Beauty in the Box
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University houses one of the oldest entomological collections in North America—and its method of preservation is as unique as the butterflies it protects.

The Titian R. Peale Butterfly and Moth Collection housed at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is one of the oldest entomological collections in North America. Although only about 4,000 specimens, the Peale Collection forms a special part of the Academy’s collection of four million specimens of insects because of its age, research data, technique and beauty.


Peale was an early North American naturalist, and the youngest son of the large family of artists and naturalists headed by Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia. He was elected to membership to the Academy at the age of 18 in 1817.

His love of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) was reflected throughout his entire life. The earliest specimen dates from the 1820s when he was a young man in Philadelphia, where he first developed the “Peale Box.” This unique type of box allowed him to view the specimens from above and below for study and illustration, yet protected them from insect pests, light and moisture, which destroyed other collections of this time. Several boxes date from 1885—his last year of life.

Peale added book covers to the boxes—a feature that protected the collection from light and allowed him to record abundant natural history information, which continues to enchance the work of researchers today. The collection documents beautiful insects from a variety of environments no longer available and includes many species that have since gone extinct or become extremely rare.

Peale collected butterflies along the coast of Brazil, but it is not clear whether these specimens were from his collecting, or received from others. In one book, the cover has a label marked “Prepared by T. R. Peale Museum Philadelphia,” a reference to the Philadelphia Museum developed by his father in the late 1700s and run by family until 1840. Academy scientists believe this box may have been viewed by visitors to one of America’s first museums.

Anetia pantheratus clarescens, the False Fritillary, is a subspecies known only from Cuba and noted as rare on the island in the last 25 years. Although the specimen is not in a Peale Box, the label clearly indicates it is part of Peale’s Collection at the Academy. After retirement from the U.S. Patent Office, Peale spent the last years of his life working in the Academy attempting to finish a large work called “Butterflies of North America,” but could not find funding to complete it. His collection came to the Academy after his death.

Along with his obvious interest in butterflies and moths, Peale was also something of an avid photographer, and was in fact credited with inventing several early photography techniques. Curiously, Peale was not known to ever have photographed his specimens (except one surviving photograph of a moth), although his surviving photographs show many landscapes, people and buildings.