The Secret Lives of Books: Uncovering the Hidden (and not so Hidden) Clues

“In a good book the best is between the lines.”

– Swedish proverb

Remember this quote we left you with last time?  Ostensibly the saying is a Swedish proverb (I’m skeptical), but whatever the origin, it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.  While I’m sure the intent behind the proverb is to extol the merits of interpretive analysis (“reading between the lines,” as it were), I’m happy to take the quote at face value and apply it to the study of provenance.

Cataloging the unique traits of rare books at MSU, I’m reminded again and again that often the most interesting things about a book are incidental to its original, printed content.  As Peter Berg, Head of MSU Special Collections, put it:

“If every picture tells a story, as the saying goes, then it can be said that almost every book tells two stories.”

One story is obvious, of course, but in order to uncover a book’s second story we sometimes have to literally read between the lines — or look in the margins, on the flyleaves, etc.  Here are revealed the secret lives of books: not just the stuff of bibliographies, but of biblio-biographies, life histories told through copy-specific features such as annotations, marks of ownership, or peculiarities in the way books were bound.

It is this last category, in particular, that has been on my mind a lot this week.

Hand-bound books, like any truly artisanal product, occasionally have some idiosyncratic features.  For example, throughout history bookbinders have often repurposed leftover materials — scraps of wastepaper or pages from discarded books — to shore up new binding projects.  As a result, many old books have fragments of other, even older books or manuscripts hidden within their spines or pasted under their endleaves.  When they form part of a book’s pastedown endpaper, these pieces of “binding waste” are often plainly visible, and can be a valuable and easily decipherable piece of provenance evidence.

Here at MSU I have run across several instances of this repurposed binding waste.  Below is one example I found just the other day:

Front pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Front pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Rear pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor

Rear pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

These images show both the front and rear pastedowns of MSU’s copy of Titles of honor, printed in 1631.  Although the work is a treatise on peerage and heraldry, a little bit of research shows that the pages used for its pastedown endsheets come from Book V of the Decretals of Gregory IX, a series of 13th-century papal letters on canonical Catholic law.  I have not yet been able to identify the particular edition represented here, but given the date of the binding and the fact that the text is printed (and not manuscript), its date must fall within a range of 150 years or so.  The appearance of the paper (comparable to that in the text block) and the fact that these pages were on-hand for use as binding waste makes it likely that they come from a printing roughly contemporary with that of the larger work.

Rear pastedown of MSU's 1695 copy of De arte graphica by C. A. Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Rear pastedown of MSU’s 1695 copy of De arte graphica by Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Above is another example of discarded pages being used anew.  The work is John Dryden’s 1695 English translation of De arte graphica, or The art of painting, by French painter C. A. Du Fresnoy (originally published in 1668).  The page used in the pastedown is a fragment of John Speed’s geographical study and atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, first published in 1611.  As with the first example, this binding waste has nothing in common with the content of the volume into which it is bound, and was likely just the first piece of scrap paper the binder happened to grab.  This page is hidden a little better than the two used in the previous example, and features less printed text, but most of the words are still visible through the sheet pasted on top.

But scraps of binding waste aren’t the only pieces of provenance evidence that can be found on a book’s pastedown endpapers.  As we have seen before, the inside of the front cover was often the go-to place for ownership inscriptions, bookplates, library stamps, and other marks of provenance.  Like binding waste, these other pieces of evidence can occasionally be hidden in plain sight.  Such was the case of the Phytobasanos:

MSU's copy of

MSU’s 1744 copy of Fabio Colonna’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU's copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU’s copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Fabio Colonna’s botanical study ΦΥΤΟΒΑΣΑΝΟΣ, or Phytobasanos (The Torture of Plants, or possibly Botanical Touchstone), was originally published in Naples in 1592, although MSU’s copy of the work is a modestly-bound 1744 edition.  This particular copy is interesting for a number of reasons.  On the title page, the place of publication for this volume is listed as Milan (“Mediolani”) although several other surviving copies of this 1744 edition indicate that they were published — apparently concurrently — in Florence (see for example the copies at UT Dallas or the Lyon Public Library).

