Marks in Books #3: Scribbled Notes in “The New Pantheon, or Fabulous History of Heathen Gods…”

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 Pantheon tells 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…

Marks in Books #2: “The Rare Romance of Reynard the Fox”

The Rare Romance of Reynard the Fox…

Title: The Rare Romance of Reynard the Fox, the Crafty Courtier: together with the Shifts of his Son Reynardine: in Words of One Syllable/ by Samuel Phillips Day; with coloured illustrations.
Edition: Third ed.
Published/Created: London; Paris; New York: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, [not after 1879] (London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin; Belle Sauvage Works)
Physical Description: [2], [viii], [9]-221, [1], [4] p., [6] leaves of plates: col. ill.; 18 cm.
Publisher's decorative cover for the 3rd ed. of Reynard; design is similar to the 1st ed. but in rust-colored cloth instead of earlier lilac.

Publisher’s decorative cover for the 3rd ed. of Reynard; design is similar to the 1st ed. but in rust-colored cloth instead of earlier lilac.

In our last blog posting, I talked about some of the various “marks in books”: gift inscriptions, ownership inscriptions or owners’ signatures, booksellers’ marks, and “non-verbal” markings, or coloring, by children.  What may seem like relatively inconsequential jottings, scribbled names, or even random markings can often provide important evidence of how a book was used by those who owned and/or read it.  Some types of marks are of course more common than others, in both adult’s and children’s books.  As David Pearson notes in Provenance Research in Book History, “hand-written inscriptions on title pages or flyleaves for the most frequently encountered evidence of provenance.”1  Pearson goes on to note that book owners frequently add other information too, such as the date or other details of acquisition (gift, purchase, prize reward, Christmas present, etc.). Pearson is writing about books for grown-ups, but his comments are equally applicable to children’s’ books, even though the “evidence” may be less systematically placed and harder to interpret.

Frontispiece, "The Fox Made Knight," by Griset, showing Reynard in action.

Frontispiece, “The Fox Made Knight,” by Griset, showing Reynard in action.

We’ve all seen children’s books with signatures or inscriptions, often (but not always) on the inside paste-downs, free-endpapers, or title pages.  But children are still acquiring “received ideas” of book culture or ownership, so their markings are perhaps more likely to be found in other parts of a book than these generally-accepted locations for adults’ markings.  How do they/we actually learn this behavior, though?  Perhaps someone explicitly taught some of us this bit of cultural behavior, but in many cases, I think that’s something we just pick up on our own, either by observation or intuition–it just seems to make sense.  How many of us recall for certain how we learned this, though?  That sort of uncertainty of memory is one of the challenges of working with marks in children’s books and interpreting them.  As adults, we can see them, but the hows and whys behind their creation are conjectural in most cases, to those us now grounded in the critical world of “experience.”

Inked gift inscription in Cotsen copy on page with pencil markings from an apparent child-reader and a bookseller.

Inked gift inscription in Cotsen copy on page with pencil markings from an apparent child-reader and a bookseller.

In Our Girls, we saw a gift inscription on the front free-endpaper verso, facing the title page, as well as inscriptions elsewhere, and other markings.  In another recently-cataloged Cotsen Library book, The Rare Romance of Reynard the Fox (including The Shifts of Reynardine), we find a gift inscription in another traditional place: the front free-endpaper recto, facing the pastedown: “George Curtis, from his father, Christmas, 1879.”  This is typically the first page we see when we open a book, so the placement here makes perfect sense, at least to an adult, who seems to be the inscriber here: the father of George Curtis, whose own first name is ironically lost to history at this point, one of the quirks of annotations in book history.  It’s a nice script hand, with some discreetly decorative capitals and flourishes: note the capital letters “G” and “C” in “George Curtis” and the flourished “f” in “father”–tastefully understated, but special, as befits a Christmas present from father to son.

Detail of gift inscription: George Curtis, from his father, Christmas, 1879.

