Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders

During Leeuwenhoek's time, the Dutch mania for collecting extended into the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers like Leeuwenhoek. What they called cabinets of curiosities were very popular. We can assume that many of Leeuwenhoek's friends and neighbors had their own modest collections, fueled by the things brought back by the ships of the VOC, Dutch East India Company. Delft had one of the VOC's few regional offices. A VOC shipment was no doubt the source of the coconuts that Leeuwenhoek dissected.

The Dutch called the collected things rariteiten, rarities, strange things, curiosities. The image below right is Levinus Vincent's Wondertooneel der Nature (Wonder Theater of Nature), 1715.

Three years later, to describe his own microscopic collection on the title page of Send-Brieven, Leeuwenhoek used the word wonderlyk, wonderful, marvelous. His collection was harder to display than Vincent's. On the other hand, because it had to be drawn and printed, his collection, that is, the plates in Send-Brieven, could spread far beyond his home or the trays near his workbench.

Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders has all of the 140 figures, originally copperplate etchings on 32 plates that accompanied half the of 46 letters of the Send-Brieven. The plates are better than those that appear early in his career in Philosophical Transactions, no doubt because he could afford better draughtsmen and because he supervised the printing himself.

They are organized here by specimens. The menu on the right and below will display the plate with a link to the letter that references it.

Grains and Meal

  •     Shoot, grass blade, and root of barley
  •     Grain of barley
  •     Meal of wheat, rye, and barley
  •     Meal of oat and bean
  •     Meal of bean and green pea

Fruit Seeds

  •     Seed and vessels of pear
  •     Seeds of pear; vessels of trees
  •     Seeds of apple and bean


  •     Nut of coconut
  •     Nut and rind of coconut
  •     Vessels and sheath of coconut
  •     Wood of coconut tree

Pig Brains

  •     Vessels and fibers of pig brain and coconut
  •     Vessels and fibers of pig brain
  •     Vessels of pig brain and apple


  •     Tendon of mouse
  •     Tendon of mouse and honeybee
  •     Tendon of ox and flea (upper right; click to enlarge)
  •     Tendon of sheep and oyster

Sheep Reproduction

  •     Testicle and sperm of ram
  •     Uterus of sheep (lower right; click to enlarge)


  •     Muscle of cod
  •     Scale of carp

Animal Hair, Skin, and Flesh

  •     Hair of mouse, bear, human, deer
  •     Skin and fat on skin of human hand and nose
  •     Flesh and blood vessels of honeybee, fly, and ant
  •     Flesh of whale
  •     Flesh of cow, hen, and mouse


  •     Leg of gnat, fly, and bee; flesh of cow
  •     Nerve of cow
  •     Spinal cord of cow


  •     Salts in root of vine

The titles and figure texts are mine, not Leeuwenhoek's, For the titles, I used the modern term but preserved his terminology in the text. Two example:

  • He used trekker, literally puller, for what we now call a tendon, pees in modern Dutch.
  • He used zaad-ballen, literally seed-balls where we now use testicles, testikel in modern Dutch.

The image below is Ole Worm's Cabinet of Curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655.

theater of nature