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Hartmann’s Whitman: Remembrances from the King of the Bohemians

When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
– Walt Whitman, “When I Read the Book” (From Leaves of Grass)


The best pieces of provenance evidence — the most interesting inscriptions, marginalia, and annotations — tell us not only about the volume in our hands (where it has been, who owned it, and so on), they reveal something about the world beyond the book.  Handwritten indexes, nota benes, and underlining can clue us into what a particular reader took away from a given work.  Marginal glosses and textual commentary can reveal much about the history of scholarship and reading.  And occasionally, personal notes unrelated to the content of a book can give us great insight into the life and times of the book’s owner(s) and those they knew.

When the book owner in question is a particularly noteworthy historical figure, these personal inscriptions and annotations can be of special interest to the historian. One book that I like to trot out now and again as an example of this is our first edition copy of The Great Gatsby, inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author’s note in that book reveals something about his creative process, and gives us insight into the character of Jay Gatsby. This example is limited, however, because the note is terse, related wholly to the book at hand.

Provenance Project volunteer Meg Hughey recently discovered another book in our collections that illustrates this point even better: A copy of Walt Whitman’s 1871 poem After All, Not to Create Only owned by Whitman’s friend Sadakichi Hartmann.

Hartmann's bookplate, designed by "LB" -- his wife, Lillian Bonham Hartmann.

(Carl) Sadakichi Hartmann was a man with an eclectic background. Born in Japan in 1867 to a German merchant father and a Japanese mother, Hartmann was schooled in Germany before being disowned by his father at the age of 14 and sent to live in the United States. While making his way in the States as a young man, Hartmann taught himself to appreciate art and poetry, and before too long had become acquaintances with a number of notable contemporary authors and artists, including Walt Whitman (already near the end of his life when the young Hartmann came to know him).

By the early twentieth century, Hartmann was living in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and had become quite a well-known figure in the Bohemian community there. Hartmann fit right in among the unconventional, unattached artistic vagabonds of New York.  Guido Bruno, an eccentric Bohemian editor who published a number of poems, essays, and other musings by Greenwich Village regulars, even crowned Hartmann “King of the Bohemians.”


Hartmann’s copy of Whitman’s poem After All, Not to Create Only bears some evidence of his time in Greenwich Village. Pasted in the front is a programme, printed by Guido Bruno, announcing a poetry reading by Hartmann on October 25, 1915.


The illustration on the first page (by Hartmann’s common-law wife, Lillian Bonham) shows Hartmann frying eggs with a seated Walt Whitman.

trying hard to be
a great man, went
frying eggs with the great Whitman

The free event took place at Bruno’s Garret on Washington Square, and featured Hartmann reading some of his favorite poetry (“providing Sadakichi doesn’t change his mind”).

Sadakichi Hartmann, author of
“Christ,” “Buddha,” and “The
Whistler Book” will read, after an
introductory talk, selections from his
favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe and
from his fellow-journeyman for years,
Walt Whitman.


Most interesting, however, and unique to the copy in MSU Special Collections, is a series of notes penciled in the last few pages of the thin book. Hartmann appears to have used his copy of Whitman to record anecdotes from his personal life, including several stories of his interactions with Whitman himself. These short episodes reveal much about both poets, and their relationship.

In one note, Hartman recalls asking Whitman about his opinion of German authors Henrik Ibsen and Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Hartmann, Whitman claimed to have read neither of them. Hartmann goes so far as to claim that “Like most American authors, [Whitman] was extremely ignorant about contemporary foreign literature.”


Another note critical of the poet recounts Hartmann’s chance meeting with Whitman’s housekeeper in Philadelphia. When asked if Whitman had left the woman anything upon his death, she is said to have replied “Nothing to speak of… I thought he would do more.” Hartmann agrees, although he does note that Whitman left his housekeeper $200, at least (not a small sum of money in 1892).


Not all of the notes about Whitman are critical, however. Hartmann was clearly fond of Whitman, and he mentions readings he did of the elder poet’s work, positive conversations about Whitman with others, and one occasion where he came to Whitman’s defense against a doctor’s charges of insanity.


“Dr. Nordan asserted that Whitman showed traits of insanity,” Hartmann recalls. “I protested most vehemently to such a statement.” When the doctor asks if Whitman was absesnt-minded, Hartmann replies “Yes, but he was always a good listener.” The doctor (“the fanatic,” in Hartmann’s words) shoots back: “What of that? What on earth would prevent a mad man from being a good listener?” Hartmann remains silent on this point.

