Friday, December 28, 2018

A Novel Rebus

Green and black transfer-printed plate, ca 1860.
Here at Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, I've been doing my best for the last year or so to shift away from the general line antiques and become more exclusively a rare book dealer. This has been somewhat difficult because I got my start in the business by buying and selling glass and china, and when I see something in those categories that's underpriced, there's always a great temptation for me to buy it.

And once in a while, I run across something that straddles the boundary between general antiques and rare books. The pottery plate shown here is an interesting example. It probably dates from around 1860, and when I first saw it, I assumed it was a typical Staffordshire transfer-ware plate. But the marking on the back identifies it instead as French ("Porcelaine Opaque de Gien"). 

The image on the front, as I realized just as quickly, is a rebus, and (fortunately) the solution is given on the reverse, just above the maker's mark.


The Uncle Tom Rebus
My French, I am embarrassed to admit, is not entirely good enough to piece together the whole rebus on my own. The last line, surely, is de [just visible on the side of the boat] +  lune (moon) + -i- + verre (glass), to give "de l'univers." 

In the line above, the child who identifies the adult labeled "Tom" as "mon oncle" must give us "de l'oncle Tom"; The picture of William Tell (with crossbow and an arrow-pierced fruit) with a capital U must give us "a éTell u", to be read as "a été lu".

The top line of the rebus, then, must give us "Le roman." But while I can see how the townscape is labelled "Ville de Mans," I am not sure which part of that townscape gives the element "ro-" or "-ero-."


Solution to the rebus and maker's mark.
Seemingly, the solution's word "tout" is not actually present on the rebus, unless I am missing something about the boat or the moon. Even so, the broad sense of how the rebus works is clear; an English translation would be "The novel of Uncle Tom has been read by all the world [all the universe]."

Although it is in French, English language examples of Staffordshire transfer-ware pieces with Uncle Tom's Cabin references are well enough known. They were produced, it seems for both the English and American markets, responding to the wild popularity of Stowe's novel with a certain sharp marketing acumen. They also, presumably, allowed both the expression of a kind of popular abolitionist sentiment and employed it in a genre of text that was frequently aimed at children, teaching them, too, to adopt abolitionist ideas.

Indeed, childhood literacy itself was often enough taught or supported through children's tableware: many transfer-ware pieces (cups, bowls, and plates, mostly) intended for children were adorned by alphabets, partial alphabets, or proverbs intended to teach thrift, industry, and other virtues. Benjamin Franklin's proverbs or maxims were widely used on English pottery of this period for such ends. 

The plate I've shown, then, attests not only to a tiny bit of the reception history of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but also to a moment when cheap china cups and plates were used to at least try to inculcate both literacy and virtue in children, a moment in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was literally bringing literacy education to the masses. 

Books, of course, will surely remain at the core of my interests, as a collector and a dealer. But items like this, I hope, may remind us all that books do not really stand as a coherent and isolated category of cultural expression. And sometimes the very nature of libraries as repositories for books and paper materials may unfortunately exclude textual items that might usefully, and even necessarily, be juxtaposed to our books. 

It is useful for all of us, sometimes, to look beyond books.

[Edited to add: In terms of solving the rebus, the beginning section might be "L'heure a Mans" ("the hour at Mans") for "Le roman."]



Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wisdom is admired. Xeno was wise.


I cannot deny that sometimes I spend (or waste) more time examining a new book I get than, perhaps, it deserves. Today's book is probably one such example.

The book in question is No. 5 from B F Foster's series, Foster's Elementary Copy-books (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1838). This copy was used by a schoolgirl, Mary Livergood, and her name appears on the front cover. The book was filled completely with her writing exercises, and she seems to have had a fine hand on the whole.

Among the innovations of Foster's series of books was that advertised just below the title: "a new and improved Plan of teaching; by which the Trouble and Loss of Time in Ruling Horizontal and Diagonal Lines, and Setting Copies, are avoided." This benefit, of course, was an advantage to the teacher.

Yet the provision of engraved exemplars for students to copy (as above) was surely a useful thing, as was the provision of ruling lines, though the latter are so pale as to be nearly invisible, at least today. Providing these in print ensured that students were not entirely left to the mercies of teachers' willingness or ability to make the effort to provide exemplary examples.

