Friday, May 8, 2020

Mini-Catalogue: Kalamazoo list

Five fragmentary bifolia.
This is the week where, in a normal year, I would be set up at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, where medieval scholars annually meet in a free-for-all of conference papers, book-room purchases, and dancing. Well--not all the attenders participate in all three, and one suspects that many others would add drinking to the list of must-do activities. The plastic glasses of boxed wine are legendary.

This year, of course, the conference has been cancelled, and so I've put together a little catalogue of the items I've gathered during the past year that I would have otherwise been delighted to show off at Kalamazoo. It includes books on medieval texts and medieval topics from 1596 to 1773; binding fragments from early printed books and from even earlier manuscripts, and a handful of manuscript leaves cut and dispersed fifty or more years ago. 

Here's a link to the catalogue, for those who might want to look at it.

One of my favorite items is shown in the illustrations here: a group of incunabula leaves that were all used in a binding (or, possibly, a set of related bindings). Although they derive from at least four or five separate incunabula, their use together seems clear, and they may thus indicate the contents (or part of the contents) of a long-lost incunabula-period sammelband. 

Part of the colophon on one of the leaves above.
Note the date in the last line: Mccccxcviii

The detective work to identify the incunabula books that these leaves derive from was, as always, a lot of fun.  

Well, the results were fun, but like all detective work, those results came after a certain amount of tedious and repetitive labor. They all date from 1497 to about 1500, and they are all quite scarce, with only about 20 or so copies recorded in the online bibliographies of incunabula. To me, since they are before 1500, they are every bit as much "medieval" as manuscript fragments.

I got interested in binding fragments because of my interest in medieval manuscripts, but I've come to understand that these early printed binding fragments can be just as interesting, just as important, and they are--if anything--more fragile and at-risk than manuscript fragments. But as far as I know, the big projects of fragmentology that are ongoing pay little or no attention to such printed fragments. 

Medievalists, I hope, can learn to care as much about printed medieval books and fragments as they do about manuscript ones.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Looking for Toilet Paper? My Search for a Toilet Paper Almanac

Western Reserve Almanac for 1826,
from Painesville, OH. 
I was at a local grocery store today, where the shelves intended for rolls of toilet paper were empty. The urge to stockpile (I won't say hoard) toilet paper at a time of crisis seems to me like a strikingly 21st-century phenomenon: once upon a time, of course, there was no such thing as toilet paper, and still people managed. Many types of things, of course, were used for the purpose in the past, but this is a blog about books, and it's books I am writing about today. Specifically, the kinds of books that might once have been intended for the outhouse.

I am young enough—and I’ve lived in the right parts of the country—that I don’t think I’ve ever been required to use an honest-to-goodness outhouse. Some of the unimproved state parks I visited in my childhood had facilities that came close, but none were strictly outhouses in the old fashioned sense. 

The kind of outhouse I mean is a building—an outbuilding—that contains the most basic sort of hole-in-the-ground privy, and it’s a necessary adjunct to almost any house with no indoor plumbing, although the judicious use of chamber pots can also serve—as long as there is provision made for a place to empty them. For the most part, outhouses fell out of use in this country (the US, I mean) in the twentieth century, as wells with electric pumps allowed indoor plumbing in even the most rural homes, as long as (as I’ve heard it said) they “had the electric.” 

The comfort of American outhouses was surely improved in the late nineteenth century with the invention and widespread marketing of the humble toilet paper roll. There was no dedicated product for wiping one’s bottom before the 1850s, and for all the centuries of earlier time, other things must have been used. At least in this country, printed paper pages were often recycled in outhouses, and it became traditional for ephemeral printed almanacs, once their time of relevance had passed, to be used in outhouses (in the twentieth century, mail order catalogues were also often used). Perhaps this says more about me as a book collector than I should publicly reveal, but I recently set about trying to see if I could find such an old almanac—not one that had actually been used as toilet paper, but one that had narrowly escaped such a fate. 

Annual printed almanacs have been around for hundreds of years, and the direct ancestors of our modern almanacs can be found among the earliest printed books of the incunable period. Then and now, such books have been inherently ephemeral, and at the end of each year, they become largely useless and purposeless. As a result, some early almanacs are often quite rare today, precisely because there was no motive for keeping them.