The anecdotes, however, aren’t all about Whitman.  Hartmann, as a regular in the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene and as an established author in his own right, was connected to a number of other noteworthy individuals.  He drops several names in his notes — in one he recounts drinking a bottle of champagne with “old Pfaff,” the proprietor of a popular Manhattan beer cellar, the two reminiscing about Whitman.


In another note Hartmann records that he sent six copies of an unnamed Whitman text to various literary critics, including Georg Brandes, author Paul Heyse, “some Russian critic,” and an individual noted only as “Sanagui.”


One of Hartmann’s longest notes tells of an early 1890s visit to the home of W.D. Howells, a well known author, editor, and critic of the time.  Hartmann, who didn’t really come into his own as a writer until later that decade, was apparently hard up for money at the time of his visit.  He showed up at Howells’ in the morning begging for five dollars, which the old man grudgingly handed over.  Hartmann promised to repay the loan the next time he came, cynically noting that “at that time I still believed in the possibility of such things,” but never visited Howells at his home again.


Another anecdote reinforces the idea that Hartmann was struggling financially for much of his early life.  “Publisher McKay was with a shotgun after me,” Hartmann notes.  “He wanted his $12 back.  But he did not succeed.”


In true Bohemian fashion, Sadakichi Hartmann never quite got out of his dire financial straits, despite his later success as a poet and literary critic.  He eventually moved to California, living and working in Hollywood (and even making a cameo on Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad).  In his later years, out of work and in deteriorating health, he moved in with one of his daughters in the California desert.  Hartmann eventually died in 1944, at the age of 77.

The Special Collections & Archives department of the University of California, Riverside holds a substantial collection of Hartmann’s papers.  It is rare to find his papers and remnants of his personal library “in the wild,” so to speak, and MSU is lucky to have his annotated copy of this Whitman poem.  The handwritten remembrances and anecdotes in the back typify the personal connection that many individuals have with their books, but Hartmann’s notes are peculiarly exceptional due to their uniqueness and association value.

Scans of all of the notes are below, with transcriptions.  I have cleaned up Hartmann’s punctuation slightly for readability, and included [in brackets] my assumptions about missing words affecting the meaning of certain sentences.  As with anything, though, some passages are up for interpretation.  Click on the images for full-sized versions.


I spoke about European
expositions. W. said “Oy!”
I said they seem to manage
them more artistically, perhaps
only in detail.
W. said “Show different things,
perhaps, but it amounts to the
same thing.”

One day I asked Whitman
about his opinion of Ibsen [and]
Niet[z]sche. He had read
neither of them. Like most
American authors he was
extremely ignorant about contemporary
foreign literature.


Mrs. Davis was a bad cook.
Sloppy, old New Jersey style.
Couldn’t fry meat, only
make gravy. Not even a
good baker. – Pam Walt!

Met Whitman’s housekeeper
after his death in Philadelphia.
I asked “Did he leave you
nothing?” She answered “Nothing
to speak of (Whitman left her
[$]200). I thought he would do
more.” And I believe he
should have.

Saw Donaldson repeatedly.
He lived in a simple red
brick house. He explained,
“I live in a house with such
a simple exterior, because
some day the Revolution
will come. People do not
know what is inside.”
D – fool!


Whitman did not like my
remark that some day he
would be put on the
back shelves, like all
of us suppose, [when?] we are no
longer a vital force, only
indirectly so as all good
literature. Kennedy told
me that I had no right
to say such things to the
old man.

Sent copies of Whitman at
my own expense to:
          Georg Brandes,
          Paul Heyse,
          Sanagui [?],
     some Russian critic,
and two other critics,
I have forgotten to whom.
          6 copies in all.

My article on Whitman in the
Münchener Neueste Nachrichten
was my first literary effort
that was printed (1885).


At my first Whitman reading
(1896 at Katherine Stagg’s house,
N.Y.), Stedman sent his secretary
as a representative. She
was silly enough to interrupt
me. “Please, tell me what
is all this about? Will
it go on forever?”
          “Until it is finished,” I

Drank a bottle of champagne
with old Pfaff. Had a place
somewhere near Madison Sq.
Did not get anything out
of him except that
“Whitman was a fine chap.”

Dr. Nordan asserted that Whitman
showed traits of insanity.
I protested most vehemently
to such a statement.
“Was he not absent minded?”
the doctor querried.
“Yes,” I replied, “but he was
always a good listener.”
“What of that?” the fanatic replied.
“What on earth would prevent
a mad man from being a
good listener?”