In addition, the book features a couple of fascinating and potentially telling inscriptions.  On the title page (shown above) is an ownership inscription from “Georgius Mauritius Lowitz”, dated 1751 (MDCCLI).  As it turns out, this is the Latinized name of a certain Georg Moriz Lowitz, who happens to have an entry in the CERL Thesaurus (a database of historical names maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries).  According to the Thesaurus, Lowitz died in 1774, and in 1776 his library was sold at auction.

Inscription on the front pastedown

Inscription on the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Another interesting inscription, useful for establishing part of this volume’s ownership history, can be found at the top of the front pastedown:

Jo: Gabrieli Doppelmair Viro Sapientissimo
                                                  Janus [?]anny offert

If we Anglicanize the names and translate the Latin, the text reads as follows:

[To] Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, the wisest man
                                         Presented [by] Janus [?]anny 

This presentation inscription records the gift of the book to Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, a notable late 17th/early 18th century German mathematician and scientist (who even has a crater on the moon named after him).  While this inscription is undated, it must fall within the relatively small window between 1744 (when the book was published) and 1750 (when Doppelmair died).

Both of these inscriptions are crucial to our understanding of this book’s provenance, and the Doppelmair inscription in particular is interesting in its own right (and it gives the work some added value through association with a noteworthy historical figure) — but surprisingly, none of this information is included in the book’s current catalog record.

But I digress.

Front pastedown endpaper

Front pastedown endpaper of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The reason I brought up the Phytobasanos in the first place is not because of its ownership inscriptions.  Take a look at the entire front pastedown — what else do you see?  There is a Dewey Decimal call number penciled near the Doppelmair inscription, as well as a library stamp…  There’s a price (and $5 no less!), and a curious red mark (possibly wax).  But what’s going on near the bottom of the page?  This is where things really get interesting.  It appears as though some sort of bookworm has eaten through part of the endpaper — and through the hole it created, there are markings visible underneath the pastedown:


Close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Not only are there markings showing through from beneath the pastedown, but the markings appear to be manuscript writing!  Wanting to investigate further, but not wanting to damage the book any more than the insect already had, I was able to carefully pry up some of the loose page (the glue had failed just below the worm-line), and get a better view of the text written there:


Extreme close-up, underneath the pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

“Vicaria” — in ink, in manuscript, under the pastedown endpaper.  It may be difficult to see in these photographs, but there appeared to be even more writing underneath the pastedown, above the text visible through the wormhole (so to speak).  That portion of the page, however, was still firmly glued to the inner surface of the cover.  I called in Eric Alstrom, Head of Conservation and Preservation at MSU, and we discussed possible methods of reading this additional text without causing irreparable damage to the book.  We ultimately decided to spray a fine mist of ethyl alcohol over the area in question, which rendered the pastedown translucent enough to read what was written underneath.


The secret revealed: close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), sprayed with ethanol.

As we sprayed the page with ethanol, the text slowly began to reveal itself.  However, discoloration of the paper, combined with some old bubbling between the pastedown and the cover board, made it somewhat difficult to read the entire inscription.


Close-up of the hidden text in MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), computer enhanced.

As far as we could tell given our limited success, the full text of the inscription reads as follows:

   M Rev°: Prē [???]

The text following Prē is difficult to make out, but it appears to be either a “G” or a “6” followed by two smaller, round characters.  I hypothesized that Prē might be short for “pretium” and that the text which follows could represent a price, such as “6-0-0” — but it is difficult to know for sure.  A little research into the other marks produced some additional (speculative) results.  M Rev° seems to be an abbreviation for “Monsignor Reverend” or “Monsignor Reverendissimo” (official forms of address for certain members of the Roman Catholic clergy), while Vicaria can either refer to a specific neighborhood of Naples or to an Italian vicarage more generally (the residence of a vicar or vice-regent).  Putting all of these clues together, could this be a note from the binder, indicating his client, price, and location?

A little learning is a dangerous thing, as the saying goes, and I am hardly an expert on mid-18th century binding marks.  Have any of our readers encountered similar inscriptions?  If you have some insight into the meaning of this text, please post a comment below and help us identify this mysterious piece of provenance evidence.

