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Assembling the Dinosaur

Assembling the Dinosaur

Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

Lukas Rieppel

ISBN 9780674737587

Publication date: 06/24/2019

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A lively account of how dinosaurs became a symbol of American power and prosperity and gripped the popular imagination during the Gilded Age, when their fossil remains were collected and displayed in museums financed by North America’s wealthiest business tycoons.

Although dinosaur fossils were first found in England, a series of dramatic discoveries during the late 1800s turned North America into a world center for vertebrate paleontology. At the same time, the United States emerged as the world’s largest industrial economy, and creatures like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Triceratops became emblems of American capitalism. Large, fierce, and spectacular, American dinosaurs dominated the popular imagination, making front-page headlines and appearing in feature films.

Assembling the Dinosaur follows dinosaur fossils from the field to the museum and into the commercial culture of North America’s Gilded Age. Business tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan made common cause with vertebrate paleontologists to capitalize on the widespread appeal of dinosaurs, using them to project American exceptionalism back into prehistory. Learning from the show-stopping techniques of P. T. Barnum, museums exhibited dinosaurs to attract, entertain, and educate the public. By assembling the skeletons of dinosaurs into eye-catching displays, wealthy industrialists sought to cement their own reputations as generous benefactors of science, showing that modern capitalism could produce public goods in addition to profits. Behind the scenes, museums adopted corporate management practices to control the movement of dinosaur bones, restricting their circulation to influence their meaning and value in popular culture.

Tracing the entwined relationship of dinosaurs, capitalism, and culture during the Gilded Age, Lukas Rieppel reveals the outsized role these giant reptiles played during one of the most consequential periods in American history.


  • A penetrating study of legitimacy and capitalism in the realm of fossils. It traces the parallel growth of paleontology and the public museums in which dinosaur fossils often end up being housed…Perhaps what Rieppel is studying, really, is the way museums distinguish themselves, intellectually and economically, from the Barnum-like hustle of their dime-museum predecessors…The museum seems now to be a more purified place. And yet it’s worth reading Rieppel on the work of legacy-laundering before you stop by to see the newest T. rex in its David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

    —Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Review of Books


  • Lukas Rieppel is the David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History at Brown University. He has held fellowships from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern University, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press