I was in the Rubenstein Library the other day, reviewing the condition of some of the bound Ethiopic manuscripts for a research request, when I noticed something interesting going on at the fore-edge of one book.
It turns out that small lengths of colored thread have been sewn through the fore-edge of specific leaves to mark beginning passages of text.
I often see other examples of textblock “wayfinding” through the use of notched pages (otherwise known as a “thumb index”), leather index tabs, or even library patrons affixing their own post-it notes in circulating books – but I was, until now, unfamiliar with the fore-edge tassel. For books with parchment leaves, this seems like a very durable and effective page marking method. They certainly add a little more festive cheer than the typical brown leather tab.
I recently shared some images of a 16th century printed book that is the lab for full treatment and I have since uncovered some additional information about the binding. As previously mentioned, the book was not in good working order when it was acquired, looking more like something left behind in the mines of Moria than a volume that you would be served in the reading room.
With so much water damage and loss to the covering materials, it was clear in my examination that the remains of multiple bindings exist on the wooden boards. The outer-most covering is a “quarter-style” strip of brown leather (both adhered and nailed to the boards) and block printed, blue paper sides. Underneath that first layer are wide leather corners and a brown or purple paste paper siding-up the boards.
The pastedowns have several layers of paper with both manuscript and print faintly visible underneath. The inner-most layers of covering material were adhered with a thick layer of hide glue, which has begun to fail either through age or the book’s exposure to moisture. This made it possible to mechanically lift all the layers of pastedown away from the wooden board in one piece, revealing the print waste.
I was surprised to see a New York newspaper from the late 1700s, especially since the text was printed in Frankfurt some 200 years prior. The date at the top left was slightly obscured by minor losses and the remnants of fanned-out sewing supports, adhered to the interior of the front board. Luckily the full run of The Daily Advertiser has been digitized and is freely available through America’s Historical Newspapers, so I was able to look for dates in 1786 ending in “4” that occurred on a Wednesday and locate the issue.
I was able to repeat the process for the lower board and that pastedown actually includes the lower half of the same printed sheet. I would not have been able to identify it so quickly without a digital image of the full newspaper.
The print waste in this binding is a fascinating find on a number of levels. I will note that this particular newspaper is not uncommon, with many libraries holding copies; however, the advertisements printed on this page tell a number of stories. Many of the ads are focused on shipping, with cargo ships for sale and others for hire. There are advertisements for Canadian furs, Irish linen, glassware, and iron goods from England. My favorite is the notice describing a large reward for the perpetrators of a robbery or a smaller one for just the return of the stolen goods. But the darkest parts of our history are represented here as well: ships traveling from Barbados or Antigua carrying sugar and rum, redemptioner servants and slaves described as “healthy” and offered for sale.
We don’t have much information about provenance of this book, but the presence of this newspaper used as binding material gives us clues about when and where at least one of its many repair and rebinding campaigns may have occurred. This important evidence will be stabilized and retained as part of the conservation treatment.
We’ve written before about book publishers’ novel and sometimes misguided attempts at including additional media in bindings (see Robots 1:1). Many new acquisitions to the circulating collection include supplementary images, audio, or video on CD, and they often come to Conservation Services for a pocket that can be physically attached to the book to keep all the parts together.
Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties (2018) is a wonderful graphic exploration of the cultural and technological “golden age” of the Weimar-era, immediately proceeding the rise of National Socialism. Illustrations by Robert Nippoldt, accompanied by texts from Boris Pofalla (translated by Ida Hattemer-Higgins), profile prominent individuals and places in the city.
To complete the experience, an audio CD of music from that period is included inside the rear board – and here is where the book design really shines.
The rear paste-down features a print of a “cathedral style” table-top radio. The CD is printed to match the design of the radio and mounts to round plastic knob, rather than being stored in a plastic case or paper pocket. The audio track list is printed on the adjoining flyleaf as if it were coming from the radio.