How early it was that almanacs began to be used as toilet paper may not be easy to determine, however. The most popular traditional almanac these days (The Farmers’ Almanac, also often known as The Old Farmers’Almanac) has a pre-drilled hole in the upper left corner of the book, and their own website indicates that such holes have been drilled since 1919, precisely to allow the book to be hung from a nail, "in homes, barns, and outhouses." Many nineteenth-century almanacs I’ve encountered were bound with string, often leaving a loop in the upper corner, also presumably for hanging the book on a nail. But would it be possible for me to find an almanac that had actually been hung in an outhouse, or at least intended for such a purpose?

For years, I have been interested in the ways books and manuscripts have been recycled. The recycling of an almanac as toilet paper is surely among the lowest of such recyclings: we know that a book has become its most useless and least valued when it is put to use as toilet paper. I have been fortunate to have, in my own collection, some almanac or calendar scraps from the 1500s, recycled in later book-bindings, as also happened with some medieval manuscripts; the recycling of more recent books has a natural appeal to me, an extension of one of my own well-established collecting areas. That such recycling would have me that enjoys the low scatological humor of Chaucer’s Miller’s and Summoner’s Tales.

A portion of a broadside calendar or almanac, recycled in a book-binding,
printed by Ioannes Schott, and tentatively dated to 1503.
Note the notices of eclipses, at least and right hand sides here.

But the question has been, of course, how could one ever know about a use intended for a recycled almanac that was never put into practice? The most obvious sorts of evidence are ambiguous at best. If an almanac was to be hung in the outhouse by a loop of string in the binding, it was just as likely to have been hung on a nail or hook in a home or cabin. If pages could be ripped out to be used as individual sheets of outhouse paper, it is equally true that old almanacs might suffer similar losses for many other reasons. Experience will quickly show that many old almanacs are today incomplete, with missing pages and often with missing covers (if they had covers in the first place). Neither a hanging loop nor the loss of pages can really make the case fully.

1828 Western Farmer's Almanac, string bound with
the 1826 Western Reserve Almanac. Not that the 1826
book is incomplete at the end.
But I think that all hope is not lost. The most ephemeral of nineteenth-century American almanacs (and earlier ones as well), were small objects, roughly four inches by seven, and often only 24 or 48 pages in length. One guesses that when such a book was finally hung on an outhouse peg, its remaining useful life was not very long. Once in a while, however, you can find a group of almanacs from different years that have been sewn together, often with pages missing. One reason to sew almanacs together, it would seem, would be to preserve them for the future: since many almanacs had owners’ notes of one sort or another within them, there might be a motive for keeping them, and for keeping them together. But when pages are missing, it’s easy to imagine that either the preservation motive did not last long, or that there was another motive from the start. It is at least possible, of course, that several old almanacs would be sewn together so that there would be a larger supply of pages all on one loop or one nail. 

Close-up of the stab-sewn binding of the Western Farmer's Almanac,
with the hanging loop. The darker/black thread binds
the two books together.
It is probably impossible to be certain if any single almanac or sewn-together group had truly been intended, by a past owner, for the outhouse nail. But when we find almanacs from various years sewn together, with pages missing from some or all of them, I think we have the best candidates for such almanacs that we are likely to find. And a knowledge of the contents of most old almanacs might give us an additional clue. The usual form of an almanac includes a month-by-month calendar at the beginning, usually taking up twelve pages; the rest of the book often included reading or reference material. The reading material might be humorous, didactic, topical, or political, but the key point here is that the calendar section was, perhaps, the section most likely to go completely out of date. If the missing pages from a string-bound collection of almanacs are concentrated in the calendar sections, then we might guess that the less ephemeral sections were being preserved for bathroom reading, and the calendar pages being used up first.

1839 Temperance Almanac,
one of six almanacs from 1839 to
1845, roughly bound together. 
In the end, I have been able to find a couple examples of such collections. They are a powerful reminder of how literally it can sometimes be said that one person’s trash in another one’s treasure. They remind us of how lowly some books have been valued, with some being tossed, page by soiled page, into the cess-pit. And other books, equally little valued may have only narrowly avoided such an end.