Detail of gift inscription: George Curtis, from his father, Christmas, 1879.

It’s also of course possible that George Curtis is himself the inscriber, recording a gift he received from his father–hence the omission of Pater Curtis’s name.  The hand could be that of a mature boy of the time, and there possibly some indication of letters being gone over twice (the “G” in “George” and “t” in “Christmas”), but these latter features could also just be the product of a stubborn fountain pen (remember those?), and my money is on the father.

Title page for the 3rd ed., including edition statement and Cassell's Paris office.

Title page for the 3rd ed., including edition statement and Cassell’s Paris office.

Apart from telling us about the (presumably) original owner of this book, the gift-giver, and the occasion, this inscription adds a date too: 1879.  This is significant bibliographic information in this case because the title page of this book does not include a publication date, although it does note that this is the “Third Edition.”  Also noted on the title page are Cassell’s three different offices at the time of publication: London, Paris, and New York.  This is significant too, because the firm opened its Paris office in 1871 (adding a Melbourne office in 1884),2 and it published under the imprint “Cassell, Petter & Galpin” from 1859 to 1879.3  Based on that publishing history information and the inscription, we can date the third edition of the Rare Romance of Reynard the Fox, as issued between 1871 and 1879, probably closer to 1879, when it was inscribed, but with no way of knowing that for certain without additional, external evidence.

Accordingly, I’ve dated Cotsen’s third edition as “[not after 1879],” rather than “[between 1871 and 1879],” to indicate the likelihood of it being published closer to the later date.  If there was no inscription, I’d probably have to date the edition as [between 1871 and 1884], based on the inclusion of Paris but absence of Melbourne on the title page–accurate but a little less precise.  (Some catalogers would still opt to date the book as “between 1871 and 1884,” but I think “not after 1879” provides more useful information for researchers trying to distinguish editions and their dates–particularly with that information reflected catalog coding of the 008 field, which determines date sorting, at least in Princeton’s OPAC .)

Additional information relevant to dating this book is found in publisher’s codes at the foot of page 221, the last page of text, and at the foot of the first page of the publisher’s advertisement at the end of the book: “374” and “7AI74,” respectively.  These both point to an 1874 date, but that could be the date of printing, not actual publication.  The text pages might have been printed earlier and conceivably even repurposed from an earlier edition (Cotsen’s first edition of Reynard has the same number of pages in the text, as presumably did the second, which I’ve not myself seen).  A close analysis of the titles listed in the publisher’s advertisement could yield additional information about the date of publication, one of the reasons why these are now regarded as important pieces of bibliographic information and routinely noted in rare book catalog records and pagination collations.  That was not always the practice; once, advertisements went uncataloged and sometimes they were even physically excised altogether, especially during library binding; the copy of the first edition of Reynard in Princeton’s general stacks lacks the advertisements altogether, which were presumably removed during later library rebinding.

Title page for the 1st ed.; note differences in imprint info from the 3rd ed.

Title page for the 1st ed.; note differences in imprint info from the 3rd ed.

Another copy of the first edition, in the Cotsen collection, still in its original lilac cloth publisher’s binding (with a design similar to the third edition), retains the advertisements. Unfortunately, records of additional copies of Reynard in OCLC include only hypothetical dates, and none of these notes the edition.  At least one bibliographic source identifies this edition of Reynard as having first been published with Griset’s illustrations in 1869.4  (As an aside, one of the amazing things about a collection like Princeton’s is that fact that “reading copies” of books like this can be checked out to read–so I’m now reading about the “japes and bourdes” of Reynard at home, thanks to that copy.  Quite a story…)  Cassell’s version of Reynard was a popular book–the fact that it went through at least three different editions with the publisher testifies to that. Part of this popularity no doubt stemmed from its “coloured illustrations,” credited to Ernst Griset, a Victorian-era illustrator of no slight renown (and two illustrated plates are signed by him).

Plate facing p. 154: "The Fox Throws Down His Gage" challenging the wolf in front of King Lion.

