The Seashell Connection

By Carolyn Belardo

Do you remember the Golden Guides, the series of pocket-sized books primarily for children? They began as nature field guides with such titles as Birds (1949) and Flowers (1950), before expanding to a wider range of topics including Photography (1956) and Heart (1974).

One of them, Seashells of the World (1962) has a little-known Academy connection that only recently came back to light.

Paul Callomon, manager of the Academy’s Malacology Collection of 10 million shells, tells the story:

“I was working in the collection a few years ago, and I found a shell that had a page number attached to it. I recognized the handwriting as that of R. Tucker Abbott,” Callomon said.

Academy shells and their  Golden Guides.
Academy shells and their Golden Guides.

Abbott worked at the Academy from 1954 to 1969 and was chair of the Department of Mollusks and the Pilsbry Chair of Malacology. He is considered one of the most prominent conchologists of the 20th century.

With his extensive knowledge of the history of malacology and especially of the Academy’s history of collection since 1812, Callomon figured the page number on the shell must refer to a book that Abbott was involved with. One of those was Seashells of the World. A Golden Guide.

After a little digging in the collection, Callomon identified a dozen shells that exactly matched the detailed illustrations in the book. How could he tell? There were telltale markings on the shells such as a long crack in the Australian trumpet pictured in the book.

Callomon says the self-taught Golden Guide illustrators George and Marita Sandström chose the Academy’s collection to draw from because Abbott was a giant in his field and the collection is so extensive. It is the second largest of its kind in the U.S. and the third largest in the world.

If he took the time, Callomon is sure he would find each of the shells pictured in the 160-page book. For now he has carefully removed 12 shells and placed them in two glass cases next to the open pages of Seashells of the World books, including one in Dutch.

“You could say these are some of the most famous shells in the world because more than two-and-a-half million copies of the book were sold,” Callomon said.

The cases are located in the Malacology Collection on the fifth floor of the museum. The collection is open to researchers with appointments, but the public can only gain free access twice a year: on Members’ Night in September and at the annual Philadelphia Shell Show and Festival, where you can sign up for a guided behind-the-scenes tour.

This year the Shell Show will be held Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 17 and 18. To purchase tickets in advance at a discount, visit ansp.org.

The Academy also offers Behind-the-Scenes Tours for groups, and the Malacology Collection tour is one of the most popular. For more information, visit ansp.org.

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