Cabinet of Curiosities

Having A Blast

The Garden Snail (Helix aspersa)

I have a large collection of vintage trade cards. These were produced in the main by cigarette companies as a marketing ploy, the intention behind which was to increase product sales. In sets of 25 & 50 individual cards, they showcased a wide range of disparate subjects from wildlife to cricket heroes and were a favourite with children enthused with collecting them. On the front of each was a high quality full-colour drawing, accompanied on its reverse side by a text, in Lilliputian print, which provided succinct facts pertaining to the subject in the illustration. In effect the cards were an important educational resource, helping to spread knowledge on a host of subjects including wildlife, archaeology, industry, sport, history and science to the wider general public. They became hugely popular. The pastime of collecting cards is called cartophily, deriving from a combination of the French ‘carte’ (card) and Greek ‘philos’ (loving). One who indulges in this engaging activity is known as a cartophilist.

The Bombardier Beetle

The company Chivers, who make jellies and jams, brought out a series called ‘Wild Wisdom’ in the 1960’s. One of the cards featured the weird and wonderful Bombardier beetle. This small fellow has a most unusual defensive technique to discourage predators approaching it from behind. If threatened, the beetle discharges a liquid from its rear opening which on contact with the air bursts into flame, the reaction accompanied by an explosive sound. This highly effective mechanism earned it the name bombardier. The beetle does not occur in Ireland.

The Common Limpet (Patella vulgata)

A series of cards brought out in 1922 by the cigarette company Wills was titled ‘Do You Know’ and featured a wonderful array of subjects, some of which related to natural history, including the limpet (Patella vulgata). This marine mollusc adheres to the surface of a rock with its powerful muscular foot. When the tide comes in it heads off to feed using the teeth on its radula to graze algae. Interestingly, the creature appears to be something of a home bird. As the tide begins to drop, each individual returns to the exact spot it left and settles into the grooves that the edges of the shell have cut over time into the rock surface, a molluscan personal parking place ! Some fine examples of these are visible on this fragment of limestone I picked up on a north Dublin beach in 1974.

Grooves cut by limpet shell
Selection of birds eggs

 A selection of different bird eggs is detailed on another card from the same series. Seabird eggs are collected annually on Grimsey Island as they become seasonally available. Straddling the Arctic Circle 25 miles off the northern coast of Iceland, it is home to large numbers of guillemots who lay their eggs on the bare rocky ledges of the coastal cliffs. Lowered by rope, the collectors work their way along these precarious footholds picking them up. This was a common practice at one time among some island communities here in Ireland. Childhood memories of collecting eggs on the Blasket Islands are included by Maurice O’Sullivan in his book ‘Twenty Years A-Growing’, first published in 1933. The tapered shape of the guillemot egg may help prevent it from rolling off the ledges.  It spins in a tight circle if hit and so ultimately remains safely in place. On a visit to Grimsey a few years ago while working onboard the expedition cruise ship, National Geographic Explorer, we were presented with a large bucket of newly collected guillemot eggs. Ear-marked to be hard-boiled in the ship’s galley, I liberated a few specimens for teaching purposes. They come in a range of attractive colours and have a distinctive flecked pattern.

Guillemot eggs from Grimsey Island, Iceland
Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus)

Included in a 1960’s Musgrave Tea Company set of cards, the pygmy shrew is Ireland’s smallest mammal and weighs a mere 5 grams. It only lives for a year, so needs to pack in quite a lot in a short time frame. Highly energetic, the animal is a ferocious hunter and dines on small insects and grubs. They have tiny, bead-like eyes, which may account for its Irish name, dallóg fhraoigh, meaning ‘blind animal of the heather’. I once came across a mummified shrew in a bottle and managed to extract it from its glass-walled death-trap. It has since resided in the cosy confines of a match box.




© Vincent Butler Heritage