Tag Archives: bookbindings

Guest post: Book inscriptions and family history research

Following on from the success of the recent Family History Show at UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre, Dr Lauren O’Hagan shares some of her top tips for using book inscriptions as an entry point into family history research.


Most of us have dusty, old books tucked away in our attics, cupboards or garages that once belonged to our parents, grandparents or distant relatives. These books are an unexpected and useful resource for carrying out genealogical research. Inscriptions provide us with the names and addresses of unknown ancestors, or they can also offer personal information not found elsewhere about their daily lives and hobbies.

Here’s a guide on how you can use book inscriptions in your family history research:

1. Family Bibles
Considered the ‘life blood’ of Christian families, Bibles were once used to record births, deaths, marriages, and significant life events, such as a child’s illness or a son going off to war. Civil registration was not introduced until 1837 (in England and Wales) and was made compulsory in 1874: Bibles are therefore a useful way to trace your family roots without having to trawl through parish records.

2. Birthday Books and Daily Scripture Books
Popularised in the mid-nineteenth century, these gift books contained printed content and blank spaces to record birthdays. Many owners also used them to document deaths, marriages, funerals, christenings, new jobs, moving house and world events. They are an important way to explore a family member’s social networks.

3. Autograph Books and Confession Books
These books shed light on ancestors’ wit, humour and irony because they required owners, and their family and friends, to answer pre-written questions on their personality, tastes and interests, such as: What is your idea of happiness? What are your favourite qualities in a man/woman? Who is your favourite author?

4. Ownership Inscriptions
This is the most basic form of inscription, consisting of the owner’s name, and may also be accompanied by their address and date of inscription. This information can be essential when starting out on the journey into your family history. Sketches, poems, newspaper clippings, comments and even curses to protect books from theft can also appear alongside an ownership inscription, all of which can help make your ancestor come to life as a person.

5. Gift Inscriptions
Books inscribed as presents from one person to another can show links and relationships between people that may be harder to discern from more official records.

6. Author Inscriptions
These inscriptions are often written by the author to the recipient at a book signing or event, and can give an insight into your ancestors’ reading tastes and interests.

7. Prize Inscriptions and Prize Stickers
Awarding books as prizes for attendance and good behaviour was common across schools, Sunday schools and clubs in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Books containing prize stickers are a real treasure trove because they contain comprehensive details of the awardee, their address and the specific institution that they attended. This can supply information on their religious denomination, and help focus local archive searches of school and Sunday school records.

8. Bookplates
Bookplates are small, decorative labels used to denote book ownership. Traditionally, bookplates were used only by the upper classes who commissioned artists to custom-design ciphers, rebuses or armorials with heraldic symbols relating to their lineage. These symbols can be identified fairly easily using resources such as the College of Arms database. By the early twentieth century, most bookplates were pictorial and showcased images that reflected anything from an owner’s favourite sport or literary character to their religious or political beliefs. These bookplates offer a whimsical way of discovering the person behind your ancestor’s name.

9. Marginalia
These marks or comments made in the margins of books can give us a sense of our ancestors’ thought process and how they engaged with their books.

10. Booksellers’ and Binders’ Labels
Many books from the Victorian and Edwardian eras feature booksellers’ or binders’ labels, which tell us the specific location that a book was purchased or bound. These labels can often be cross-referenced with the ownership inscription to aid initial census searches.

Hopefully, these handy tips will encourage you to search your house for old books and get starting on your family history research! Enjoy!

Ligatus Summer School 2017

I have been fascinated by books as physical objects ever since I was a student in the MLIS programme at UCLA, where I somehow got a job making archival boxes and doing simple book repairs in the Library Conservation Center. It was in the conservation lab that I encountered my first 400-year-old book, and it is largely because of that experience that I decided to specialise in rare books librarianship. For several years, I have wanted to enrol in Professor Nicholas Pickwoad‘s course on European Bookbindings, 1450-1830, which he offers every year through various different programmes including Rare Book School at the University of Virginia and London Rare Books School. Earlier this month, I finally had the opportunity to enrol in his course through Ligatus Summer School, and it was every bit as exciting (and exhausting) as I’d hoped.

Norwich_Cathedral_Library

The library at Norwich Cathedral.

This year’s summer school was hosted by the Norwich Cathedral Library, and consisted of lectures in the mornings, followed by hands-on sessions looking at examples of different binding structures in the afternoons. Two of the afternoons were spent in the cathedral library itself, and during the rest of the week we visited the libraries of Blickling Estate, Holkham Estate, and Felbrigg Hall. It was a real treat to be able to go behind the scenes of these historic properties and examine portions of their book collections in detail.

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Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742) moved his library from London to Blickling Hall in Norwich in the 1740s.

The first day of the course included the usual round of introductions: who we are, where we come from, and why we’re on the course. Out of twelve students on the course, I was surprised to learn that I was one of just two librarians; all of the other students were book and paper conservators. While I enjoyed the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, I was somewhat disappointed that my own profession was not better represented. Because rare book stacks are not generally open for browsing, the library catalogue (or sometimes a particularly knowledgeable librarian) is the only avenue for researchers to find items that are relevant to their research. Unless cataloguers are able to describe bindings and other types of material evidence with the same level of accuracy and detail that we devote to bibliography, we are failing to provide researchers with an important means of accessing our collections. As it becomes possible for anyone with an internet connection to view a digitised version of the British Library or Bayerische Staatsbibliothek‘s copy of a particular text or edition, it is the unique characteristics (like bindings) of individual copies of books that will attract researchers into special collections reading rooms.

battered_books

Damaged books can reveal structural details that would not otherwise be visible.

