5 Gorgeous Old Pictures of Seashells

American Museum of Natural History
American Museum of Natural History / American Museum of Natural History

Fun fact: The American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Conchology started with a donation of 50,000 shells from John Clarkson Jay, grandson of founding father John Jay, in 1874. Today, the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology contains approximately 350,000 molluscan specimens, which came from both scientific expeditions and private donations. But the museum also has a pretty interesting shell resource: Its Rare Book room, which includes over 14,000 volumes. This is where the museum turned to create its new boxset, The Seashell Collector, which has adjustable/removable dividers to help store and display shells, 15 postcards, a journal, and a booklet with illustrations and information. Here’s just a taste of the beautiful images you’ll find in the set.

1. Nautilus

This image, created by engraver G.W. Knorr, appeared in the 1757 book Vergnügen der Augen und des Gemüths… (Pleasure of the Eyes and the Mind), published from 1757-72. The nautilus is an Indo-West Pacific species that feeds on fish and crustaceans, and, according to The Seashell Collector, “nearly perfectly approximates the logarithmic spiral, which was first described mathematically in 1638 by French philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes. The logarithmic spiral’s curve has the unique property of maintaining its shape as its size increases, a property that is elegantly manifested in the shape of the nautilus shell.”

2. Great Atlantic Sea Scallop (Pecten maximus)

Also called the St. James shell, you can find the great Atlantic scallop—the largest scallop in Europe—in the lower right hand corner of this illustration, which comes from French naturalist Jean Charles Chenu’s Illustrations conchyliologiques ou description et figures de toutes les coquilles. In nature, these filter feeders are found at depths up to 820 feet in the Mediterranean and in the eastern Atlantic from Portugal to Angola. According to The Seashell Collector, “The shell of St. James became the emblem of pilgrims visiting the apostle’s tomb at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and a mark of devotion in medieval church carvings and illuminated manuscripts.”

3. Clear Sundial Snail (Architectonica perspectiva)

This sea snail is found in sandy waters across the Indo-Pacific, according to The Seashell Collector, and its shell “has beautiful spirals in white, black and brown ... the body of the snail perfectly matches the patterns on the shell.” Scientists believe the snail eats sea anemones and sea pens. This illustration appeared in malacologist L.C. Keiner’s 12-volume series Species general et iconographie des coquilles vivantes…, published from 1834 to 1880.

4. Miscellaneous marine snail shells

This illustration appeared in Le conchyliologie, or Histoire naturelle des coquilles de mer… by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’ Argenville and published in 1780.

5. Queen Conch (Lobatus gigas)

These animals can grow to be a foot long and weigh up to 5 pounds—so it makes sense that part of their name would be gigas, which is Latin for giant. They can live up to 40 years and are found in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Atlantic from Bermuda to Brazil. This illustration appeared in Chenu’s Illustrations conchyliologiques ou description et figures de toutes les coquilles; you can see a live one in action here.

All images courtesy the American Museum of Natural History.