It’s amazing to think that were it not for the destructive dietary habits of a library pest, this hidden message might never have been revealed.  How many other books in the Special Collections vault bear similar secret marks of provenance, which will never see the light of day?  What else is out there?

Every day there are new surprises here at MSU Special Collections, and the work of a biblio-detective is never done!

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Found in the Vault: Dryden’s Poems with Manuscript Additions

Happy belated New Year to our readers!

This week we’re going to look at one of the most heavily annotated books we’ve come across so far during the course of the Provenance Project here at MSU Special Collections: a collection of poems by 17th century English Poet Laureate John Dryden.  This 1688 anthology, entitled Dryden’s Poems, is a collection of eight individual pamphlets of Dryden’s poetry (ranging in date from 1681 to 1688), bound together in contemporary calfskin.  What’s particularly interesting about this volume is that bound into the work are over 100 additional leaves of late 17th century paper, approximately 30 of which contain manuscript notes, poems, and letters identified as being “by Dryden and others” (see the MSU online catalog entry for this item).

Dryden Manuscript Page 1The manuscript additions begin on the earliest pages of the volume, before any printed material.  The first few pages are devoted to a poetic quotation, attributed to Milton, by an unknown annotator.  The first page of this quote is included here.

Directly following this is a manuscript copy of “A Pathetic Farewell” from Richard Glover’s 1737 epic poem Leonidas, seemingly in the same handwriting.  It should be noted that Dryden died in 1700, ruling out the possibility that these annotations are his.

Dryden Manuscript Page 2

Excerpt from Glover’s Leonidas. In MSU’s copy of Dryden’s Poems (XX PR3412.D7).

Throughout the collection of poetry are a number of other provenance markers, including many more inserted manuscript pages.  Also of interest are the notes written in the margins of Dryden’s allegorical “Absalom and Achitophel,” a poem couching references to political events in contemporary England in language ostensibly about a biblical story.

Dryden Manuscript Page 3These marginal notes reveal the true identities behind most of the allegorical names in the poem.  David is revealed to symbolize King Charles (Charles II), Absalom to be James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, Israel to be England, Jerusalem or Sion [Zion] to be London, and so on.  It is not clear who is responsible for these illuminating marginalia, but they seem to more or less reflect scholarly consensus on the poem’s allegories.  The notes appear to be more or less contemporary with the printing of the volume.

Dryden Manuscript Page 4

Descriptive marginalia accompanying “Absalom and Achitophel” in Dryden’s Poems.  Only the first few pages are reproduced here.

Dryden Manuscript Page 5Directly following the Absalom marginalia is another inserted manuscript sheet, this one a series of excerpts from a published series of sermons (originally given by Samuel Clarke in 1704-1705) awkwardly titled A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, the Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation.  The abridged quotation begins:  “Atheism arises from stupid ignorance, gross corruption of manners or false philosophy…”  The recto page is shown here.

Do you see any similarities between the handwriting on this page and that on the previous manuscript pages?  It’s difficult to tell whether a majority of the passages were written by the same hand, but that remains a distinct possibility.  As with the excerpt from Leonidas above, the date of the quoted material excludes Dryden as the possible annotator.

The next major addition to the printed book comes in the section containing Dryden’s poem The Hind and the Panther.  It appears that the first four printed pages of this particular copy of the poem were lost, and someone has replaced the missing pages with meticulous handwritten text.  The unnamed annotator even went as far as replicating the appearance of the page numbers and title.  Compare the handwritten title page of Part I of the poem (on the left) to the printed title page of Part II (on the right):

Dryden Manuscript Page 6

The final twelve printed pages of this poem were also apparently damaged or lost, and manuscript substitutions for those pages were also bound into the volume in their proper place.  Below you can see where the manuscript copy picks up again, as well as the final (handwritten) page of the poem.  Note that aside from the faux print look of the manuscript title page, the handwriting on these pages is again similar to the earlier annotations in this book.  Perhaps they all belong to the same author?

Dryden Manuscript Page 7

Transition from printed page to manuscript page in “The Hind and the Panther,” Dryden’s Poems.