This little book has 32 pages plus the printed wrappers (the front cover is shown in my second image). The interior pages are 8 bifolia, a single gathering sewn onto the wrappers at the center. The bulk of the interior pages feature a nearly alphabetic series of maxims or precepts that students were expected to copy out, moral instruction to accompany their practice in writing. "Nearly alphabetic," I had to write, because, after "Force is repugnant to true liberty" and before "Honour and fame procure praise" we find not an aphorism beginning with G, but "Beware of inordinate passions." 

A quick check confirms what some readers may anticipate: the conjugate leaf of the bifolium where we expect G reads "Grandeur cannot purchase peace": an error in the layout of the individual pages has switched these two pages. In a humble production like this one, it seems the error was left to stand, an example of the hazards of even the most simple imposition of pages.

Mary Livergood, for better or worse, seems to have been a good student, though I think on the following page we can see that her teacher did, on occasion, feel the need to provide a demonstration of the sort of writing that was wanted.



The third of the handwritten lines here, I think, is the teacher's, as it demonstrates more clearly than the student writing that a careful use of the pen can result in attractive shading of the different strokes. The teacher, too, has a fine understanding of the formation of cursive "w" in this style, while, towards the bottom of the page, poor Mary seems to have been writing "Avoid nhatever is unbecoming."

Elsewhere, we see other evidence that the tedium of the task has led to an unthinkingly mechanical performance on the student's part: 


"Death subues every individual," Mary has written twice, before sense reasserted itself.

Yet the purpose of the exercise, as Foster seems to have understood it, was to require the student to practice the strokes and letter shapes: neatness and facility were real goals, alongside accuracy. 

It may be worth noting that Foster's book includes diagrams for proper posture, for the proper holding of the pen in the hand, and for the proper way to cut a quill into a pen. Wikipedia suggests that steel nib pens became popular in the 1820s; here in 1838, a goose quill remains the standard. Likewise, the posture diagrams show women or girls, which may be of interest since books 7 and 8 of the same series are apparently intended for the "teaching [of] mercantile penmanship."

Like many another old or unusual book or manuscript, even a humble student's copybook can sometimes surprise us with interesting features--and the mistakes may be more revealing than the successes, whether made by a professional printer or a student.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Joseph Bosworth book.

Joseph Bosworth's edition
of the Old English Orosius
(1859)
When I set out to write stories about some of the books that cross my desk, I didn't realize that some of these books would pretty much tell their own stories.

I always have a soft spot for older editions of Anglo-Saxon texts, so I was pleased recently to find this mid-nineteenth-century edition of King Alfred's Old English translation of Orosius. Although modern scholarship has begun to doubt just how much of Alfred's own work may appear in the surviving translation, the book remains a key exemplification of Alfred's educational program, in which rather than merely lamenting the decline in Latin learning, he set out to bring Latin learning to a broader audience by translating key books into English. 

This copy of Bosworth's edition, though, has another story to tell.


Two inscriptions

At the top of the front flyleaf, Bosworth has inscribed the book to its recipient: "The Reverend R. Martindale, with Jos. Bosworth's very kind regards." Below that, Martindale has recounted the occasion of the gift: "This Book was presented to me by the very learned author, the Rev~ Dr. Bosworth, D. D., F. R. S. +c. +c. and one of the Professors at the University at Oxford as he stood by the side of his own carriage which he had lent to me to convey me to Buckingham at my departure for Scotland. At his extreme age we are not likely to meet again. It was his final gift and presented March 9, 1863." Then follows the Latin quotation, "Eheu! quam multo minus cum reliquis versari, quam tui meminisse." (Roughly, "How much less it is to study relics, than to remember you.")

In reading booksellers' descriptions, one often reads of an author's "warm" inscription in a book that has been given to someone. Here, it is the recipient's warm memories of the author that give this book its charm.




Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Case of Un-Crossing Out

I always love it when I run across something in the world of books that I've never encountered before. Often enough, I've seen a book that has something crossed out; in fact, I'm sure that I've even crossed things out in books before. 

