Destination: Smithsonian

Taking a short "Smithsonian Journey" through the museum's amazing collection

The Postal Museum

Did you know camels were used in the 1850s to deliver mail in the American Southwest?
We know that camels were used as beasts of burden in Australia, and even in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, as shown in this drawing, camels also were members of the U.S. Army's Camel Corps in the 1850s. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, started the program, using camels to deliver mail, along with supplies, in the American Southwest. The carrier service was short lived though; the camels were too cantankerous, and the rocky terrain injured their feet. Relieved of their duties, the surviving postal worker camels were soon sent to zoos. Reindeer were used to deliver mail in the North, with slightly better results.

National Museum of African Art

Ever seen how the Tuareg people of Eastern Africa saddled up their camels?
This particular camel saddle, made of wood, leather and metal, was used recently in the late 20th century, by the Tuareg of Niger. The word for saddle is térik, and these saddles are placed in front of the camel's hump on two to four saddlecloths, while the rider sits cross-legged with his feet on the camel's neck. This saddle, with its forked saddle horn and detailed leather decorations, is called a tamzak saddle. Most are made in Agadez, Niger, by blacksmiths. Wood is lashed together with rawhide and covered with colored leather and metal ornaments.

This modern light-colored camel bell is most likely from Somalia. It is made of wood and plant fiber and is a gift of Mrs. Duncan Emerick.

The darker bell, also made of wood and fiber, came from Ethiopia. Large wooden camel bells in the museum's collections are attributed to pastoralists in Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Not just an economic necessity to these peoples, the camel is also a symbol of a nomadic way of life. In Somalia especially, camels—kept as milk animals or as beasts of burden#151;are the subject of extensive poetry. Although the bells' lack of embellishment suggests a practical purpose, the bells also seem to hold a sentimental value. One anonymous poem uses the phrase "...Like a she-male with a large bell."

Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium from the 15th century tempered the often mythical and inaccurate statements about the Asian beasts and illustrated a bactrian rather accurately.
In the 15th century, an artist named Erhard Reuwich accompanied author Bernhard von Breydenbach on a journey from Germany to Jerusalem so that he could illustrate Breydenbach's book, Peregrinatio in Terram Sactam. Most of Reuwich's illustrations are panoramas of the cities they passed through, but there is also this almost whimsical hand-colored woodcut that features the exotic animals they encountered at their destination, such as crocodiles, giraffes, salamanders and a camel. A unicorn is included as well, and according to the plate's caption, "These animals are accurately drawn as we saw them in the holy land." Whether Reuwich actually saw a unicorn is questionable, as you can imagine. But it is likely that he did see the camel that is drawn most realistically here, equipped with saddle and bridle.

Pictured here is a woodcut of an Asian, or Bactrian, camel that was included in Conrad Gessner's Historia Animaliam, which he compiled in the mid-16th century. Gessner gathered information from a variety of sources: ancient and medieval books, folklore, and the often mythical and inaccurate reports of travelers, which Gessner tempered with his own direct observations whenever possible. In his book, Gessner also included a woodcut of the single-humped arabian, or dromedary, camel.

Le Dromadaire is a beautifully engraved illustration of a single-humped Arabian camel found in a book about the french royal (later national) natural-history collection, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, put together by George Louis Leclerc, the count of Buffon, in the latter half of the 1700s. Buffon served as the head of the collections, and his book included hundreds of such engravings.


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