RetroWacktive: The Northwestern School of Taxidermy Catalog (1944)
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.
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 arc—or, 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.