Crossing out is one of the things owners do when a book they have is being used: it's a kind of modification or revision, changing the contents of a book to more closely reflect the owner's interest or understanding or practice. And yet, interests and understandings and practices can change over time, and sometimes book owners are faced with the challenge of excising their own marks of eradication.

That's what clearly happened in this book.

A close look at the picture above will show that thin paper strips have been glued over this paragraph in the form of an X; these strips have letters written on them corresponding to the printed letters they cover up. Though it can't be seen in the image, one of the strips is a bit loose, and I can easily see beneath it that the strips cover over a large ink X that had previously crossed out the paragraph, excising everything above "Item Romae sanctarum", where the underline that accompanied the original crossing out has been left to stand.

Though the illusion is not perfect, the added strips effectively restore the original text, un-crossing it out.

That this book was a well used one is clear from other signs. There are marginal notes (as also shown on the page above) in Dutch, and other text is sometimes crossed out. At two points, manuscript pages are bound in (and one page at the beginning has had a half-page of manuscript deleted by the expedient of pasting in blank paper over it). The latter set of pages, bound in immediately before the printed Index, is thirty-two leaves, some of which have also later been modified or revised. 


The beginning of this lengthy addition, one might note, is accompanied by a vellum tab affixed to the top of the printed leaf that precedes it; this tab was surely useful for a reader who needed to flip back to this section often.

Even when the book was first bound, then, it was modified for usefulness, and it underwent further modifications even after that: this was a working book, and it is grubby and stained and damaged. 

Because it was a working book, its condition is far from perfect. But as is sometimes the case, I think its flaws make it more interesting, rather than less.



Monday, October 15, 2018

Carnegie International 2018

Over the weekend, Rosemary and I went to the members' opening of the 2018 Carnegie International show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It was especially interesting, because many of the works on display were accompanied by a bare minimum of description and accompanying text: to a great degree, one could encounter the exhibits and respond as one would.

In that spirit, I will offer up here just two photographs, from the photographs exhibited there by Dayanita Singh, pillars of pictures of archives

Neither of my photos is perfect, of course, but hopefully a bit of the flavor of this one piece of the Carnegie International will come through. And readers interested in book history, I hope, will find these of particular interest.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

It's not a bug, it's a feature.

It's always fun to take a look at a newly acquired manuscript item and find an interesting feature.

In the case of the leaf pictured today, I was delighted to find that a tiny hole in the parchment had not only been avoided by the scribe (as usual), but attended to by the rubricator, who circled it on one side of the leaf (see the first image, between the words "i[n]ter" and "ones"), and even sort of included it in a bit of rubricated decoration on the other side.


When the vellum had a natural flaw, I guess it was reasonable to call attention to it sometimes, rather than just ignoring it. If your vellum is freaky, then own it, I guess.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Mini-Catalogue 183: Time and Space

It's been a number of months since I've posted a mini-catalogue, but just because I've been busy with other things. At last, however, here's a link to a few mostly new items (with a couple of old ones, I'll admit), loosely linked to the theme of time and space by involving almanacs, atlases, and travel photographs. The items range from ca. 1500 to about 1900.

One of my favorite items from this batch is the cute little 1767 French almanac I've illustrated here, with a truly wonderful embroidered binding. An embroidered binding is one of those things I never thought I'd have a chance to buy, but--amazingly--I did. It turns out, if you watch long enough, and have patience enough, a wide range of things eventually turn up: it's one of the delights of being a collector, I think.

But there are other interesting things among the dozen or so listed. I hope some of my readers here might find something worth looking at.  Here's the link to Mini-Catalogue 183.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Printer's waste paper wrappers.

The longer I spend among books, the more fascinated I become by all the variations of their presentation to the world: the ways their printers, publishers, and owners finished them off (or didn't) in order to help protect them, or to give them an identity, or simply to hold them together.

Lyon Almanacs, 1775 and 1787.
Of course, manuscript fragments and incunabula fragments re-used in bindings are doubly interesting: each has been a book itself and also has been used to protect a later book. 

But sometimes, printers used their own products to bind up their own books. Often enough, printers expected owners to have books bound, and printer's bindings were often intentionally ephemeral, which makes them all the more interesting when they survive.

The two books I've illustrated here are French eighteenth-century almanacs from Lyon, dated 1775 and 1787, and both, I think, are remarkable for preserving the printer's original paper binding wraps or covers. 

