Sea Creatures for Sale

Two nineteenth-century glassworkers captured the elusive beauty of ocean life

HUMANITIES, Spring 2024, Volume 45, Number 2

Natural scientists in the nineteenth century faced a dilemma: How could they preserve and share the fascinating properties of marine invertebrates, such as jellyfish, octopuses, sea anemones, and sponges, with students and the public? Drawings were helpful but lacked dimensionality. Traditional taxidermy was impossible, since spineless, slippery, and translucent creatures could not be stuffed or pinned, and storing specimens in jars of alcohol caused them to lose their shape and color over time, leaving highly distorted records of life under the sea. 

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a pair of father-and-son glassworkers from Dresden, Germany, believed they had a solution. Using scientific illustrations for guidance, Leopold created highly detailed scale models of sea anemones in glass that captured their coloration, luminosity, and texture with astonishing verisimilitude. In the early 1860s, he exhibited the figurines at the Natural History Museum of Dresden. Soon after, Leopold began receiving commissions for marine invertebrate models from educators and curators around the world, and he and his son set to work fulfilling them. By the 1870s, the duo had assembled a mail-order catalog of 630 different specimens that customers could choose from and purchase. 

This glass sea slug is one of more than 40 Blaschka models included in “Spineless: A Glass Menagerie of Blaschka Marine Invertebrates” at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum, a recipient of multiple NEH grants. Though the figures eventually fell out of fashion as teaching tools, the show demonstrates that their artistry and history make them worthy of our continued attention. The works are not only technical masterpieces—able to capture the supple and sinuous qualities of invertebrates in the brittle substance of glass—they are also important artifacts in the history of biological research and marine biodiversity, presenting a time capsule of ocean life more than a century ago.