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Natural Histories: Pith Paper Butterfly Souvenirs

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From the Collections posts

Among the Museum library’s rare books is a silk-covered album containing over 100 beautiful hand-painted butterflies on a dozen plates produced sometime between 1830 and 1871.

Rotunda Pith Paper Butterflies panel
In China in the 1800s, beautiful watercolors of fanciful butterflies were painted into souvenir books. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

A fine example of Chinese trade art intended for Western consumption, the book is important for two reasons: for the pith paper—unique to this genre—on which its illustrations were painted and as a window on a particular period in Chinese history. Pith paper is made from the soft fibrous material, or pith, found on the inside branches of the small tree Tetrapanax papyriferus, sometimes called rice-paper plant. (This is a misnomer, based on early mistaken references to pith paper as “rice paper”; actual rice paper is made from parts of the rice plant.)

Tetrapanax paperiferus
Pith paper, on which these butterflies were painted in watercolor, is made from from the inner branches of Tetrapanax papyriferus. 
Kensei/via Wikimedia Commons

The pith is extracted by pushing a dowel thought harvested branches that have soaked in water for days. It is dried and cut into thin slices, producing pages of soft, almost translucent paper used to fashion paper flowers or painted with watercolor and gouache. Pith paper retains color well, especially concealed from sunlight within an album. Impervious to erasure or alteration, it is also unforgiving, attesting to the skill of the artisans who mass-produced these exquisite paintings.

Rotunda Pith Paper Single Butterfly
From a 19th-century souvenir book made in China, this butterfly, and many others like it, were painted to be beautiful, but they don't represent actual species. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Watercolor souvenir books were ideal exports when trade with the West opened up after China’s defeat in the Opium War in 1842. They were inexpensive and easy to pack, especially compared to heavy oil paintings. Curiously, the butterflies depicted have no scientific value to entomologists as they are inaccurate, deliberately fanciful representations.

This story is adapted from an article in the Fall 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

Read more about the pith paper butterfly souvenirs in the book Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library, edited by Museum Library Director Tom Baione.