All truly ephemeral books are strange survivals, if they survive at all. By definition, ephemeral materials go out of date, and—at least for a time—there is no clear reason to keep or preserve them. The typical fate of the ephemeral is thus always loss or destruction. Almanacs, however seem to have long been understood as having had an especially typical or common secondary use as outhouse supplies, destined for the pit. Other than fire itself, I can think of no more metaphorically hellish (or perhaps merely Chaucerian) fate for a book, although until the invention of dedicated toilet paper, that fate must have found literally millions of old almanacs. If being treasured in a library or collection is, by contrast, a kind of heavenly afterlife for an ephemeral book, I am fascinated by the tantalizing possibility that some of the old almanacs I’ve collected might have stood at the brink of both such fates in their time.

It is one thing, I think, to collect what everyone knows is valuable: when a collector or a library pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for a book, they do so (almost always) because the book in question has long been safe from the pit, and is now merely passing from one treasured collection to another. But to pull a book from the brink, that’s something else entirely, and it can only be done, I think, by collecting the most humble and (almost) useless of books.

From the 1839-1845 bound volume.

1844 Almanac from the same volume, lacking title page;
see torn stub at top center.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Book Curse that Curses the Book, ca. 1899

It's the holiday season around these parts, and for various reasons, I haven't been very busy writing blog posts. But today, I thought I'd share a book I've had for the better part of two decades: not a new acquisition by any means.

But the story I will tell here is not just about a book. It is also about something else that has intrigued me recently: the unbelievable power of internet searching for letting us find the pieces of an otherwise lost or unknown story. Internet searches, I've started to think, can sometimes offer incomparable moments of serendipity, if only we can manage to connect what begs to be connected.

But to return to the topic with which I began:

Reed & Kellogg's Higher Lessons
in English
Back when I was living in Colorado, I frequently found myself teaching a class which included sentence diagramming as part of its content. So when I ran across this 1892 copy of Higher Lessons in English, by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, I had to have it. It is a book that uses so-called "Reed-Kellogg" diagrams, familiar from my own elementary school days, with clauses laid out on horizontal lines, with subjects and predicates separated by a vertical bar, and with modifiers slanting down from the words they modify. And these were the very type of sentence diagrams I was teaching my college-level students. And I still think that maybe there's a place for this mode of grammatical analysis.

I stopped teaching such diagrams years ago, but I've held onto the book because it's one of the few books I've had that has an honest-to-goodness book curse in it. And it has not one, but two!

Book curses, if any of my readers have not encountered them, are inscriptions by owners that are intended to make sure that books are not stolen away by readers or borrowers. They are highly traditional, going back at least to the middle ages, and one of the curses in this book has all the markings of coming from a real tradition:

Ed Cassedy's Curses; the bottom four lines
probably composed and written before
the top five.

Don't steal this book for fear of shame
For here you see the owners name
He will chase and catch you too
And then will beat you black and blue
       Ed Cassedy

A quick internet search on the phrase "steal this book for fear of shame" will, indeed, turn up references to a number of similar book curses, though usually (or always) consisting of something like the first two lines alone. The final two lines are probably Ed Cassedy's own composition.

A later page in the book suggests that Ed Cassedy (he signs in full as "Edwin Gray Cassedy") used the book while he was in the eighth grade in 1899; apparently the book had been handed down from his sister, Carrie C Cassedy, from Canon County [Colorado], who signed the book on September 2, 1893, when it was probably new. 

[Sidebar: As I was composing this little blog post, I was unsure of the spelling of Ed's name, given the impreciseness of pencil script and his own inconsistency in dotting the letter "i"; my internet search for "Edwin Gray Cassidy" turned up exactly one link, to an oral history interview with  Pittsburgh-born artist Sue Fuller, and I happily send my readers down that particular rabbit hole, because it seems clear that Sue Fuller is, indeed, talking about the same guy, her uncle. But probably, you should also make your own search for "Edwin Gray Cassedy," which will allow you to trace at least part of the later life of the author of my book curse. Like Sue Fuller, Ed Cassedy also turned out to be an artist.]