Lawyer Sewill of Camden,
one of Whitman’s admirers,
said to me
“One does not write about such
things. You know, one doesn’t.
One can not talk publicly
about the sex relations with
one’s wife.”
“But he did,” I insisted,
“and he thinks he was right.
Is not one man’s opinion as
good as another?”

Publisher McKay was with a
shotgun after me. He wanted
his $12 back. But he did not
succeed. The following witticism
     “I want the twelve dollars back.”
     “That is your business.”
     “I know it is. But when[…]
     how – from you – when will
     you ever have it to give it back?”
     “That’s my business.”

Called about 11 a.m. in the early [18]90[s] at W.D. Howells.
He came from his study,
the parlor, and said rather brusquely
          “I told you not to come in
the morning. I do not like to be
disturbed at this hour of the day.”
          “Excuse me—” I stammered.
“You came to talk to me about
Whitman? Well, you must come
“No, I came to ask you for five
dollars. I really need it very
Howells grumbled to himself, then
produced a five dollar note.
          “I [will] return it next time I come,” I
ventured to say. At that time I
still believed in the possibility of
such things.
          “Very well,” said Howells, “but
don’t come in the morning. Any
other time. Will be glad to
see you.”
          But somehow I never came
again, neither in the morning
nor any other time of the day.

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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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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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What Counts as Provenance Evidence?

The student of provenance is beset by many problems.  Inscriptions in books may be illegible, damaged, defaced, or removed altogether.  Bookplates… may be partly or wholly torn out, or may have other bookplates pasted on top… Many marks of ownership in early books rely on heraldry, an ancient discipline whose arcane codes and terminology are not immediately accessible to many people today.”

– David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History

Last week, we introduced the concept of rare book provenance, and briefly discussed some of the difficulties involved in its study.  This week, we’re going to be wading even deeper into the pool of provenance issues by asking you, the reader, what you think might be important enough to warrant recording as provenance evidence.  I would hardly consider myself an expert in provenance markers (I’m learning more every day), and much of what I know now I’ve had to teach myself on the job.  And while there are some handy provenance evidence guides and standardized lists of terminology, the subject makes for a tricky study because of its fluid nature – instances of provenance evidence can vary widely, and you never know exactly what you’ll find until you open up the covers.  Every book is unique.

Take MSU’s copy of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515), for example – a book I came across a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a modestly sized book, only 6 inches tall and less than an inch thick, smaller than most modern paperbacks.  Yet between its covers are crammed a staggering number of annotations, insertions, dates, codes, and marginalia.  These are the markings on the front endsheets:

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Some were clearly added since the book has been in MSU’s possession, while others are much, much earlier.  Some markings are relatively straightforward and easy to understand, while others are more mysterious.  How many different marks do you see?  Let’s be literal at this stage and refrain from judgment about which particular inscriptions are important for determining provenance.  I count at least 15 different potential provenance markers on these two pages alone.  I’ll highlight those below:

Post 2 Image 2

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1. This stamp seems relatively straightforward at first glance.  It was likely added by MSU, but does not conform to the way in which Special Collections marks its books today.  Indeed, I pointed this mark out to Special Collections head Peter Berg, and he seemed unsure just when exactly MSU had ever had a “rare book room,” referred to as such.  The acquisition of this book by MSU predates the existence of the Special Collections Department as we know it today (the Special Collections Library opened in 1962).  Do you think additional research about this particular mark is warranted, or is its value in our understanding the history of this book’s chain of custody relatively low?

2. Another library mark (likely tied to the stamp above it), this time a catalog entry.  It seems to be based on the Dewey Decimal system, with some additional notation added at the end.  The notation conforms to early MSU catalog entries, but is obsolete by the standards used in Special Collections today.  As with [1] above, how important is it to record old MSU markings like this, given that the book is still in MSU’s possession?  Can markers like these give us any useful information about how the book might have moved around within the University itself?

3. What do you make of these letters?  Could they be initials of a previous owner?  They are in pen, and look to predate the library marks.  Can you make out that first letter?  How would you record these markings on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet?

4. What could these numbers mean?  It looks like a date, but the handwriting and the nature of the medium (colored pencil or crayon) look too recent to make the date (1537) contemporary with the hand that wrote it down.  Could it be telling us something else important about the work, which was published in 1515?  Perhaps it’s attempting to date the signature above it, or perhaps it’s not a date at all.  Should we record these markings as potential provenance evidence?

