Oddly, no Japanese ningyo specimens that I have seen have shown any signs of containing primate material. Certainly the Blomhoff mermaid and a British Museum specimen (both contemporaries of Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid) are not monkeys attached to fish. I think that the advanced level of taxidermy required to construct a mermaid as described by Clift would be something of an oddity in Japan in the early 19th century, where taxidermy was not at all a part of Japanese culture.
Modelling in papier-mâché, however, was a well established craft (hariko) and it seems likely that the Feejee Mermaid was constructed in this style, albeit with the potential for the jaws of a primate (most likely a Japanese Macaque – a species unknown to Clift) to be included in the papier-mâché form.
The popularity of the Feejee Mermaid created a demand for similar specimens in European and American museums and sideshows. These would have been supplied by Japan from 1853, when sakoku was lifted and trade opened between Japan and the rest of the World. It seems to be at around this time that mermaids of slightly different form to the traditional ningyo start to appear. I call this the ‘crawling type’, of which the Horniman specimen is an excellent example.
These mermaids all have a similar pose – lying on their front with arms supporting the torso. They tend to be almost comically ugly, with eyes that are nothing more than circular impressions (probably left behind when glass eyes fell out), prominent ribs and sometimes a little wispy white hair on their heads. They are often so similar in their construction that it can be hard to tell individual specimens apart - they certainly look as though they were made in the same workshop, possibly by the same person. These mermaids are by far the most common form; they appear in private collections around the world and were probably made for a late 19th century tourist/export market.
So it seems as though the manufactured mermaids from Japan have evolved over time, from ningyo with innate religious or cultural significance, to objects representing more Western concepts of mermaids and ending up with grotesque caricatures made for collectors and visitors to Japan from the 1860s to the early 20th century. From there the story shifts location and American craftspeople, taxidermists and artists start to dominate the manufacture of mermaids for the rest of the 20th century.
Of course, the situation is more complex than that; since interesting objects inspire imitation and other mermaids exist that don’t quite fit this pattern, like the mermaid at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery that is being researched by Anita Hollinshead. More details of both Anita’s research and mine can be found in Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 27 (2014), pp. 98-116 (access an earlier drafts of the paper online).
I am keen to continue my research on this topic, so if you have a mermaid, know of one, or have personal stories about them, I’d love to hear from you!
by Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History