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19th Century Celestial Charts That Illuminated the Heavens in Your Home

article-image© National Museums Scotland

A stunning set of 32 celestial charts manufactured in the 1820s was attributed only to a mysterious “lady,” and if you held them up to the light you could see the stars.

Known as Urania’s Mirror, or A View of the Heavens — named for the Greek muse of astronomy Urania — the constellation illustrations show different personifications of the night sky, from Canis Major depicted as a collared greyhound, to Taurus charging in as if racing through Pamplona. Perhaps the most enjoyable, however, are those constellations that have fallen out of favor, such as Officina Typographica, which was indeed depicted as a little easel work stand, and the Musca Borealis, or “Northern Fly,” the insect shape of which was absorbed by Aries.

article-image© National Museums Scotland

article-image
© National Museums Scotland

On each of these 8 by 5.5 inch cards are star perforations so that if you held one up to the light, the constellation would shine out as if in the night sky. The first edition avowed to show all the constellations visible to the British Empire, but the next edition downgraded that claim to Great Britain. 

National Museums Scotland, which holds examples of the charts in their collections, shared the charming charts in this post. While the charts were widely sold, each card was hand-colored and is unique. Aimed at the astronomy amateur, this edition of “Urania’s Mirror” was published in 1823 in London by Samuel Leigh and engraved by Sidney Hall to accompany A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy by Jehoshaphat Aspin. However, the artist was not named. 

article-image© National Museums Scotland

article-image
© National Museums Scotland

As Kristi Finefield at the Library of Congress wrote in a post on the cards, the title page of the 1833 edition stated: “A View of the Heavens: Consisting of Thirty-two cards, On which are represented all the constellations visible in Great Britain; On a plan perfectly original. Designed by a Lady.”

Who was this mysterious lady? It wasn’t until 150 years later that the true eye behind A View to the Heavens was revealed. In 1994, P.D. Hingley — librarian for the Royal Astronomical Association — published an article in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, based on a curious document he had discovered. It was a proposal paper that cited one Reverend Richard Rouse Bloxam seemingly definitively as the author. As to why the minister adopted the anonymity of a young lady, Hingley wrote that it might have been for “commercial reasons” as “many books and magazines of the time were titled to suggest female involvement, perhaps to make them seem less forbidding, to either sex.” However, he notes that it also might have been “good old-fashioned modesty,” but “doubtless this further question will never be answered.”

article-image© National Museums Scotland

A new edition was published in 2004 by Sterling Publishing, and you can view more of the charts on the National Museums Scotland website. Through the images you can still catch some of the wonder that 19th century aspiring astronomers must have felt in seeing the illumination of the heavens in their own homes. 


OBJECTS OF INTRIGUE is a feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here >