That the wrappers are original is especially clear in the case of the 1775 almanac, where the printed text on the wrapper is a close match in format and content to some of the pages in the almanac itself, although some differences suggest the wrapper is made from a sheet from a different printing year.

Regardless, in both cases, the exteriors of the wrappers are printer's waste: uncut sheets of printed pages that might, if circumstances had been different, have become books themselves. In both cases,  this printer has overprinted these waste sheets, in one case with a design of squares, and in the other with a design of triangles. These overprintings partially obscure the waste printing, but the effect is only partial at best.
1775 Lyon Almanac, title page and inside wrapper.

In the case of the 1787 almanac, the wrapper has been backed by an unprinted sheet: the interior pastedowns, then, are blank. 

In the case of the 1775 almanac, as my second picture shows, the inside of the wrapper has been backed with another printed sheet, probably a printed decree or legal document. (Even an ABE search on the printer/publisher, Aime de la Roche, suggests that such documents were a staple of this printer; a WorldCat search is somewhat more difficult to evaluate). 

These wrappers, of course, are fine examples of the recycling of printed materials, but I find the overprinting here to be quite charming. Though the printer must have expected these wrappers to be quickly replaced by these almanacs' owners, they were made visually appealing, even so. 



Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Interlace Poem

Regular readers (and those who know me in real life) probably know that I am still somewhat active as an academic. For the past few months, I've been putting the finishing touches (I hope) on my fifth academic book, which I've begun to call "my last academic book," for whatever that's worth.

When asked what the book is about, I usually describe it as being about textual dimensions, even while I recognize that such a description probably doesn't communicate much of anything to anyone.
Agnes D Garbey's Interlace Poem, dated June 9, 1855. 

But it was a delight to be able to purchase this piece of manuscript poetry recently. It brings together, quite remarkably, many of the topics that have been occupying my mind as I've been writing this book. (And I recognize that the image is probably not legible here: the original is written in very tiny script--the whole thing is about 7" tall from top to bottom--and I need a magnifying glass to read the actual page itself).

It is, I think it is fair to say, a puzzle-poem, with the first "lines" reading "Begin and see if thou canst shew/ the starting point and place of ending too." The design, I think, can usefully be described as an interlace design--the single ongoing linear text of the poem wrapping around, with numerous crossing points and tricky turning points.

Such interlace designs were common in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (and elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon art), and a well known critical essay by John Leyerle even concerns itself with "The Interlace Structure of Beowulf." It is difficult to tell if Agnes D. Garbey (if I am reading her name correctly) had Anglo-Saxon models in mind, but the interlace effect of her poem could not be more obvious. And the poem's use of the phrase "The endless knot" will also recall Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for readers who know that poem well. We will probably never know for certain if medieval models have influenced this poem, but it is possible that they did: the middle nineteenth century was, if possible, even more fascinated with all things medieval than we are today.

In terms of the book I've been working on, this poem is a two-dimensional text: any attempt (such as the one I will offer below), to linearize it, to re-present it in a single textual line, without crossovers or overlap, will diminish the poem and its effect upon readers. Too often, we suppose that a poem can be read aloud, and maybe even that a poem should be read aloud. This poem, on the other hand, must be seen to be appreciated. 

The argument of the book I am writing, of course, is that we have long ignored or misunderstood two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects of some literary texts, though manuscripts in particular have often enough made use of more than a single linear dimension. Agnes Garbey's poem, here, is a reminder that even as recently as the nineteenth century, manuscripts might make use of complex visual structures in ways that deserve our attention and respect. 

I don't know if I'll be able to use this poem in the book itself. I am tempted, though, to offer it up as a possible image for the cover--if only it were a bit more legible!


