into deep mourning. Often called “the widow of Windsor,” she wore only black and lived a secluded life at Windsor Castle until her own death at age eighty-one. Today, her name and Albert’s grace London’s great Victoria and Albert Museum, known affectionately as the V&A. London is also home to several major public monuments that were commissioned by Victoria to honor her “dear Albert” and which serve as a reminder that theirs was truly a royal love story.
Marriage of Victoria and Albert Painting by George Hayter It has been said that Queen Victoria started a bridal custom of wearing a white wedding gown. Prior to that time royal brides wore elaborate dresses made especially for the occasion from gold or silver fabric sometimes embroidered with silken threads and embellished with semi-precious stones to show their wealthy status. Ordinary brides of the working class wore their “best dress” usually made in a dark and durable material.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria with five of their children. The Prince Consort (26 August 1819 – 14 December 1861), lived long enough to see only one of his children married and two of his grandchildren born , while Queen Victoria (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) lived long enough to see not only all her grandchildren, but many of her 87 great-grandchildren as well.
Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens were acquaintances and she was a huge fan of his books. You can read more about the Victorian age in Andrea Warren's book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. For more information, visit her website.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Victoria and Albert: The Royals Who Married for Love."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Jan. 2018,
Every year, many thousands of visitors to Washington DC make their way to the crossing of 8th and F Streets, to an enormous building with many columns. Once it was the US Patent Office Building. Now it’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And there, up on the third floor, those visitors might well admire a BIG statue of Egypt’s Cleopatra VII, at the moment when she was dying in the summer of 30 B.C. She was carved in Italy, out of snow-white marble.
When people first saw it in Philadelphia, in 1876, at America’s big 100th birthday party, they were so surprised to discover that the sculptor was a woman! Still more unusual, she was an African American. Her name was Mary Edmonia Lewis.
Her ancestors came from Africa, Haiti, and the Native American Ojibwa (or Chippewa) tribe. She grew up in western New York. With money her big brother made mining for gold out west, talented Edmonia went to Ohio’s Oberlin College, but not for long. Two white girls there lied, saying she tried to poison them, then a bunch of people beat her up. So her brother helped her settle in Boston, where she learned to sculpt. By age 20, Ms. Lewis had her own sculpture studio. She was so successful that she was able to leave racist, Civil War-torn America in 1865, to sculpt and study in Rome. When she heard the glorious news that the war was over and America’s slaves were emancipated, she celebrated by sculpting an African American man and woman, unchained.
In the years after she created her dying Cleopatra, both the artist and her masterpiece were lost to history. But now we know that Ms. Lewis ended her days in England, in 1907. Her Cleopatra wound up in Washington DC.
But there’s a little more to tell.
About the time Ms. Lewis left for Italy, President Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Ball was held, March 6, 1865, at the old Patent Office Building when it was new. Little did he know that, in about five weeks, he’d be mortally wounded over at Ford’s Theatre. Or that the building where he and his wife were dancing would be a treasure house of art, including a dying queen sculpted by a great African American artist.
The multi-talented hands of Cheryl Harness create another winning combination of history, biography, and illustration in George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America, the inspiring story of a man who rose from slavery to worldwide fame as America’s plant doctor. Cheryl Harness’ lively narrative follows Carver as he pioneers hundreds of new uses for plants and revolutionizes American agriculture. Her vivid illustrations are an invitation to step back in time and become an active participant in this compelling story.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Edmonia's Statues." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 May