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RetroWacktive: The Northwestern School of Taxidermy Catalog (1944)

March 16, 2011

The year was 1944. Our boys were over in Europe fighting Nazis and the clap. (Thanks, France!) Meat was rationed; desperate, nylon-deprived women were painting their gams; and everyone was tired of all that saving tinfoil shit. Americans wanted to have fun again, and Little Orphan Annie just wasn’t cutting it. J. W. Elwood, founder of the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska, had an idea. Kill animals! Then make them look alive again! And learn how by mail! Why, you ask?

Because it fills a real need and demand; because it is truly artistic and must be classed with painting, sculpturing, and other beautiful fine arts; because those who love hunting and fishing have learned that taxidermy is easily mastered, and that throwing away the splendid plumage of birds and skins and furs of animals is a shocking and lamentable waste.

Also:

We confidently believe that any average man or boy who takes our course, studies and practices the lessons … is ALMOST CERTAIN* to find ways of turning his knowledge into CASH.

*Actual certainty may vary. —Japey

Still skeptical? Consider the testimonials of a few satisfied customers:

Sixteen-year-old C. R. of Colorado boasts, “A number of my friends are also very much interested in taxidermy, after watching me work, and seeing the fine specimens I have mounted…. I expect to mount an elk head this fall.” Ha! That’s one way to a draft exemption! A kinky, un-American way. Not like flat feet, or not having feet.

Fifteen-year-old W. B. M. of Arkansas says, “Taxidermy is just the thing for all sportsmen and nature lovers”—but his eyes say, “It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again!”

“I have never enjoyed any study in my life so much as I have learning taxidermy,” enthused Arthur K. of New York, right before two dead bass yanked his bowtie, broke his glasses, and gave him a swirly.

In addition to naked attempts to cash in on previous taxidermy work done for the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the catalog offers a vague, misleading non-endorsement by King Quitty McAbdicate, aka the former Edward VIII, Prince of Wales. Wallis Simpson may be seen in the background. Ha, just kidding, it’s actually a wild boar “speared by his highness.” Just like he did to Wallis every night! Seriously, though, sex with a commoner? For a king, that’s both the definition and the opposite of “f*ck up.” Yes, I’m finished.

Fortunately, you don’t have to bang, or marry, an American divorcée to join in the fun, and a penis isn’t even a prerequisite! “Ladies Become Fine Taxidermists!” blares one headline. After all, it can’t be much different than stuffing a turkey, right? “Of course, most of our students are men and boys…. When, however, ladies are interested and take up taxidermy, they often become very, very skillful taxidermists.” Two verys! Yet it might be better for them not to go it alone: “Many [women] join their husbands, or sons, or brothers in the study of taxidermy.” And just forget about that grizzly bear, cupcake: “We do not think it best for the average lady to undertake to mount large animals, like elk, moose, etc., whole. They do very fine work with all kinds of birds, small animals, large game heads, fish, and rug work….” Rugs! You know, like sewing! Or vacuuming!

Undaunted, Mrs. Paul A. Klier of St. Paul, Minnesota, heeded the siren call of slain-rodent-based crafts, which, combined with her natural ear for music, resulted in this “novelty taxidermy gopher orchestra with which she won first prize at the Hobby Show conducted by radio station WTCN.” And thus The Ungrateful Dead (genus Geomys) were born killed, skinned, and stuffed.

Without a doubt, the catalog’s crowning touch is several examples of this “novelty” taxidermy, just the thing for those who prefer their dead animals with a story arcor, as the catalog puts it, “taxidermy plus mounting common specimens such as rabbits, frogs, squirrels, baby chicks, etc., in comical ‘human’ situations.” Despite a hilarious bit of cautionary understatement—Possibly it won’t appeal to you”—we learn that the possibilities for using all God’s creatures like action figures are virtually endless: “Imagine for yourself the hundreds of droll, amusing situations that you can think up and create. The specimens are mounted just like regular taxidermy. The fun and originality comes in thinking up and arranging the specimens in highly imaginative situations.” Here are just a few droll, amusing, highly imaginative situations:

“The Squirrel’s Office.” What’s wrong with this photo? Right! No ashtray for the squirrel’s cigar! Also, the bunny’s posture at the typewriter is an ergonomic disaster in the making. Looks like there’s gonna be a carpal tunnel at the end of that rabbit hole!

“Early Bird Catches the Worm.” Now it can be told: The so-called “early” bird, who actually got up a little after 11:30 a.m., is seen in this rare surveillance photo taking it on the lam after shooting and killing two associates in a worm deal gone bad.