Transcription:

Begin and see if thou canst shew
The starting point and place of ending too;
Oh! mortal behold and thou shalt see,
The endless knot Love's twined for thee.
But like this knot a point of winding
And like this knot Love has no ending.
Is love like a moat that lives but a day,
On the beams of the sun and vanishes away?
Or like the flower that blooms at the morn
At noon of its beauty and lasciviousness shorn?
No, true love may [be] likened to the beautiful rose,
That from its leaves sweetest fragrance throws.
It buds, it blooms and dies, its presence is done,
Yet sweetness remains though the body is gone.
Oh! What wants life be de[ . . . ]ed of true love
Of heaven's cheering beams from our Father above;
A dark howling wilderness. --thick gathering gloom,
Spreading o'er our sad journey to the place of the tomb.
June 9th 1855                       Agnes D Garbey.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Fromkin and Rodman Phonetics Wheel

F&R Phonetics Wheel [1988]
Things have been thrown off their normal (already irregular) schedule here at Chancery Hill Books by a death in the family: my mother-in-law, a wonderful person who was herself a retired English professor.
The reverse of the Phonetics Wheel.

Many was the time Joyce and I chatted about having taught the Introduction to the English Language course at our respective institutions, and we both often used the venerable Fromkin and Rodman textbook for the course (An Introduction to Language; more recent editions have included additional co-authors, but I am afraid the book remains 'Fromkin and Rodman' in my heart).

We recently found, tucked in among Joyce's books and papers, the Fromkin and Rodman Phonetics Wheel that I've pictured here. It is, obviously, a volvelle, of the common everyday sort I've written about here before

Such little volvelles were, of course, unbelievably common in the twentieth century: verb wheels will, no doubt, be familiar to many who studied a foreign language in the middle of the twentieth century, but many simple calculations or collections of tabulated material were formatted into volvelles for promotional or advertising purposes during that time. I'd guess that some are probably still being produced, somewhere out there.

This Fromkin and Rodman Phonetics Wheel, of course, was also a promotional item: a giveaway, surely, intended to help persuade teachers to adopt the Fourth Edition of Fromkin and Rodman as a textbook for their classes to buy. 

Such items are ephemeral, and it is surprising when they survive at all. In the case of this example, a Google search on the phrase "Phonetics Wheel" turns up hardly anything at all, though one link may refer to a wheel like this one. 

This one, of course, can stay, for now, in my own little collection.


Monday, July 23, 2018

The recent breaking news in Pittsburgh

A recent addition to my collection: something I have no wish to sell.
Jerome, Commentery on Hosea; Caroline minuscule.

The recent revelations of the depth and breadth of the thefts of rare books, plates, and leaves from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh have been breathtaking. The dollar amount that has been quoted, at just over eight million dollars, is stunning, if only as a reminder that I am really only a small-time dealer.

I won’t take any position on the guilt or innocence of the specific parties who have been charged here: I will assume and hope that the wheels of justice will roll on to whatever verdicts ought to be reached. But the charges that have been brought are themselves a reminder that one of the great dangers (if not the single greatest danger) to public collections of rare books, manuscripts, and archival materials is theft from inside—one recent claim I’ve seen is that insider thefts account for about one-third of such thefts.

Often enough, as I have transitioned from academic scholar to rare book and manuscript dealer, I’ve been greeted by academics with skepticism or disdain: anyone who deals in (or even owns) fragments, the message has often seemed to be, is necessarily a participant in the breaking up of valuable books and artifacts of historic importance. It’s true enough that some dealers do break up books, but that should no more be used as a brush to tar the whole field of manuscript dealers than the existence of some academic or librarian book-thieves should be used to condemn all manuscript scholars and librarians.

Because of course, not all scholars and librarians are villains, even if some of them are (I am remembering now the case of Anthony Melnikas, whose story broke at Ohio State not long after I got my degree there in 1994). Nor are all dealers villains, even if some are. There is no reason at all for dealers or collectors and academics to see themselves as opposed on these issues: almost all dealers, collectors, and scholars, in my experience, truly value manuscripts and rare books as elements of our shared human cultural heritage. 

One of the tragedies of the Carnegie case, of course, is that many items were cut from their bindings and apparently marketed as individual pieces, potentially scattering them to the four winds. One cannot avoid the suspicion that cutting such items away from their contexts anonymizes them, potentially making them easier to sell, because they are more difficult to trace.

I’ve written before about individual leaves as refugees, ripped from their proper contexts, victims of violence through no fault of their own. One need not support book-breakers or thieves to believe that such refugees might be taken in and valued. But this case can remind us all that it is not only dealers who engage in such cutting. And even a small-time dealer like me has been known to return stolen or looted material that was purchased innocently or inadvertently. 

