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Case Studies

1800s children's encyclopaedia

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822) was a German publisher and patron of the arts with an interest in the education of the public. One of the projects he began was the Bilderbuch für Kinder (Picture-book for Children). It had various contributors, started publication in Weimar in 1790 and between then and 1830 (after Bertuch's death) it appeared in monthly instalments, grouped into 12 volumes. The Bilderbuch was a multi-part children's encyclopaedia, no different in concept to many similar publications that are produced in regular instalments for today's children. Each month saw the appearance of several pages of illustrations, printed from copper engravings and then hand coloured. These were accompanied by explanatory text in German and French and the work also had a French title: Port-feuille des enfans. The French word port-feuille has the same origin as the English word portfolio and the French title is literally Children's portfolio. Later there were explanatory text pages in English and Italian as well. Apart from the short German and French main titles already given there were also long sub-titles that explained the work in more detail:

An interesting collection of animals, plants, flowers, fruits, minerals, costumes, antiquities and other objects that are instructive and amusing for children; chosen and engraved from the best sources; accompanied by short scientific explanations that a child would understand.

Not only were the contents diverse as to subject they also featured items from diverse parts of the world, including a good variety of Australian subjects. The National Library of Australia has various pages available here. <<LINK TO>> Included in the Bilderbuch were several plates showing fungi, mostly macrofungi but with at least one plate showing a few microfungi. Here, from volume 2, are three of the plates from the Bilderbuch's series of plates devoted to plants. You can click each to see a larger image:

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These plates (published about 1800) appeared with just a number against each illustration but in the pages copied here an earlier owner has added the German common names in fairly small writing. The leftmost (plate XXX) shows German mushrooms said to be poisonous and the other two (plates XXXI and XXXII) show fungi said to be edible. Here (PDF-2MB) are the German and French text pages for the leftmost plate. Those two pages are given over mostly to brief descriptions of the species featured on the plate but they began with this paragraph:

Mushrooms, which many like to eat, are a dangerous delicacy. Amongst all the species there are numerous poisonous ones and many of those closely resemble safe mushrooms. Look-alikes have often brought death to whole groups of dining companions who have eaten them. So it is essential that you get to know both the safe and dangerous species in order to guard yourself against the latter. For that reason I give my readers the accompanying plate which shows seven of the most common poisonous mushrooms in Germany. They are shown in their natural sizes. The mushrooms that are safe to eat will follow on another plate.

To give you an indication of actual sizes, the top left mushroom cap in plate XXX has a horizontal width of 63 millimetres on the printed page. The Bilderbuch's fungal illustrations varied in their quality, at least partly due to the quality of the originals, and the accompanying descriptions were fairly brief. Here are enlargements of two of the subjects - the well-known white and red Fly Agaric and a truffle, showing both external and internal views of the latter.

Here are translations of the accompanying text:

Fly Agaric

This mushroom, though well characterised by its structure, has nevertheless caused tragedies. It grows from the month of August until the end of autumn in dry meadows and in mountainous and sandy pastures. The cap is convex above, brownish red and sprinkled with small greyish and flesh-coloured flecks, so making it uneven and rough. The stem is a pale flesh colour and with an egg at the bottom. The taste is acrid and the smell foul. If soaked in water it kills flies and likewise bugs when it is crushed and rubbed onto a bedstead. The inhabitants of Kamchatka prepare an intoxicating and rage-inducing drink from this mushroom.


The truffle is the most sought after and at the same time the most remarkable of all the fungi. It grows in sunny oak forests, nestled in the ground, lacking stem, roots and seeds and never leaving the soil. It is either white or, when mature, blackish like a big walnut, bumpy and almost like a pine cone in appearance. When cut it is marbled like nutmeg. It never appears above ground level but does have a strong aroma and you must search for it with dogs specially trained for the job.

There is no doubt that the Bilderbuch did intend to illustrate and describe the Fly Agaric (known today as the species Amanita muscaria) since the German language page includes the name Agaricus muscarius, an old name for the species. However this entry does show that you could not always rely on the Bilderbuch's fungal information. Here are a couple of points. The text notes the stem with an egg at the bottom (the German version) or that the lower part of the stem is fitted out with an egg-like bump (French version) - which would be a reference to this species' typically bulbous base to the stem. However, the stem is shown as widening gradually towards the base, rather than being bulbous. The text also gives the impression the species grows in open, grassy areas - yet the Fly Agaric forms mycorrhizal associations with various tree species.

I don't know the sources of all the Bilderbuch's fungal illustrations. However some were copied from Johann Simon Kerner's Giftige und eßbare Schwämme, (Edible and poisonous fungi), which had been published in Stuttgart in 1786 and is said to be the first German fungal guidebook aimed at the general public. Another source was Casimir Christoph Schmidel's Icones Plantarum, a technical botanical work, written in Latin and published in several editions over several decades up to 1797.

You can find digital copies of several Bilderbuch volumes on this page LINK of the Heidelberg University website.