But the best part is when you remove the CD to reveal the vacuum tubes and other internal components of the radio! We like to complain about modern structures and design in book publishing, but in this case they really got it right.
Finding funny notes or inscriptions in books from the collection is such a delight. Rachel came across one this week in this book of poems that we just had to share.
Readers who are Brontë fans may recognize this as the first work by the sisters to ever go to print. They adopted masculine-sounding pseudonyms to avoid, as Charlotte later wrote, being “looked on with prejudice.” The starting letters of the first names correspond, with Charlotte writing as Currer Bell, Emily as Ellis, and Anne as Acton.
For a more adept criminal, it is probably obvious not to commit a crime in front of another person, as they can be called as a witness in court. Thanks to the scrapbooking efforts of Virginia Clay-Clopton in the late 1800s, today we learned that animals can be witnesses, too!
This scrapbook of Virginia’s (included in the C. C. Clay Papers, 1811-1925) came into the lab the other day for rehousing. It mostly includes correspondence from members of the Clay family in the post-Reconstruction period, but one little newspaper clipping caught our eye.
The clipping describes the murder of a traveling showman in India, which was apparently witnessed by one of his monkeys. I could not determine what eventually happened in this particular case, but the monkey was being detained as a witness.
Here at the library, our primary position is that you shouldn’t commit crimes. I will leave it to experts in animal law to debate the admissibility of an animal witness – but if you are going to do some crimes, at least make sure there aren’t any monkeys around.
Some of the more intriguing objects in the collection have characteristics that show evidence of a previous owner’s interaction with them. A good example of this recently came through the lab for an enclosure.
This copy of Walter Crane’s The Bases of Design (1898) is wrapped in a protective cloth cover, likely handmade by a previous owner. The cover is signed Naomi S. Gray at the tail of the spine, so we can only assume that she was the person who made it. These kinds of home-made book jackets are not all that uncommon, but the amount of detail in it’s design and construction is pretty extraordinary. The actual design of the publisher’s binding looks like this:
The design of the titling on the spine of the case is copied faithfully onto the jacket – but rather than continue with the floral motif of the publisher’s design, a small drawing of a crane is included to represent the author. A hem and single line of stitching at the head and tail of the jacket spine was added to prevent the cloth from unraveling where it is cut. The turn-ins on the interior of the boards show an equal level of care.
Lacing with ribbon or cord in this fashion is often seen in home-made book jackets of this style. In most cases, the materials used appear to be cheap scrap. Rarely do we see hemmed turn-ins and individual stitching around the lacing holes.
The attention to detail in so many aspects of the design and construction of this book jacket tells not only a great deal about the appreciation that Naomi had for this book, but showcases her excellent hand skills. In many ways, the evidence of ownership can stir a greater connection to the object than the text itself.
Johann Theodor’s father, Theodor de Bry, was also prominent publisher and engraver, and many of his works on exploration of the New World can be found in Duke’s collection. Theordor’s 1590 engraving, The Trvve Picture of One Picte from the second edition of Thomas Hariot’s book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, appears in the same pose.
A 12th century Latin manuscript was brought down to the lab yesterday and we all had to stop work for a few minutes to ogle the colorful stitching used to piece together some of the leaves.
Parchment can be oddly shaped or become damaged during production, so it was a common medieval practice to mend or patch the leaves with colorful thread. Sometimes you can tell that the stitching was done before the scribe started writing. For example, this column of text just continues around the thread.
The colors of the thread are so intense that I began to wonder if they were original. What pigments or dyes could make such a vibrant yellow/green color? A few years ago, Beth had taken Cheryl Porter’s workshop, Recreating the Medieval Palette, and just happened to have the color swatches they made on hand. You can read some excellent reviews of that workshop here and here.
The buckthorn and cochineal are actually pretty close matches to the colors of the thread in our manuscript. Being closed inside a book would also have protected them from light exposure and potentially fading. If you’d like to see more examples of colorful stitching in medieval books, check out this post from Erik Kwakkel or the post it inspired on Colossal.