A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds

It cost just 1s. 6d. (equivalent to 7.5 pence) when first published.  Earlier this month a copy sold for more than 10,000 times as much.  Not bad for a small book on breeding canaries.

A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds was published in 1742 and contains just 46 duodecimo pages (1) ‘adorned with one and twenty beautiful neat prints’, although anyone hoping for detailed illustrations of the birds will be disappointed.  It is a rare book (this is the only example I’ve seen offered for sale) but it is not the first book dedicated to the canary written in English (2).  Its importance lies in being the first to give a detailed description of the variety most esteemed by breeders in eighteenth century London: the Fine Spangled Sort.  I introduced it in an earlier article.  

Here are extracts from the description:

“And of these several colours, the Spangled Sort, with black and brown spots and streaks on their backs and wings intermixed with a cast of beautiful bright yellow as if drawn with a pencil.  With no white at all about them, and with black or brown feathers in their tails, and a spot on their heads, called by fanciers a cap .  Are now the most esteemed, according to the present reigning fancy amongst breeders.  Quite all white tailed birds being valued the least.  And which Fine Spangled Sort, interspersed with a bright yellow the French call Jonquilles, from the french word Jonquille, which is the name of a very beautiful flower, most finely streaked with those black and yellow colours.

And therefore, streak’d birds inclining to these colours, are called Jonques, or of the French Strain: from a breed, which a few years ago was brought hither from France, but since much improved in colour and beauty by English breeders . . . Therefore for mere uncommonness, that the black tails and cap’d birds are the most esteemed.  

This beautiful fine sort of spangled feather the French first struck into by pairing proper coloured cocks with hens in breeding and therefore such spangled birds are now generally called by the name of French Canary Birds.  Meaning thereby, that they are of the French strain, notwithstanding being bred in England.” (3)

The english is archaic, so allow me to pick out the key phrases:

  • ‘The Spangled Sort with black and brown spots and streaks on their backs and wings intermixed with a cast of beautiful bright yellow as if drawn by a pencil’ (4).
  • ‘A spot on their heads called by fanciers a cap’.
  • ‘Black tails’.
  • ‘No white at all about them’.
  • ‘This beautiful fine sort of spangled feather’

These are the hallmarks of the Lizard canary.

The author is unnamed, but describes himself as ‘a Person, who has Bred Canary Birds Several Years’.  He is generally accepted to be Francis Tanner who had signed himself ‘FT‘ as author of another canary book  A Short Discourse of the Canary Bird in 1714.  It borrows extensively from Hervieux’s Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie (1709) and is concerned mainly with the keeping and breeding of canaries for their song.  

Francis Tanner was not the only common factor between the two books.  A Short Discourse of the Canary Bird was ‘printed and sold (by the Author’s appointment) by Mr. Bradshaw’.   Bradshaw also appears on the title page of A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds :

Printed by ‘J. Hughs, in Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, 1742. And, sold up one pair of stairs, at the sign of the famous Anodyne Necklace for Children’s Teeth, Fits, Fevers, &c. Over Against Deverux-Court, Without Temple-Bar. And, at Mr. Bradshaws, at the Golden Key, Under the Back Piazza of the Royal Exchange’.

Such a convoluted address was common in eighteenth century London (5) but this was much more than a way-finder;  it was an advertisement.  Tanner and Bradshaw were connected by more than books on canaries; the driving force behind their business relationship was the ‘famous Anodyne Necklace’.

The Anodyne Necklace is believed to have been a string of henbane (6) given to teething children as a charm against illness.  Teething may seem a natural and harmless process, but in the 18th century it was believed by doctors and the general public to be a major cause of child mortality.  No responsible parent would willingly expose their children to such a risk, so there was a ready market for any remedy that claimed to give them protection.  It was a market ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous.

From the very beginning, the Anodyne Necklace was associated with shady business practice.  It’s originator claimed to be a Dr. Chamberlen, using the same name as a real Dr. Chamberlen who made his fame and fortune by inventing midwifery forceps, thus giving the necklace a spurious medical respectability.  Before long, the Anodyne Necklace was being promoted as a cure for other  conditions including problems during pregnancy and ‘any Ailment in any part belonging to their Head’.