Dryden Manuscript Page 8

Final page of “The Hind and the Panther,” in manuscript. Also note the large ink blot on the following printed page.  The characteristics of the paper also change — this is the beginning of a new pamphlet bound into this volume.

The final few manuscript pages are where things start to get really interesting.  In the nearly 100 pages added to the back of the volume, there are a number of excerpted poems, transcribed letters, and other annotations, in what appear to be at least four different hands.  The first of these is a passage from Lucretius, signed J. Dryden.  Could it actually be from the Poet Laureate?  The handwriting does appear to differ from that in the beginning of the book, in those annotations we have already shown cannot be from Dryden.  Does the handwriting look similar to that in the marginal notes on “Absalom and Achitophel” or in “The Hind and the Panther”?

Dryden Manuscript Page 9

Dryden Manuscript Page 10Following this passage from Lucretius is a manuscript copy of a poem addressed to Dryden by Wentworth Dillon, the 4th Earl of Roscomon, on the former’s “Religio Laici” (a poem also included in this collection).  The handwriting is nearly identical to that in the Lucretius excerpt, making it possible that this poetic commentary on Dryden’s work could have been written into the back of this volume by Dryden himself.  The first page of this poem is shown on the right.  Can you see the similarity in the handwriting between this page and the previous two?

This has only been a sample of the many manuscript pages bound into this collection of Dryden’s poems.  Most of the images included in this post only represent the first page or two of their respective manuscript sections, and there are additional essays, letters, and other handwritten pages bound into this volume – too many to realistically include in this singular content update.  The selection given above, however, is representative of the general form taken by these manuscript additions, and also includes the most unique or interesting instances.

Quite a few of the rare books here in MSU Special Collections have at least some markers of provenance, but only a handful have such a depth of supplementary material that it takes nearly an entire day or more to read and catalog it all.  Understanding the origin of many of the annotations in Dryden’s Poems is an ongoing process, and the provenance of these passages is still being investigated.  At times it can seem like the work of a provenance detective is never done!  We’ll post an update if we uncover anything else interesting in the manuscript additions to MSU’s copy of Dryden’s Poems.

Until next time, contemplate the double meaning of this lovely quote we stumbled upon the other day:  In a good book the best is between the lines.”  

Hope to see you back soon!

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Found in the Vault: An Inscription From F. Scott Fitzgerald

As promised last time, this week I’m highlighting a particularly interesting and timely find in the Special Collections vault:  A personalized presentation inscription from F. Scott Fitzgerald, found inside a first edition copy of his book The Great Gatsby.  

With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film version of the novel earlier this year, it’s safe to say that The Great Gatsby has been in the public consciousness quite a bit lately, whatever anyone’s particular opinion of the movie may have been.

Author's presentation inscription.  Front free endpaper, The Great Gatsby (XX PS3511.I9 G7 1925 c.2)

Author’s presentation inscription. Found on the front free endpaper of MSU’s first edition copy of The Great Gatsby (XX PS3511.I9 G7 1925 c.2)

The inscription, made out to Charles T. Scott, provides some interesting insight into the character of Jay Gatsby, and gives us a glimpse at Fitzgerald’s creative process in writing the novel:

 Gatsby was never quite real to me.  His original served for a good enough exterior until about the middle of the book he grew thin and I began to fill him with my own emotional life.  So he’s synthetic – and that’s one of the flaws in this book.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ellerslie, Edgemoor, Delaware, 1927

Aside from its potential literary importance, this inscription is also an especially valuable piece of provenance evidence.

The start point and the end point for the book’s chain of custody are obvious, of course – the book was published in 1925 and belongs to MSU Special Collections now.  The presentation inscription is dated 1927, which means that the author likely had the book in his possession prior to that date, at which point it changed hands to Charles T. Scott, the recipient named in the inscription.  But what about the ownership history of the volume in the intervening years?

