Books & Their Owners…

Kids are interesting — and sometimes funny — readers of books; but so are “grown-ups”…  We all do things with our own books that make perfect sense to us, but somebody else looking at the same books later on might be hard-pressed, indeed, to figure out what we (i.e. the reader) had in mind.What do those notes mean?  And how about those unrelated comments, scribblings, doodles, underlinings, or illegible marks?  (Or the marks on the covers, or stains that look like evidence that the book was once used as a coaster?  A sign of active use?  Or of disdain for books?)

These are the kind of questions that rare book librarians and book historians routinely try to answer — well, at least some of the time!  We look at books owned and used by someone else, often written in or marked up, and try to make sense of what a reader had in mind when using the book (usually in connection with the act of their reading, but sometimes clearly relating to other, decidedly non-textual, uses).

We then try to use this information — obtained in part by deciphering handwriting or marginalia, part by making educated deductions, and part by using the context provided by outside sources — to make sense of what the book readers / users might have had in mind and to reason out what this tells us about the history of reading or book use.  Basically, trying to reconstruct past ideas, actions, and yes, intentions — or at least to recreate one plausible version of history that seems to make sense to us now — from the physical artifact and the evidence it contains.

A couple of books we’ve been working with in the last few days for Cotsen’s Newbery Catalog Project reminded me of these questions about physical evidence in books, yet again.  (Readers of this blog may recall a certain fixation here with the whole subject of “marks in books…”)

Title page of "The New Pantheon" (5th ed.)

Title page of “The New Pantheon” (5th ed.)

One of the engraved plates depicting "heathen" gods and goddesses

One of the engraved plates depicting “heathen” gods and goddesses

The first book is a copy of one of Newbery’s books for adults: The New Pantheon: or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, etc… (Salisbury: Newbery & Carnan [and others], 1777; fifth ed.).  The book contains accounts of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods and mythology, with an appendix about the role of “augury,” “divination,” sacrifices, and ancient temples.  The book is well-worn, so presumably (but not necessarily) it was well read, but there are no marks by readers anywhere in the text.

Close-up view of inscription

Close-up view of inscription

There are hand-written notes on both front and rear pastedowns, however; they have nothing to do with the text but provide potentially interesting evidence of use by book owners (or at least someone handling the books). On the front pastedown, someone was written in ink, “97 years old.”  It’s not apparent what this means, but I think it’s probably a reference to the 1777 publication date, which would date this notation as 1874, seemingly in accord with the look of the ink and the writing style.  Why somebody would write that — and in ink — is similarly not apparent, but it could have been done by a book owner admiring his/her book, or possibly even by a book dealer.  (Personally, I think the placement of the writing and use of ink argues strongly against this latter use.)

Inscription on front pastedown (Note: the brown staining is from leather binding and the hinge tape from a prior owner's repair)

Inscription on front pastedown (Note: the brown staining is from leather binding and the hinge tape from a prior owner’s repair)

Bookseller's penciled notes on front endpaper (facing pastedown)

Bookseller’s penciled notes on front endpaper (facing pastedown)

On the facing endpaper, we do see a more usual type of bookseller notation, in pencil: “Complete, 1777, £20.”  This tells us that the book was offered for sale in England — which accords with the Cotsen Library’s provenance information on this book — as well as reminding us how much the prices of books has risen since then!

On the rear pastedown, we find more curious inked notation — and upside-down, to boot — suggesting a real disconnect between the handwriting and the book as a reading object.  Perhaps the blank paper of the pastedown was just the handiest piece of writing matter someone had to hand?

Close-up view of inscription

Close-up view of inscription

Starting at the “top” of the inverted page, it reads:

2-0 ½
6-6 ½
Inscription on rear pastedown (reversed for legibility in this image)

Inscription on rear pastedown (reversed for legibility in this image)

Clearly, somebody is recording expenses.  But to what end?  Perhaps just to jot them down quickly as a memory aid?  (We’ve all jotted notes on paper napkins!)  The individual items are all related to sewing and the making of clothing, a general type of expense that also suggests to me that this writer was a woman. This was information that an eighteenth-century woman managing her household accounts would track. (“Lutestring,” in case you don’t know — I didn’t! — is a glossy fabric used for women’s dresses at the time.)

Well-worn spine and upper cover of "The New Pantheon"...  But was it well-read too?

Well-worn spine and upper cover of “The New Pantheon”…
But was it well-read too?