“The Rabbit Barber Shop.” Shave and a hare cut, amirite? Actually, this adorable but unlicensed “barber” spread lice to more than 200 unwitting customers as a result of failing to dip his comb in that blue stuff. Not so funny now, is it? Also: no opposable thumbs = lots of razor nicks.

“The Card Players.” Left to right: Botox, poker face, taxidermy. Note that “Botox” is cheating.

“The Squirrel Marriage.” The funny part of this wholesome tableau is that the bride is wearing white. And the minister is the reason she shouldn’t be.

“The Billiard Players.” It’s like Watership Down meets The Hustler. Only the rabbits are secretly gay, and play pool mainly to seem butch.

For those who might feel a creeping ethical unease at the use of vertebrates as bookends, when, say, a couple of bricks might do, the catalog offers a comforting rationale, emphatically rando-capitalized like a manifesto by a conspiracy theorist. In response to the philosophical query “Why is it more IMPORTANT now than ever before to learn TAXIDERMY?,” we learn:

BECAUSE REAL GAME CONSERVATION PRACTICES ARE NECESSARY TO PRESERVE OUR WILD-GAME! Unrestricted hunting is the thing of the past. Each hunter MUST be satisfied with fewer trophies. TAXIDERMY makes up for this restricted shooting. It enables the sportsman to DOUBLE his enjoyment from hunting or fishing, by being able to preserve PERMANENTLY all of his finest trophies. There is no surer way for you to greatly INCREASE your hunting pleasure than to learn TAXIDERMY.

That sound you hear is PETA’s head exploding. Also, a frog-rabbit scuffle at the pool hall.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2011 5:41 pm

    Norman Bates would be so proud.

  2. March 27, 2011 6:25 am

    Novelty Taxidermy! My house seems so… so boring now. I don’t have a gopher orchestra in my living room. Nor do I have squirrel bookends in my library. Now I know what that nagging “something is missing in my life, but I don’t know what it is” feeling I’ve been having. Now to Google that Northwestern School of Taxidermy for a correspondence course….

    • March 27, 2011 12:45 pm

      Spring is in the air, and so is the scent of formaldehyde.

  3. October 13, 2012 7:54 am

    Thanks for sharing…this is too funny…what a hoot!
    …Made even more entertaining by the fact that the entrepreneur/gentleman pictured in “The Sportsman’s Den” is my great-grandfather James Elwood. He was a fascinating, if rather off-beat, businessman.
    An interesting side note is that, due to the success of his school-business, he was able to send his granddaughter to college at Stanford where she met her future husband…my father.
    So it’s safe to say that I owe my very existence to the Northwest School of Taxidermy!

    • October 13, 2012 6:25 pm

      Holy smokes. You know, when I wrote this, I imagined how fun it would be to track down the guys in the photos to see what became of them. So, I have to ask–does anyone in your family have any of great-granddad’s “specimens?” Thanks for reading (and commenting!).

  4. October 19, 2012 10:57 pm

    I have no specimens, but I do have a newer version of the catalog depicted above…a 1950 version…along with some other sales literature. My mother has a letter her grandfather received from a soldier serving in Europe during WW2. He somehow received some of Mr. Elwood’s sales literature delivered to him in the field while serving there. His reply was very funny…pointing out the absurdity of learning taxidermy by mail while fighting the Nazis. It was a very clever letter and quite funny!

    • Kevin Stehl permalink
      August 10, 2013 8:48 am

      Peter,

      I visited the school in the fall of 1978. I think it was a James Houston who gave me the tour. Was very interesting and Mr. Houston didn’t mind spending the time with us and showing us around. I purchased supplies for a couple of deer head mounts and left thinking it pretty cool to have been to the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. (which it was)

  5. Peter Houston permalink
    November 16, 2013 10:29 pm

    Well, it would be the wildest stroek of luck if there is anyone by the name of Houston connected with it…it was James Elwood who founded the school and I assume it woudl have stayed in his family but i don’t really know. I had heard it closed back in the 70’s but there are conflictign reports on that…I recently discovered there is actually a facebook page devoted to the school. How cool is that!!!

    • Peter Houston permalink
      November 16, 2013 10:37 pm

      Sorry for all the typos in the previous post… I need to proofread before hitting the “post” button!

      • John permalink
        December 6, 2013 12:47 pm

        I have a complete course from 1934. Every course book and every envelope with 1cent stamps and a 1 1/2 cent stamps. All are in mint condition, no bends or wrinkles. Course 1-9 All the encouraging letters that came with each course.
        They were given to me by a old man in the 70’s I ordered the course in 1986 and received the same book with just a few chemical changes. I did taxidermy work for about 5 years. The Omaha books are really dinosaurs when compared to current methods. The old man had small game animals he had mounted years before.

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