In my own business, I have sometimes purchased individual (i.e. cut) leaves, though I prefer to focus on materials re-used in bindings. And I’ve committed, as a dealer and a collector, to not break up books or lots that I personally own.

And I’ve sometimes gone farther, engaging in rescue-buying, purchasing complex lots or multiple related lots from a single seller, when I felt that the pieces ought to stay together. This has not always been a wise financial decision on my part, I suspect. How fortunate I am, though, to have been able to make some decisions that weren’t entirely driven by the logic of profit. In such cases, I try to be guided by what is best for the items. Even a collection of cut leaves, sometimes, can make up a whole that shouldn’t be broken.

But then, I am still a collector at heart, one who believes that collectors—and their collections, public and private—can still do good in the world, even if there are some people out there who sometimes take advantage of such utopian and altruistic thinking. A personal collection can still be a real refuge for rare items, a place of protection, perhaps especially for items that are not especially valuable.

I’ve looked over the list of items missing from the Carnegie Library; I purchased none of those books or items, a circumstance for which I am thankful. In part, I’ve been protected from that fate by being only a small time dealer and collector. But I’ve also been reminded how important it is for all of us to do what’s best for our books: both those we own, and those in our local libraries, where we also share some care taking responsibilities. 

Because I can’t help feeling that, if only I had gone up to the Carnegie to look at some of their rare books, the fact that some of them were missing or damaged might have been discovered a little sooner, before quite so much damage was done.

The other side of the above fragment, showing both how it once
lay along the spine of a binding and how (more recently, I'd guess)
it seems to have been affected by a rusty paper clip.
Note: the image is a bit blurry here.



Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Elephant and Castle


I've been to London a number of times, and I've heard the phrase "Elephant and Castle" on many of these trips: for me, it's always been a tube stop, although one I haven't often used, if ever. I should have realized, though, that the phrase has a particular medieval resonance, and that it derives from numerous medieval depictions of war-elephants with fighting platforms or pavilions on their backs, as usefully summarized on this blog post I ran across recently.

I ran across that blog, of course, because of the image I've used above, and some online searching I attempted in trying to trace it. As may (or may not) be clear from the heading, this woodcut is used at the top of a broadside Calendar for the year 1603, and the  image is a complex and fascinating one. In the center, we have, indeed, an elephant with a kind of fighting castle perched upon its back. Before it and behind it are some marching figures, apparently carrying an army of spears. In the upper right background, three cannon are pointing into the air; though it may not be especially clear, one of them has just fired, and (in a portion of the image that is not shown), the cannon ball is heading directly for a ship sitting just offshore. It seems doubtful that an actual historical battle is being depicted.

The language of the heading, of course, is German, and the calendar certainly comes from a German speaking area, perhaps Austria in particular (possibly Vienna), though no printer's name is now preserved with it.

As best I can tell, the red component of the image above is printed along with the red-printed heading; the other colors (green, magenta, and mustard yellow) seem to have been applied by hand.

As one might guess, such broadside calendars are scarce today: they were ephemeral at best, and they very quickly went out of date. This one is preserved as part of an old book-binding, which seems to have been put together around 1604--immediately after this calendar went out of date. But it's a fascinating example of an old genre of text (and image) that still is part of our world today, whenever we hang a calendar on our wall for ready consultation.

Table of symbols and the beginning of the calendar for January (Jenner)
In 1603, apparently, calendars like this also served some of the function of almanacs; between the Elephant and Castle and the January section, we see both a coat of arms (perhaps for Vienna?) and a list of symbols and their meanings, including some that relate to phases of the moon and some that are more about prognostication. The lack of numbers for the days seems strange, but apparently marking the Sundays with red triangles was enough. And so, although the calendar has some surface damage, we can still see by consulting the table that snow ("Schnee") was predicted for Tuesday, January 14. 

I haven't yet figured out a way to find out if that prediction was true, though there may be a record somewhere. But I do know that I'll remember this image when next I am in London, and I see the words "Elephant and Castle" on the Underground map.







Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bicycle Season

Not everything I buy at auction is destined for resale--at least not right away. I am still a collector, in my way, and one of the things I often find myself attracted to is vintage folk art. And if there's some component to it that has to do with books or writing, I find it doubly hard to resist. 

Last week, at the one auction I regularly attend, I was able to get a small box of folky items, including a small, crudely carved wooden chain, and some other wooden items, but the real gems, as far as I was concerned, were a pair of folk-art bicycles.

They are made, as I expect the images show, from recycled old office supplies: the wheels are made from typewriter erasers (with the brushes removed); the bicycle frames (and the cyclist's head) are made from old brass binding rivets; and the limbs of the cyclist are bent paperclips. The corks that make the hats, I suppose, aren't really office supplies at all.

The bicycle with the black wheels, I think, is the older of the two; probably it was the model that the later example was based on. It seems to me to be a bit more handily made and attractive.

I can't really picture either of these being made any more recently than the 1950s or 1960s. I probably last used a typewriter eraser in the 1980s, and I don't think I ever really had a ready supply of brass binding rivets. I suppose both are obsolete technologies, now, but I think that's part of these bicyclists' charm.




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Florentine Sonnets, 1906

I am heading off to Ohio later this morning, to (among other things) give a presentation at the Eastern Region Meeting and Seminar of the Early American Pattern Glass Society, in Lancaster, Ohio, on Friday.

Florentine Sonnets (1906); vellum-covered
boards with hand-painted illumination
My talk will be only partly on the American glass industry of the nineteenth century; the rest of what I have to say (and there will be a connection, believe it or not), will be about a minor nineteenth-century American poet. I find this poet particularly interesting because he had a special fascination, it seems, with the middle ages, writing book-length poems about the Norman Conquest and the conversion of King Edwin of Deira, among other things. 

At the end of his  life, he lived in Florence, and wrote and photographically illustrated a couple of books for the English-speaking tourist trade. The one pictured here was--as I hope the illustration shows--available bound in vellum, and (for an extra fee, one supposes), available with a hand-painted illumination on the cover.

This copy has, in addition, a small gift dedication painted on at the bottom, matching the illumination. "From Aunt Laura," it reads.

All in all, such a book reminds us that one of the things tourism did (and does) is to make the past (and in European tourism, it is often the medieval past) consumable. And that book and manuscripts could be, and were, sometimes used for the same purpose. Many a manuscript or leaf, I think, was purchased as a souvenir on the Grand Tour.

The same poet's Roman Sonnets (1908), in
printed paper-covered boards.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Grotesque faces

"Vir perfecte pietatis "
It's been a busy time here in the Chancery Hill neighborhood, as I've been cataloguing a few hundred books for someone else, rather than for me. This work has caused me, among other things, to think more seriously about cataloguing my own collections, as well as about the very nature of cataloguing as an activity, as a way of describing and interpreting. 

It is also an act of learning, and of the transmission of learning, in many ways. Certainly, I've learned much about many books in doing this work, with all the enjoyment and frustration that goes with that.

But today, as a kind of "Shelfie Wednesday" treat, I thought I'd share something else that give me a bit of joy today: a manuscript fragment I recently purchased. This one had been recycled as the wrapper for a legal document in 1731, though it seems to have long been separated from that document, now. 

But I couldn't help but laugh when I saw the two grotesque faces adorning this capital "U" from the word "Uir,'' ("man").  With their tongues out (colored in red, no less!), and their silly hats, and their unpleasant expressions, they rather made my day. "A man of perfect piety," hardly seems to describe either one.

Here's a bit more of the context:



Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lingulf the Saxon

I recently bought a small archive of manuscript poems from little known turn-of-the-century American poet William Brunton. Brunton, so far as I have been able to piece together, was a minister in Massachusetts and an active occasional poet, who published a surprising number of poems in newspapers and other (generally) non-literary venues from the 1880s to about 1910.

In this, Brunton reminds us that poetry occupied a slightly larger slice of the public eye than it does today; perhaps the places modern Americans most often encounter poetry is in children’s books (and perhaps, remarkably, in some Young Adult books, where the “novel in verse” remains a real thing) and sentimental greeting cards.  But at the end of the nineteenth century, one might still see a poem printed in the newspaper, even one's local paper.