Cotsen has other books with similar notations about prices or expenses, some of them also published by Newbery, including a 1795 publication of The Housekeeper’s Account-book, published specifically as a way of “keeping an exact account of every article made use of in a family throughout the year.” If I’m right, the writing about sewing supplies in The New Pantheontells us that this book was read, or at least handled, by a woman, and this further suggests that this title may have been generally read by women, as well as by men — not totally surprising, but an interesting piece of documentation of reading habits at the time.

The handwriting and type of ink could well be eighteenth-century, making them more or less contemporary with the book’s publication.   (It’s a little hard to say for someone who’s not a handwriting specialist.)  Comparison with existing price lists could enable more precise dating, as well as a comparison of prices at different times in the era.

Having read this far, you may wonder where’s the discussion (and/or photos) of the other book mentioned at the beginning.  Well, having written this much about one book, I thought it best to wait until next week to write about that title, a children’s book: The History of Prince Lee Boo (London: Elizabeth Newbery, 1789).  Cotsen’s copy of that book has quite a bit of writing in it, along with some pencil sketches of animals, a horse and a duck among them.  Coming soon…

A Closer Look at Cotsen’s Collection

The text below is adapted from Byrd Pinkerton’s WPRB blog posting and links to the audio interviews that Byrd conducted with Andrea Immel, Cotsen Curator, in June and July, 2013, with additional photographs taken by Byrd of the items discussed. (Byrd Pinkerton ’15 is a German major who works for WPRB, the Princeton student-run radio station.) A Closer Look at Cotsen’s Collection: Audio Interviews with Cotsen’s Curator by Byrd Pinkerton

It’s easy to experience the Cotsen Gallery, with its giant indoor tree and little cottage. But behind the gallery’s glass wall, there are thousands of books–some tiny, some massive, some gilt or marbled. That’s just a fraction of the collection, since more books (and dolls and lantern slides and board games and toy theaters…) are hiding out elsewhere in the vaults of Firestone.

And though they can’t be climbed on or played with in quite the same way as the Gallery furniture is, these treasures are accessible too. This summer, Princeton student and Cotsen staffer Byrd Pinkerton began a series of radio stories on different objects from the Cotsen Collection, which are now posted on Princeton’s WPRB Station blog.

In each piece, she talks to Cotsen Curator, Andrea Immel about an item, its history, what we do or don’t know about it, and why it might be interesting to researchers. The audio is complemented with text and photographs, but listeners can also page the items themselves and enjoy them in the reading room.

Paper People in the Cotsen Library

Paper dolls at a war conference  ("The Paper People")

Paper dolls at a war conference
(“The Paper People”)

Taken literally, the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ usually applies to your average book in a bookstore. It also applies, however, to rare books.

When I first decided to highlight pieces of Cotsen Library’s rare book collection for this series, I was eager to talk about some of the showier items the collection has to offer-Queen Elizabeth’s Latin grammar book, the Beatrix Potter original letters or elegant Spanish toy theaters from the 1930s.

Instead, Andrea and I decided to begin with The Paper People an unassuming text, printed and cloth-bound in the 1800s, and see what the information that can be gleaned from the contents, the cover, the catalogue of advertisements, and even the end-papers.

Hear the audio interview, with illustrations, on WPRB blog site.

Jeu de Cavagnole

French game "Jeu de Cavagnole" inside its box

French game “Jeu de Cavagnole” inside its box

I’m not a fan of bingo. I would go so far as to say that I strongly dislike it. But even I was delighted to play with this 18th century pre-cursor to the game, the French Jeu de Cavagnole.

During our interview, Andrea and I walked through the complicated apparatus of the game, all kinds of ivory spindles, cages and beads with scrolls…

One of the biggest differences between this game and your average bingo experience is the game board.  Jeu de Cavagnole decorations have nothing to do with the gameplay at all. They’re just conversation pieces, designed to move the experience beyond simple gambling.

Hear the audio interview, with illustrations, on WPRB blog site.

A is for Alphabet

Panorama cylinder strip

Panorama cylinder strip

Once we figure out that LMNO isn’t all one letter and S, C and K stop seeming quite so redundant and confusing, we generally don’t spent a lot of time learning the alphabet.

Still, whether we’re thinking about it or not, there’s a new line of alphabet teaching tools for every generation of kids: alphabet puzzles, alphabet blocks, songs and poems and books with associative word pictures.

This week, my conversation with Andrea was all about alphabets throughout the ages. While we’re probably not going to learn a whole about the alphabet itself from these games and books, it turns out that they can tell us a lot about us: the most common parts of our day-to-day, the moral values we want to pass down to our children, even our sense of humor.

Hear the audio interview, with illustrations, on WPRB blog site.