‘Dr. Chamberlen’ wasn’t the only purveyor of the necklace and there was keen competition between them, but it was Francis Tanner who emerged victorious.  Most advertisements for the necklace were based on testimonials from satisfied customers; worthy but dull.  It was Tanner, the copywriter, working in collaboration with Bradshaw, the salesman, who came up with a new and successful way of promoting the nostrum (7). He wrote pamphlets and books on more interesting topics and used them to advertise the Anodyne Necklace. 

One example was his ‘Easy Method’ an early form of shorthand that enabled a person to ‘write as fast as speak’.  Another was his first book on canaries A Short Discourse of the Canary Bird.  In the British Library copy, the two are bound together with several pages of advertisements (8).  A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds used the same tactic, this time with ‘only’ 9 pages devoted to Anodyne products and publications’ (9).

Those Anodyne publications tended to exploit any subject that might arouse fear or curiosity.  The ‘Practical Scheme’ offered cures for venereal disease and other sex-related problems, while a series of ‘Useful’ pamphlets were based on more sensational stories such as the threat of a Great Plague (10); the migration of birds to the moon (11); Peter the Wild Boy found in a German forest (12); and the amazing tale of Mary Toft who gave birth to rabbits (13).  Who could resist stories like that?

The pamphlets were free; the Georgian equivalent of click-bait, a means of drawing potential customers to the advertisements.  Only A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds was subject to a charge, which says something about the value people placed on canaries.

An almost identical book An Easy Way of Breeding Canary Birds was published in 1747.  It contains no new information, but as so often happens, it is the omissions that are the most informative.  Bradshaw’s name is absent and there is no reference to ‘a Person, who has Bred Canary Birds Several Years’.  It seems likely that the publishing rights had been sold to W. Reeve whose name now appeared on the title page.

The rights to the Anodyne Necklace and other quack remedies eventually passed on to Basil Burchell towards the end of the eighteenth century.  His advertisements no longer used sensational sales techniques; the Anodyne Necklace was so familiar that it had acquired a degree of respectability.  The same can be said of Tanner himself.  With the passing of time he became known as ‘Dr. Tanner’ even though he never held a medical qualification.  His association with the Anodyne Necklace was enduring, as demonstrated by this obituary notice I found:  “Dead.  At his house in Great Queen-Street, in the 75th year of his age, Dr. Tanner, so well known for being the author of the anodyne necklace etc” (14). 

Not all death notices were so respectful: “1 March: Dr. Tanner, author of the Anodyne Necklace and other quack remedies” (15) .

For all his involvement in the Anodyne Necklace and other nostrums, Tanner’s legacy lies in his authorship of the two books on canaries.  Certainly someone backed up that opinion with hard cash at the Dominic Winter Auction of Printed Books, Maps and Documents held on 12 December 2018.  The auctioneer’s estimate of £300 to £500 was easily exceeded with brisk bidding and a hammer price of £660.  Add the auctioneer’s sales commission of 20% and the price comes to £792 plus shipping charges, a total exceeding £800.  A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds is not well known in the bird keeping world, so I suspect the winning bidder is either a private collector of early natural history books or, more likely, an institution wishing to add a rare title to its library.  I hope he, she or they, realise the significance of those paragraphs on the Fine Spangled Sort.  They might be surprised to learn that it has survived to this day.



I am indebted to Francis Doherty’s studies of the Anodyne Necklace published in his article The Anodyne Necklace: a quick remedy and its promotion (1990) and his book A Study of eighteenth century advertising methods: the Anodyne Necklace (1992).  Bibliographical references to these publications are given in footnotes 8 & 9. respectively  Sadly Mr. Doherty died in 1993 and will never know how much help I received from his research.