Anyhow, the eighth-grade Ed Cassedy seems to have reconsidered the reasonableness of cursing the borrower or thief who might take the book from him, writing the following couplet above the four line poem already quoted:

Dont steal this
book and \then/ bring it
back but stick it
in the stove and
burn it black.

In this little addendum, Ed Cassedy prays that any thief or borrower destroy the book, rather than return it. The curse is no longer aimed at the book thief, but at the book. I suppose that many schoolchildren, over the years, have similarly hoped to be spared the tyranny of their books, but I don't recall seeing a purselike this one before, and I find it both clever and charming, in a kind of rough-and-tumble Wild West way. 

This book is a humble, humble book. But somehow, in the completely unpretentious additions that Ed Cassedy made to what started out as a traditional book curse, something remarkable happened. Not every little verse--or curse--that makes it into a book transforms it so marvelously  I think, nor does every internet search I perform turn up things as interesting as the searches I've pointed my readers to here. 

But some of them do.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A brief post on guide letters

I was tempted to title this post "a brief guide to guide letters," but I'm afraid it's far too brief for that.
Printed vellum leaf: creases and slots on the
right hand side show that this was later
used as part of a binding.
In fact, it will cover only two examples of guide letters on a single leaf, and so it's not even much of a blog post, either.  

The leaf in question is a bit unusual, though, because it has been printed on vellum. Last week, I confessed to the soft place I have in my heart for medieval manuscripts written on paper, but only books that were intended to be deluxe copies, as a rule, were printed on vellum, because it was significantly more expensive than paper. 

This leaf, from a missal, may be from an incunable, but it's certainly from the early part of the sixteenth century at the latest. The date 1557 on one side may indicate the date of its recycling as the wrapper of another book. 

Most of the capital letters on this page were printed in red, along with the heading at the top of the page and subheadings of various sorts in the columns. But at the bottom of the right-hand column, a manuscript rubricator has added a large three-line initial in blue paint (which is now faded) with contrasting red-ink pen decoration.

The "guide letter" that the post is about is the letter (printed in black) that the printer placed in the space for the larger initial, so that the rubricator would know what letter to paint in. In many of the manuscript (and printed) examples I've seen, the large hand-painted letter often enough was designed to cover over the tiny guide letter, so it wouldn't be seen.

Manuscript "O" surrounding the printed "o"

On this example, as the close-up above shows, the printed guide letter has intentionally been left visible, and the decorative red pen-scrolls even seem to swirl around it and call attention to it. The printed letter ends up being part of the design. 

Perhaps it's just me, but I can't help but note that the visible page thus has two examples of the letter "o" here, only one of which can be used to read the text.

And apparently, this is no mistake from this rubricator, either. The three-line initial "d" on the opposite side of the leaf has the same effect, though damage from the leaf's later use as a book-wrapper makes it a bit trickier to see.

Nevertheless, it seems to be a wonderfully odd feature of this page to me, especially as it leaves two letters visible where readers use only one. But that's part of what I find fascinating about old books and leaves: the places where they do something unexpected, or at least something I do not expect. 

It's always interesting to see the moments when manuscript and print work together on the same page, and I usually think that the manual labor involved in adding decorated letters must have meant they had a higher value than the printed guide letters they were meant to replace. 

But here, the guide letters were not only not replaced, but they were allowed to keep their position of visual prominence at the center of the larger, manuscript letters' decorative adornments. Fascinating!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Marketing a manuscript fragment

As I suspect a number of my readers know, there are some large (or largish) collaborative projects out there that use the power of the internet to attempt the work of bringing together digital images of manuscript leaves and fragments that have been separated from one another. One can keep up to date on some of these projects (and projects within them) by following Lisa Fagin Davis's blog; one of her recent posts describes attempts to gather images and interpret the contents of various Otto Ege manuscripts

Elsewhere, one might consider the Broken Books website, for a slightly different approach. And there are probably others. 

15th c. German Gradual Leaf,
mounted behind paper mat.
My own little blog post today considers a leaf I recently purchased. Unlike many of the leaves and fragments I buy, this one is on paper, rather than on vellum, and I have to confess that I have a soft spot in my heart for medieval paper. Paper, as a cheaper alternative to vellum, was not often used for classy manuscripts, and this little leaf, I think, is no exception. This is an unpretentious leaf.