5. What does this look like to you?  Could it be a signature?  It’s in pencil – could it be tied to the notes in [6] and/or [7], and does it look the same as the markings in [8]?  If we cannot decipher it, is it substantial enough to note as provenance data?

6. There is clearly a price recorded here – 2.50 – but is that price related to the other, more faded markings around it?  Is the price related to the note in [7]?  Is it the asking price, recorded by a bookseller for his/her clients, or was it added by the purchaser, recording what he/she paid?  Without knowing the date of this inscription, it’s difficult to assess the relative value of this price (due to inflation), and we don’t even know the units (dollars, pounds, etc.).

7. “Second Aldine Edition – a re-impression of the 1502 edn.”  Could this be a note by the bookseller, to go along with the price from [6]?  Or are both [6] and [7] notes from the librarian who acquired the book, recording the price paid and a quick summary of the item purchased?

8. What could this be?  A signature?  Does it bear any resemblance to the mark in [5], or is it unrelated?  Again, could it be tied to the notes in [6] and [7]?

9. This note is in pencil.  Does it look like the same handwriting used in note [7]?  The final part of the inscription is clearly “No. 116” – but what is that first word?  Does this note tell us anything about the provenance of this particular book?

10. Almost impossible to see on the images above, there is a tiny number penciled in the corner here.  It appears to be the number 13… or is it a 15?  What do you think it could mean?

11. This tiny stray “C” hardly seems worthy of recording as potential provenance evidence.  Or is it?  What are your thoughts?

12. Ah, now here’s something more like what most people imagine when they think of provenance markers.  Does this look like a signature to you?  It seems old, and is even dated (1760).  How would you transcribe the signature here?  G. Crofs. A: B.?  What do you make of this?  Is it someone’s name?  Have you ever seen a name written or abbreviated like that?  Perhaps more research is necessary to determine just what this inscription is trying to tell us.

13. Here is an embossed stamp identifying the book as the property of Michigan State University.  Well, technically it says “Michigan State College of Agr. and App. Science,” a name used for MSU from 1925 to 1955.  So that at least tells us that the stamp dates from sometime in that range.  Could this embossed stamp be contemporary with the “rare book room” stamp from [1]?  The Special Collections Department at MSU was established in 1962.  What could that tell us about the potential usefulness of this stamp for tracing this book’s provenance history?

14. It looks like several lines of writing were erased here.  Is there any value in recording this fact on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet?  Is there any clue at all to what might have been written here?  Or when?  What about when it might have been erased?

15. Another mysterious pencil mark.  What do you think this number means?  Is there any significance to the hooked mark underneath?  Is any of this worth recording as provenance evidence?  Do we have to know what something means to record it, or is it enough that it might be useful to someone for provenance determination?

Post 2 Image 3

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The book raises all of those questions in the front endpapers alone.  When we delve deeper into the pages, more questions about provenance markers arise.  Here on page 2 are a few more potential pieces of evidence:

16. Note the stamped number on the bottom of the page.  This looks like a library mark – could it be an acquisition number?  Is it tied to the library markings in [1], [2], and [13] above?  How might we find out?

17. Did you notice the note in the gutter, or inner margin?  It’s the note I showed you last week, here in its original context.  Note the date (7-15-43), the name (Dawson), and the price (2.50).  The price listed here is the same as that listed in [6], but the handwriting is different.  Could this be a note from the individual who acquired the book for MSU’s library?  The date given here is consistent with the range of dates we noted for the embossed stamp in [13].  And this context now elucidates the letters in front of the date:  remember from our note on [13] that in 1943 MSU was referred to as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, which could have easily been abbreviated as MSC.

You see, provenance markers cannot always be considered in isolation.  This note, easy to miss on a cursory glance (I myself didn’t notice it until I took this photo), gives us new insight into several of the markings on the front endpapers.  Also noteworthy on this page is the underlining of a number of words and phrases.

Post 2 Image 5

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18. In fact, there are marginal notes and underlined passages throughout the text.  This example is representative of most of the annotations:  the text is in Latin, and the ink is clearly old, showing signs of oxidation.  What clues could these marginalia give us about this book’s provenance?

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19. On the rear flyleaf is the following set of notes:  “Pretium. x/6” in the top margin, and “Collated & perfect” in the center of the page, signed and dated “JB. 1750.”  What do these inscriptions tell us?  The date is certainly helpful, but what do you make of the other notes?  What do you think JB’s role might have been in the history of this volume?