Plate facing p. 154: “The Fox Throws Down His Gage” challenging the wolf in front of King Lion.

A look at Griset’s work here shows why it was popular–the crafty Reynard and the other animals are compellingly portrayed and characterized.  But part of the book’s appeal is the compelling story of Reynard itself, first published in English by Caxton in 1481 as one of the earliest books printed in England, and based on a Dutch version of the story from “nearly six centuries ago,” according to Samuel Phillips Day in his preface to this “one-syllable” edition (written in 1869, so the story of Reynard is now seven centuries old and counting!).  Contemporary scholars think the figure of Reynard originated in Alsace-Lorraine and that the name is derived from the German “Reginhard,” or “strong or crafty counsel.” Foxes have been associated with guile, craftiness, or slyness since the very earliest tales we have–just think of Aesop’s Fables or the fox-like, wily Odysseus.5

Detail showing Griset's signature on one of two signed plates, although all six are credited to him.

Detail showing Griset’s signature on one of two signed plates, although all six are credited to him.

The character of Reynard in this story is further portrayed as a fast-talking, treacherous trickster–the trickster a recurrent late medieval archetype–an aspect Griset captures well in his illustrations.  Would you buy a used car from this fox?

Caxton’s Reynard was not intended as a children’s story but rather a moral exemplum, meant to teach virtuous behavior via an engaging fable. Presumably though, children read the story, or were at least told some oral version of it–a panoply of talking animals, a regal court ruled by a lion (always popular in England!), good and bad exemplars in action would all have appealed to children of all ages.  But Reynard, like many comparable stories, was adapted specifically for child-readers.  Day’s “one syllable” version uses simplified words and hyphenated versions of longer words (even “Li-on”) in the manner of similar adaptations of “classics” for children: A Pilgrim’s ProgressRobinson Crusoe, or Gulliver’s Travels, for instance. A look at the first page of his text gives us an idea of how this style actually reads–better than a “one-syllable” text might seem in the abstract, which is generally true of similar adaptations I’ve seen.

Beginning of text, comprised primarily of the "one-syllable" words, with longer words hyphenated into syllables.

Beginning of text, comprised primarily of the “one-syllable” words, with longer words hyphenated into syllables.

As a final provenance-related aspect of interest, the copy of (the first edition of) Reynard in Princeton’s general stacks has an embossed ownership stamp from the library of the “College of New Jersey,” the name by which Princeton was known until officially renamed in 1896.  This gives us some idea of when the book was added to the library, but we don’t know for certain why a “one syllable” adaptation of Reynard was added to the University’s collection.  Was it because Reynard was such a renowned story? Or perhaps because it was seen as such a strong moral tale, especially for college students, in a era when morality was inseparable from education?  Was it perhaps seen as a complement to other versions of Reynard, for grown-ups, in the library, or as a notable adoption of Caxton’s early English version?  Was it because Griset’s illustrations were so admired at a time when his reputation was perhaps at its height? Or was it just a recent “best-seller” that a librarian thought might both delight and teach college students? We’ll never know for sure, but that shouldn’t prevent us from savoring the book we have before us now.  That’s certainly what I’m doing, and isn’t that really the point of any book, either for children or grown-ups?

Library stamp on title page of Princeton's general collection copy of Reynard (1st. ed), noting "The College of New Jersey," the University's name until changed in 1896.

Library stamp on title page of Princeton’s general collection copy of Reynard (1st. ed), noting “The College of New Jersey,” the University’s name until changed in 1896.

  1. David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History: a Handbook, 1994.
  2. Simon Nowell-Smith, The mHouse of Cassell, 1848-1958, 1958.
  3. Philip A. H. Brown, London Publishers and Printers, c. 1800-1870, 1982.
  4. Simon Houfe, The Dictionary of 19th Century British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1996.
  5. “Reynard Cycle,” Wikipedia; accessed Aug. 26, 2011.