I generally make it a rule not to buy leaves from books that have been broken up recently: when I buy fragments from bindings, the books they derive from were probably broken up in the eighteenth century or earlier. 

But I am left with the question of how recent is recent, when the issue involves the breaking up of a medieval manuscript in the twentieth century.

I suppose each collector and dealer must answer that question for themselves, but as far as I am concerned, I generally think that as long as a leaf has passed through the hands of one owner who is not a dealer, the focus of my concern must be for the future of the leaf, rather than the past. The is, if a collector or owner has held onto a leaf and treasured it as an artifact from the past, then my role as a dealer is also to treasure it, and not to despise it as the product of a book-breaker. That collector may well have originally purchased the leaf from a book-breaker, but now that the damage has been done, my concern is to preserve the leaf I see before me for the future.

In short, I usually am not willing to give money to the modern day breakers of books, but even that position downplays the responsibility I feel towards trying to give all medieval books and leaves good homes. But I can and should be willing to buy from a dealer who finds such a leaf in a collector's estate, for example.

The leaf pictured here is a fine example. 
Original label accompanying this paper leaf,
affixed to the rear of the folding mat.

When I bought this leaf, there was an image included of the label from "Folio Fine Art," as I show in my own second image here. The estimate of the date given seems to be a reasonable one, but I was especially struck by the price: 1 pound, 12 shillings, and sixpence. 

Whatever else I could conclude about the leaf, I was certain that it had been a matter of some decades since this leaf had been offered at that price: not least because the price so obviously precedes the decimalization of the British pound in 1971.

Although I don't often check the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, I thought that there was at least a chance that this book would show up there. And indeed, when I typed "Cistercian Gradual" into the search box, six entries came up, two of which relate to this manuscript: fifteen leaves offered as part of a lot in a Sotheby's sale of 2005 (SBDM 59725) and a 1967 catalogue from Folio Fine Art, Ltd (SDBM 59797). Even without images, the size of the leaf, the material (paper) and the number of lines (7) all make it virtually certain that my leaf is part of this same medieval book. 

A bit of tedious Googling can turn up the online record of the Sotheby's sale, which also lists moments when other individual leaves from this book passed through the Sotheby's auction house, as well as the hands of at least one other dealer. The Schoenberg Database, perhaps as a matter of limiting its own scope, generally does not trace single leaves.

To me, the Folio Fine Art label, and the record of the price that they put on the leaf, are fascinating and important bits of its history. Where the leaf was between 1967 and 2019 may never be known for certain, but I cannot look at a leaf like this and refuse to buy it or treasure it because the book it came from was devalued and broken by another dealer over fifty years ago. History is full of such moments--when books, to take only one kind of example--were treated in ways I wouldn't treat them myself. 

But this leaf is a survivor, now, and I am pleased to be able to give it a home, at least for a time.

The verso of the leaf, showing tape
attachments and the mat. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Middlebrook's Apostrophe, 1817?

Title Page
It is always a delight when something I buy for one reason turns out to be interesting from a second perspective. This little almanac from 1817 is just such a book.

The bonus, in this case, was the punctuation of the title: Middlebrooks' Almanack for 1817, which sent me off into a brief exploration of whether or not the possessive apostrophe in the title would have been felt to be incorrect in 1817. From what I've been able to piece together, it probably would: the Wikipedia entry on the apostrophe, for instance, suggests that the "apostrophe-s" for singular genitive was regular by the end of the eighteenth century, though the use of "s-apostrophe" for plural genitive was not firmly established until the middle 1800s. Middlebrook's printer, here, has probably gotten it wrong.

[Bibliographic sidebar: Indispensable though it is, WorldCat/OCLC can be quite a pain to use sometimes. Looking up this book under the search terms "Middlebrooks' Almanack 1817" turns up six or eight entries, only a couple of which seem to point to actual, physical books: one at Yale, and one at the Wellcome Library in London. Interestingly several of the entries give the title as "Middlebrook's Almanack"--suggesting either the printing of a version with a corrected title, or else the accidental correcting of the title at the point where the catalogue entry was made. The two physical copies seem to have been catalogued one each way.]