It’s easy to see that this inscription could be very interesting from a literary or scholarly perspective.  More than merely an author’s autograph or a personalized dedication (e.g., “To my good friend Charles – enjoy!”), this note gives us new information about the author’s own perspective of a central character in The Great Gatsby  a work still widely read and studied, considered to be one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

Such an inscription would surely be of interest to scholars of literature or Fitzgerald bibliographers, then — and indeed we find it quoted in a few different sources.  A reference to this inscription turns up in a short essay by James E. Miller, Jr., in a Bloom’s Guides edition of The Great Gatsby.  The inscription is also quoted in a biography of Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson entitled Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Donaldson writes:

While Daisy was obviously modeled on Ginevra King, Fitzgerald originally based the figure of Gatsby on a stock manipulator he’d encountered in Great Neck and then let the character gradually change into himself. “Gatsby was never quite real to me,” he admitted. “His original served for a good enough exterior until about the middle of the book he grew thin and I began to fill him with my emotional life.”

But how did these authors cite the text of this inscription, an inscription unique to the copy in MSU Special Collections?  Might they have viewed the book at MSU, or was the inscription noted in another source, predating the university’s acquistion of the volume?

Donaldson fortunately cites a source for his quotation:  F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Descriptive Bibliography, by the late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.  In that work, Bruccoli indicates that an old bookseller catalog was his source for the transcribed inscription.  Some additional research returns another, more recent work edited by Bruccoli:  F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006.   This work provides the bookseller’s description of this particular copy, from Goodspeed’s Catalogue #303 in 1938, which lists the book for sale — and for $4.50 no less.  First edition dust jackets tell us that The Great Gatsby was originally sold in 1925 for $2.00!

Entry in Goodspeed's Catalogue, from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.

Entry in Goodspeed’s Catalogue, from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.  Image from Google Books.

This catalog entry gives us another link in the chain:  at some point in the 11 years since the book was gifted to Charles Scott it ended up at Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston.

A second entry in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace gives another bookseller’s description of the item – appearing in a 1941 sale of the collection of H. Bertram Smith, at the Parke-Bernet auction house in New York (Sale Number 325, 10-11 December).  This tells us that at some point in the three years between its listing in Goodspeed’s Catalogue and its listing in the Parke-Bernet sale, the book came into the possession of Mr. Smith, whoever he might have been (note that the price of the book has gone up again).

Entry in a sale catalog of the collection of H. Bertram Smith, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1941.  Also found in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace.

Entry in an auction catalog for the collection of H. Bertram Smith, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1941. Also found in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace.  Image from Google Books.

But we may be able to fill in more of the links in this volume’s chain of custody.  Looking at MSU’s acquisition record for this particular item, we find that the book was donated to MSU Special Collections in 1998 — on May 28th, to be precise.  The acquisition record provides us with the previous owner.  We’re currently in the process of reconnecting with that donor, and part of that process is to inquire about his (or his family’s) acquisition of the book.  I had wanted to hold off on this post until that information had been collected, but I’ll hopefully have an update for you in the coming weeks that fills in more of this book’s ownership history — and the chances are good that with a little more digging we’ll have a complete picture of this volume’s provenance.

While it is uncommon to be able to recreate a book’s complete ownership history through a single piece of provenance evidence, in the case of this particular copy of The Great Gatsby, we may very well be able to do just that.  Cases like this one show just how crucial and potentially rewarding studying provenance can be.

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Provenance Project Update

We’re back after an especially long Fall hiatus.  Next week I’m going to have quite an interesting update for you, a unique presentation inscription with importance for literary scholars.  We’ll also be looking at how a little research can sometimes allow us to reconstruct a nearly complete chain of custody for a rare book, even if we only have a single piece of provenance evidence to go on.  I had hoped to have that post ready for you this week, but first there’s a little more work that needs to be done.

In the meantime, it’s time for an update on the current state of MSU’s Special Collections Provenance Project.  When I started working with MSU Special Collections staff to develop a system for uncovering and recording the provenance evidence of the books in their vault, I was tasked with writing a handbook for future Special Collections librarians and student employees to use.  It’s been an ongoing project in and of itself over the past several months, informed by hands-on experience with a wide range of interesting books, and in turn informing how we investigate provenance moving forward.  I’m pleased to report that the manual is about 95% complete, and will likely be published by the library before the month is out!

Here are some sample pages (All images and their textual content © 2013 Andrew Tenopir-Lundeen and/or Michigan State University):

Handbook Cover

Handbook Page iii

Handbook Page 19

When it’s completed, several copies will reside in Special Collections to aid staff in continuing the provenance work begun earlier this year.  I’m pleased with how far the Special Collections Provenance Project has come in such a short time!