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Click to enlarge

20. Hints of a pencil inscription, long since faded or erased.  Is there any information recoverable here?  How might we go about doing so?  Is this worth recording?

21. These markings are much clearer than those in [20], but are they equally mysterious?  How would you interpret these numbers in a circle?

22. This provenance marker is very straightforward.  Is it worth recording as provenance evidence, or should we count on the fact that such conservation reports are recorded and filed elsewhere?  Does the fact that this label was applied so recently (January 2012) reduce its usefulness as a provenance marker for us?

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Click to enlarge

23. The final potential piece of provenance data in this particular book is a very unconventional one.  A significant portion of one corner of the text block is blackened and burned.  Do you think this fact is worth noting?  While it may not be realistic to record every odd physical feature of a given volume, could evidence that the book survived a disaster such as a fire or flood give us any clues about its provenance?  What if it was considered in combination with other potential provenance markers?

The example of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli has been a lengthy one, but I hope it has been helpful in illustrating some of the questions we have to ask ourselves when searching for provenance evidence.  Not every piece of evidence is easy to understand, and it’s often difficult to decide what particular markings are worthy of our time and effort.  Most books have fewer potential provenance markers, if they have any at all, but this example (with two dozen possible entries) is hardly the most heavily annotated book in MSU’s collection.  If you have any thoughts about the difficulties involved in doing provenance detective work, leave some comments below.  And as always, come back next time for another update on the provenance project at Michigan State Special Collections.


Filed under Provenance Issues

What is Provenance?

“When one thinks how much research in the humanities is based upon… documents that once belonged to private persons or institutions… it can safely be state that detailed provenance research is far more than an innocent pastime for booklovers: it is an essential part of a critical approach to the sources used.”

– Pierre Delsaerdt, Bibliophily and Public-Private Partnership

Provenance refers to the chain of custody of a historical object, the trajectory of its ownership from its creation to the present day.  In the world of rare books, documenting a volume’s provenance can often tell us a great deal about the work’s production, distribution, and the ways in which it was read and used.  A detailed provenance record can shed light on historical periods and figures, giving us crucial insight into the habits of readers, the popularity of particular works and genres, and the history of the book and book trade.  Provenance evidence can also help us determine a rare book’s authenticity, and often adds to the value of the book, particularly if it comes in the form of a signature from a historically important personage.

Bookplate on MSU's copy of The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis - PA6447.E5 D7 1697

Bookplate (dated 1703) in MSU’s copy of The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (PA6447.E5 D7 1697)

Book creators, owners, and readers often leave a variety of clues behind that we can use to trace the history of a particular copy.  Individuals and institutions mark their ownership in a number of ways, including bookplates (ownership labels, usually pasted inside the front cover), autographs, ink stamps, and so on.  In addition, we can frequently learn something about the provenance of a volume through incidental markings, such as marginalia (marginal notes), bookseller price codes, and other inscriptions.

Bookseller note hidden in a margin of MSU's M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515). Note the date, bookseller name, and price.

Note hidden in a margin of MSU’s M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515). Note the date, bookseller name, and price.

It’s not always easy to decide which markings are important for determining provenance.  Bookplates, autographs, and particularly interesting marginal notes are clearly examples of provenance evidence, even if we don’t know enough at first to decipher them.

Sometime in the last 214 years, this fly met his unfortunate demise between two pages of MSU's The letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero (PA6308.E5 M4 1799 v.2). Could this conceivably give us any insight into the book's provenance? Why or why not?

Sometime in the last 214 years, this fly met his unfortunate demise between two pages of MSU’s The letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero (PA6308.E5 M4 1799 v.2). Could this conceivably give us any insight into the book’s provenance? Why or why not?

But what about a seemingly random series of numbers penciled in the margin of the rear pastedown endsheet?  What about illegible scribbles or stray marks on a page?  When in doubt, should we record everything we see just in case it might mean something?  And what about unusual physical features of a book, such as the burned corner of a text block or water-damaged pages?  In theory, unique characteristics such as these could help tie a particular volume to a known historical event, providing valuable clues to the book’s ownership history.

In the next post, we’ll be exploring more questions like these, and working through a few examples.  In the meantime, leave some comments below.  What do you think about provenance?  Is it something you had seriously thought about before?  What sorts of things do you think are important to record in order to determine a book’s chain of ownership?

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