  1. A duodecimo page was so called because it was formed by cutting a printer’s sheet into 12, resulting in a page that was approximately 18 cms high x 13 cms wide.
  2. The first English books dedicated to canaries were published in 1714, although there were several books on singing birds that included a chapter on the canary much earlier, going back to Blagrave’s Epitome of the Art of Husbandry (1675).
  3. I have simplified the typesetting to make it more readable and have abridged the text to focus on the Fine Spangled Sort.
  4. ‘Pencil’ meant an artist’s brush during the eighteenth century.  What we know as a wooden pencil with a graphite ‘lead’ was not invented until the end of the century.  Nevertheless it implies a skillfully crafted composition.
  5. Standardised street naming and numbering in London did not become universal until the 1850s.
  6. Henbane is a plant related to deadly nightshade.  It has a long history of medicinal use thanks, amongst other properties, to its sedative and hallucinatory effects.  It can be toxic if given in excess.  Others, including Francis Doherty, have suggested that poppy root was used for the necklace. 
  7. A nostrum is a fake cure-all, a medicine prepared to a secret recipe and sold with false claims of its efficacy to a gullible public e.g. snake oil.
  8. Doherty, Francis. The Anodyne Necklace: a quick remedy and its promotion.  Medical History 1990, 34: (p.275).
  9. Doherty, Francis.  A Study of eighteenth century advertising methods: the Anodyne Necklace, Lampeter, 1992 (p.270).
  10. There was a real fear that the Plague, which caused devastation in and around Marseilles in 1720-22, might spread to England.
  11. The myth that birds migrated to the moon when they left northern Europe goes back to Bishop Godwin’s The Man in the Moon published in 1638.  In fact Willughby and Ray had correctly surmised in 1678 that summer visitors flew southwards to warmer climes, but Godwin’s fantasy was much better suited to Bradshaw and Tanner’s sensational sales techniques.
  12. Peter the Wild Boy was a feral youth found naked in a forest near Hanover by a group of hunters in 1725.  His wild appearance, inability to speak, and habit of walking on all fours led to popular speculation that he might have been raised by wolves or bears.  Hanover being the home state of George I, he was brought to England the following year to live at Kensington Palace, but was sent to Northchurch in Hertfordshire after all attempts to civilise him failed.  He never learned to speak more than a few words and is now believed to have been suffering from Pit-Hopkins syndrome.  He died in 1785.
  13. Mary Toft was a 25 year old married servant woman from Godalming who claimed to have given birth to several rabbits in 1726.  The story gained credibility because John Howard, a local obstetrician, reported he had delivered first a rabbit’s head and the legs of a cat, followed over the course of a month by 9 dead rabbits.  News soon reached Court and the king despatched his surgeon and his secretary to investigate.  They arrived to hear the news that Mary was in labour again and later produced more dead rabbits in their presence.  The news caused a national sensation and the King felt obliged to send another surgeon, a German named Cyriacus Ahlers, for a second opinion.  Ahlers witnessed yet more rabbit ‘births’ but was not convinced.  He took some of the rabbits back to London for investigation and found their intestines contained grains and hay, proving that they were not new-born.  It transpired that Mary had inserted the dead animals inside her vagina so that they could be ‘delivered’ by the doctors.  The hoax was simply a way of making a name for herself so that she, and probably Howard, could sell her story.  The gullibility of the medical profession attracted widespread mockery amongst journalists and cartoonists. No doubt Tanner and Bradshaw enjoyed laughing at them too. 
  14. The Country Journal, Or the Craftsman (Saturday 9 March 1751 edition)
  15. The Gentleman’s Magazine 1751, Vol XXI A List of Deaths for the Year 1751.


L’hôtel de ville de Marseille pendant la peste de 1720 by Michel Serres (1678-1733). Source: Utpictura.  http://utpictura18.univ-montp3.fr/GenerateurNotice.php?numnotice=A4686

Cunicularii or the wise men of Gogliman in consultation Hogarth (1726).  Source: University of Glasgow, Huntarian Collection.   http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/aug2009.html

4 thoughts on “A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds

    1. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. For me it was an opportunity to combine two of my favourite subjects: canaries and London life during the eighteenth century.


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