If updates on the Provenance Handbook aren’t enough to tide you over until next week’s more substantial update, here are a couple of fun doodles found in books in the Special Collections vault to keep you interested:

Doodle 1This drawing of a partridge (humorously misspelled and then partially corrected by the artist) can be found in MSU’s copy of Machiavels Discovrses from 1636 (XX JC143.M163 1636).  Perhaps its creator was a Mr. Partridge himself?  Do you think there might be any higher purpose in this doodle, or is it merely the result of boredom?  Is there any clue as to a possible date for the drawing?  What could we learn based on the handwriting style or the fading ink?

Doodle 2What about this illustration of a woman, found on one of the front endpapers of MSU’s The Vale-royall of England, or, The county palatine of Chester illustrated (XX folio DA670.C6 K5 1656)?  Can you say anything about the medium of this drawing?  Is there anything we can say about its possible date?  Whether or not these drawings give us any useful information about the provenance of these particular volumes, they do illustrate  a fairly common feature in book ownership, and they show us that in some sense, people haven’t changed all that much.

See you next week!

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Found in the Vault: Ownership Inscriptions and More

“The easiest and most common way to indicate ownership of a book is to write one’s name in it.”

David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History

Book owners have been inscribing their names on endpapers, flyleaves, and title pages ever since the invention of the book.  Not every signature necessarily indicates ownership, of course – authors have been signing copies of their work for other people nearly as long as people have been signing their own books, and students are often encouraged to write their names in the front of textbooks, books which may get reused year after year.  Take the following inscription found in the front of MSU’s copy of English Orthographie, a primer on reading and writing from 1670:

William Richards

William Richards
not owner of this
book but his name
in it yould find if rite
you look

If you do look to the rite (right), you’ll see a series of squiggles that apparently is supposed to be Richards’ signature.  Turning to the inside of the back cover (the rear pastedown endpaper), we can see that this particular scribe has been quite busy, again practicing his elaborate signature:

William Richards 2And in case you were curious about the upside-down line written in the outer margin of that first picture, it appears to be part of a song or a poem our William Richards was writing:

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]...

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]…

The Jacobean-era handwriting, combined with the flourishes of someone keen to show off his penmanship, make these inscriptions somewhat challenging to read.  Look at the varying ways Richards writes even the same letters in that first inscription!  This isn’t helped by the fluidity of spelling which was common prior to the late 19th century.  Writers would sometimes even change up the spelling of words from line to line, even varying the spelling of their own names at different points in a single text.  We can see an example of this in another set of inscriptions at MSU:

John Baskervyle His Book 1718 Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of

John Baskervyle
His Book
Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of Des. Erasmi Roterod. Colloqvia; nunc emendatiora (XX PA8506 1679).

John Baskervile Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf.

John Baskervile
Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf of the same book.

This loose approach to spelling is compounded by the style of early handwriting, making many manuscript inscriptions in books very difficult for the untrained modern eye to read.  Combine these issues with the characteristic quirks of an individual’s penmanship (as we saw last week in the John Greenleaf Whittier letter), and making heads or tails of some provenance evidence can be quite the challenge indeed.  I’m going to leave you this week with another inscription that time has made difficult to interpret.  Can you make out what it says?  Post your best transcription in the comments below!


Inscription in MSU’s copy of The Passion of Dido for Æneas (XX PA6807.A5 W3), Virgil, translated by Edmund Waller & Sidney Godolphin in 1658.

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Found in the Vault: A Letter from John Greenleaf Whittier

This week we’re bringing you some new content that’s unique to MSU Special Collections!  Each chapter of Found in the Vault is going to highlight some interesting examples of (potential) provenance evidence found in MSU’s rare books, uncovered during the course of this project.