Anyway, although I've bought and sold books casually for almost 20 years, when I started seriously working in rare books, I never would have guessed how often I'd buy and sell old almanacs. The Old Farmer's Almanac, naturally, had been a common fixture in my family's house when I was young, a lingering survival of a time in the 1800s when almanacs were probably as commonly found in American homes as bibles. And old almanacs are even more common than equally old bibles today because they had to be issued anew each year. By the end of the 1800s, almanacs were literally being given away, a popular vehicle for patent medicine advertisements and the like.

My instinct, therefore, was always to think of almanacs as trivial, ephemeral, and common: nothing a rare book dealer would deal in!

But of course I was wrong, and I've probably bought and sold dozens of almanacs over the years: American ones both common and rare, and occasionally European almanacs as well, including some surprisingly fancy and beautifully bound French almanacs.
Wrappers made from May 28, 1816
issue of The Connecticut Journal;
stab-sewn binding at left edge

I purchased this copy of Middlebrooks' Almanack, not for the apostrophe, but for the original wrappers, which derive from an 1816 New Haven, CT, newspaper. 

Although the image does not show it clearly, the book has
a double wrap made from two partial sheets of newspaper.

Longtime readers of my blog will known that I've long been fascinated by the use of manuscript fragments, printer's proof sheets, printed pages and documents, and--now--newspapers in the binding of later books: it's a tradition of practice that endured for centuries, and this American newspaper example was one I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Modern Scrolls: A Crankie and an Album

A "crankie," dated 2017.
One of the things I love about the work I do now is the ongoing realization of just how much I get to learn in the doing of it. When I was a working academic, I was interested, of course, in material text, in the ways and forms of writing and writing supports. But in the work I do now, pretty much by just keeping my eyes open, I find—surprisingly often—things that I never expected to find, things I never knew existed.

Although this crankie seems to be titled "Fall,"
I can't help seeing this page as an echo of
"Sumer is I-cumen In"

So today, I’m sharing two such things, from among my more-or-less recent purchases. One is an item I bought last fall, when Rosemary and I went to the craft sale that’s held every year during “Mountaineer Week.” A local artist who makes prints was selling what he called “crankies.” I’d never heard of a crankie, but I knew what I was looking at: a book in the form of  a scroll, held in a box with two handles, for advancing and reversing the pages.

Title/colophon page, with pencil signature and date
(neither of which shows well in my image)

 As I found out (and as you might find, with some internet searching), there seems to be a whole kind of folk-festival crankie world, and—rightly or wrongly—there seems to be some claim or perception that crankie panoramas were a feature of nineteenth-century American folk performance, perhaps especially in places like Appalachia. 

I had known, of course, that large-scale painted panoramas had had a vogue in nineteenth-century America (and elsewhere), but somehow it had never occurred to me that smaller ones might have been made and used. Presumably they were. 

The back of the crankie, showing its cigar-box origins.

This crankie is made, as it turns out, from a wooden cigar box: it is an example of recycling in itself, as much as it is a scroll. Of course I bought it. I am sorry now that I didn't also buy one of the tiny examples made from a matchbox. Next year, perhaps.

Then, at an antique auction a couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to purchase an actual nineteenth-century example of a book in the form of a scroll. 

Robinson's Patent Photograph Album scroll (note:
this example lacks its original lid, which
had two windows, allowing two photos
to be displayed at a time).

The Robinson's Patent Photograph Album was probably always an unusual thing, and I think it's safe to say examples are scarce today. Some have turned
Title Page
up before
this is not the first one known—but I think they are usually collected as parts of photography collections, rather than as books (I couldn't find an example on WorldCat, for one). Yet the title page distinctly calls this item an album, even if the language of patenting and manufacturing used there also suggests that the original makers weren’t really thinking of it in book-like terms.

The photos that have been placed into this particular album, it may be worth noting, include both albumen prints (such as one might find on cartes de visit) and tintypes.

And while I am not certain that I am correct, I think that patents at this period extended for fourteen years, with a possible extension of seven more: so, given the cited patent date in 1865, this particular album must probably date from between 1865 and 1886.

Two tintype photos.

Scrolls, I guess I have learned, are a physical format for books that is not limited to the distant past.