Brunton's manuscript of "The Saintly Chimes"
Given my recent blog post on Longfellow and his interest in Anglo-Saxon literature and history, I was astonished to find one poem of Brunton’s on an Anglo-Saxon topic, “The Saintly Chimes.”

I will transcribe the poem below (I realize that this image may not be immediately legible), but it was striking to me to find this because it stands as one more example of how widely the interest in the Anglo-Saxon period spread, a century or so ago. 

The Anglo-Saxon period here, is little more than a setting for this little Christian tale, and yet the tale is not set in Chaucer's day. The Anglo-Saxon period was apparently understood to be familiar enough to function with only the barest reference: here, a name ("Lingulf") and really nothing else specific.

Once I'd read this poem, of course, I wondered if I could trace the story. Remarkably, a Google search on the phrase "Saintly Chimes" does not turn up any published version of the poem (though it may have been printed in a newspaper or other source that hasn't yet been effectively digitized), and a search for the words "Lingulf" "Saxon" and "goats" turns up exactly one relevant item, a short paragraph from a periodical titled The New Unity, that reads as follows:

 "Lingulf, an old Saxon herdsman, sold his flock that he might put bells into the tower of the minster at St. Albans, and whenever he heard these bells ringing he said, "How sweetly do my sheep and goats bleat to-day." So we may joyously sacrifice the lower in the interests of the higher, that we may become builders of that permanent church building which is ever rising" ("The Tower of Babel: A Sermon Preached in All Souls Church, Chicago, December 5, 1897, by Jenkin Lloyd Jones," New Unity new series vol. 6 [1898], 1102-08, at p. 1106).

Brunton's poem, one guesses, may well have been inspired by this very passage; so far I've been unable to trace any older source for the tale: I'd love to hear if there's an earlier source for the story. Of course, it may also be the case that the influence goes the other direction, from Brunton's poem to Jones's sermon.

Here is Brunton's poem:

The Saintly Chimes

O'er his devotion deep I brood,
  A tale of other days,
Lingulf, a Saxon herdsman good,
  Desired to do God praise;

At old St. Albans did he live,
  In that Cathedral town,
And of his flocks did freely give,
  To win it fair renown:

He sold his goats and sheep so fine,
  And chime of bells he bought;
Their voices praised the great divine,
  And gladdened him in thought:

How sweetly bleat my sheep to-day,
  The herdsman said in glee,
As out they rang from far away
  In holy melody!

And we though centuries apart,
  And silence falls between,
Can take the music to our heart
  And keep his memory green:

For those that help the church in love
  By giving of their good,
Prolong the chime of bliss above,
  And join his brotherhood!

                       William Brunton.



Monday, January 8, 2018

Mini-Catalogue 181: Mostly African-American (15 items)

William Channing, Slavery,
fourth ed, 1836
I've always been fascinated, of course, by things that are unique: every manuscript is unique, after all. 

In the realm of more recent books than medieval manuscripts, one way a book can be unique might be by having a striking or unusual provenance: a former owner that reveals the history of a book that resonates, somehow, with the content of the book. 

This issue echoes interestingly with some of the academic writing I've been doing lately (on a book for which my deadline is June 1, so I had better be serious about finishing it), in which I argue that books always make their meanings in conjunction with their histories: it is a mere simplification of reality to suppose (or pretend) that two readers of two editions of a work are reading the same book. 

But the implication would seem to be that every book makes its own meaning in the world, and every provenance is potentially capable of exerting a meaning on a book--though some remain more interesting or compelling than others. 

I haven't made any special effort in my collecting or buying of books to seek out interesting provenances, but once in a while I've still found something of interest.

One of those books is in the little catalogue or list I am posting here today (a list of 14 African-American items, plus one piece of Francophone American lit).

It's a copy of William Channing's book Slavery, not even a first edition, but a copy which was owned by or sold through the Anti-Slavery Office in Philadelphia, as the ink-stamp on the free end-page suggests:

Stamp on the end-page of Channing's Slavery


It's just a handful of letters and numbers, stamped on a blank page, but somehow this stamp is, to me at least, the most interesting part of the whole book. The stamp makes the book a different piece of history.

Feel free to peruse the list! You might find something you like.