Until quite recently, most of the literature on the history of bookbinding has focussed almost exclusively on decorative features such as tooling, exotic leathers, and colourful onlays rather than on the underlying structures. In other words, bindings are analysed as works of art rather than archaeological artifacts. Professor Pickwoad, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of identifying and cataloguing binding structures as evidence of when and where a book was bound, by whom, and for what purpose.

We looked at quite a lot of very beautiful books, but in many ways it was the ugly, battered ones that were the most interesting. It was the books whose endpapers were peeling and whose leather covers were torn that allowed us to see what materials the binder had chosen for the sewing supports and spine linings, and where he (or she) had cut corners to save time and money.

The purpose of a binding is to hold a book’s pages together and protect them against wear. During the Middle Ages, books were tremendously expensive luxury items, and binders took great pains to ensure that such a significant investment was well protected. With the advent of the printing press, books were produced in much larger numbers and at a fraction of the cost, and binders found numerous inventive ways to keep up with the demand for large numbers of reasonably-priced books, usually at the expense of structural integrity.

cartonnage_covers

These books look similar from the outside, but each one’s structure is slightly different.

Over the course of the week, we looked at each of the steps in binding a book, from assembling the endleaves, to sewing the bookblock, rounding and backing, sewing the endbands, attaching the boards, trimming the edges, covering the book, and finally finishing. With each step, we looked at how the techniques and materials used varied across regions, time periods, and price points. It was fascinating to see how books that looked almost identical on the surface revealed a multitude of different structures underneath, which could be traced to different times and places.

Prior to the industrial age, it was not uncommon for books to be sold without bindings or in cheap, temporary bindings, and for customers to have them rebound according to their taste and budget. Because bindings were often selected by the purchaser rather than the bookseller, they can tell us whether the reader was wealthy or poor, ostentatious or subdued, local or foreign. Over a book’s lifetime, it may be rebound because the old binding was worn or damaged, or because the owner wanted to dress it up a little. Some wealthy book collectors had their entire libraries rebound and decorated in a uniform style. By looking at a book’s underlying structure as well as its decorations, it is sometimes possible to find elements of earlier bindings which can tell us when and where the book was being read, and by whom.

unbound_sheets

Nicholas Pickwoad shows the class an Early Modern book that remains an unbound pile of hastily folded sheets.

Professor Pickwoad gives his students an enormous amount of information to absorb (for example, the leather preferred by Oxford bookbinders was often especially dark in colour, and they often tooled patterns of cross-hatching on their board edges near the spine; French binders often attached their boards by lacing the sewing slips through three holes instead of two; German binders often put especially sharp creases on the fore-edge extensions of their parchment bindings), but after a week of looking at dozens of examples, it was all beginning to sink in. As a rare materials cataloguer, I have always tried to include at least a brief description of each book’s binding–if nothing else, knowing what a book looks like makes it easier for library staff to find it on the shelf. Now, this course has given me the knowledge and vocabulary to describe not only what a book looks like, but how it was made. More importantly though, it has given me a new appreciation for the importance of bindings as artifacts that can help us to understand the movement of goods, people, and ideas throughout history. My hope is that by including better descriptions of bindings in the library’s catalogue, I can help to open up new avenues of research rooted in the archaeology of the book.

table_of_books

One of my classmates takes advantage of a tea break to record details of some of the books at Holkham Estate.

Fore-edge paintings by John T. Beer in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

IMG_0314 edit2I was delighted to discover this week that the Cardiff Rare Books Collection includes two books with fore-edge paintings by the artist John T. Beer. Fore-edge paintings are watercolour illustrations applied to the outside edges of a book’s pages; the technique dates back to before the invention of printing, possibly as early as the 10th century.

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A painting of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, arriving in Wales to a hostile reception appears on Cardiff’s copy of the third edition of Fox’s journals, published in 1765 (Weber-Beer 105).

John T. Beer was a successful Merseyside clothier and an avid book collector, who turned to fore-edge painting after his retirement and produced hundreds of works between 1884 and 1900. As he was not a professional painter working on commission, Beer was able to select books from his own collection, including several incunabula, and decorate them to his own taste. As our examples show, he often took inspiration from the contents of the book.

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“John preaching in the Wilderness”: Beer’s illustration on an early 16th century Latin Bible, printed at Lyon by Jacob Mareschal in 1514 (Weber-Beer 15).

IMG_0299 editIn the 1600s, some bookbinders even discovered they could paint just inside the fore-edges of a book then cover the outer edges with gilt to create a hidden illustration that was undetectable when the book was closed and visible only when the pages were fanned. Beer did not gild the fore-edges, but he did fan the pages before adding his illustration. Thus, the closed book shows a slightly squashed version of the scene, with the correct proportions only appearing with the pages are fanned open.

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The “open” scene on Fox’s journal. The artist would have fanned the pages and gripped them in a vice before applying the watercolour.

Beer did not sell any of his works in his lifetime and left more than 200 fore-edge paintings and painted bindings when he died. His entire collection was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in November, 1903, when these two volumes were apparently purchased for Cardiff Library.

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Fanning the pages of the Biblia Sacra to show the more “open” illustration.

Sources:
Weber, Jeff, The fore-edge painting of John T. Beer. Los Angeles, 2005.