For our first installment we’re looking at MSU’s first edition of Lays of my home, and other poems by 19th-century Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.  Whittier is perhaps best known today as one of the Fireside Poets, and as the namesake of the town of Whittier, California (and its eponymous liberal arts college).  Pasted inside MSU’s copy of this 1843 collection of Whittier’s works is the following note:

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU's Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Note from John Greenleaf Whittier, found tipped into MSU’s copy of Lays of my home, and other poems (XX PS3259.L2)

Whittier’s handwriting makes the note somewhat difficult to read, but it appears to be a letter of recommendation written for the poet’s nephew, Charles Franklin (C. F.) Whittier.  The note reveals that Charles is looking for work as a bookkeeper and clerk in New York, and praises the youth as being “Honest & capable” with three years of experience already as a clerk.  Whittier writes, “I have no doubt he would faithfully & satisfactorily discharge his duties,” and signs the letter “Your friend, John G. Whittier.”

Closeup of Whittier's signature

Closeup of Whittier’s signature

Unfortunately, someone folded the note right over the autograph, but once flattened out and pieced back together enough remains to authenticate the signature as belonging to the poet.  Underneath, a (later) note identifies Whittier as “The Quaker Poet” – lest the author be confused for another 19th-century John G. Whittier living in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

It is unclear how exactly this letter found its way into this collection of poetry.  There are no other markers of provenance in or on the book, so we have no way of knowing whether this copy may have belonged to Whittier’s nephew himself (unlikely), his potential employer, who would have presumably received the note (more likely), or some unrelated, unknown third party who decided to combine two rare items related to the poet in order to boost the book’s value (most likely).  We may never know the answer, but letters like this one will always be a fertile ground for study, as they are by their very nature unique.

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The Marginal Note That Sparked One of Math’s Greatest Mysteries

First things first, I want to apologize for the significant gap in time between the last post and this one.  Things have been a bit hectic, but now that everything is back on track the blog will be updated with regularity.  With the introductory posts out of the way, content will be more frequent and less lengthy.

This week I want to focus on a particular type of provenance evidence, marginalia.  People write in books for a number of different reasons, but these marginal notes are most often textual commentary or study aides.  Occasionally, when reading through the notes someone left in an old text, it feels almost as if that person is speaking to you, personally, through the veil of ages.  Marginal note-takers often word their annotations in a particular voice that addresses either the author of the text, or the reader directly.   Notes in the latter case are likely intended to serve as reminders to the annotator himself, but when the notes outlive the note-taker they can seem to speak directly to any future reader.

This particular quality of voice lends some marginal notes a tantalizing air of mystery, when they seem to be speaking directly to us, but (since they were usually written for the writer himself) are cryptic and reference persons or events unknown to us.  Let’s look at a somewhat well-known example that shows just how important and frustrating marginalia can be: the story of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Pierre de Fermat was a seventeenth century French lawyer and an amateur mathematician.  He made a number of contributions to several fields of mathematics, and like many scholars of his time, would frequently scrawl copious amounts of notes in the margins of the various books and manuscripts in his personal mathematical library.

Fermat would often annotate books in his collection claiming to have worked out proofs to mathematical problems posed therein.  After his death, his son published special editions of many of these books, editions which included the text of Fermat’s marginal annotations.  The notes outlived their creator, and allowed the mathematician to speak to future scholars long after he was gone.

Readers of these annotations were often curious about the bold claims Fermat made, that he had worked out proofs of a number of mathematical conjectures.  As people read through his work, however, or attempted to solve the problems themselves, they realized that Fermat’s claims were seemingly based in reality.  Eventually, every problem that Fermat claimed was solvable was proven by future mathematicians – every problem but one.

In his copy of Diophantus’s Arithmetica, Fermat wrote a particularly vague and vexing annotation next to the explanation of one problem.  Addressing the problem posed by Diophantus of how to split a given square number into two other squares (as in Pythagoras’s famous equation a2+b2=c2), Fermat made the bold claim that “it is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers.  I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.

No proof of this conjecture was ever found in Fermat’s other notes or surviving writings, and unlike the mathematician’s other striking claims, this supposed lost proof of Fermat’s theorem would elude mathematicians for centuries.  A solution was not found for this conjecture until Andrew Wiles finally cracked the case in 1995.

Science and math journalist Simon Singh wrote a book on the history of Fermat’s problem, and in the video below he weaves the tale of the 358-year hunt for a proof sparked by this infamous marginal note.

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