V is for Vellum

Vellum is a type of high quality parchment made from calf skin – parchment being prepared animal skin (usually calf, sheep, or goat) used for writing, printing and binding manuscripts and books. The British Library’s Making Manuscripts site has a short video illustrating vellum.

Vellum and parchment are most familiar as the material used for medieval manuscripts, but books have been printed on parchment from the start of printing in the mid-15th century onwards. SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10, the first printed edition of a classical author (Cicero) was printed on vellum in 1465. SCA also holds several early 16th-century Books of Hours printed on vellum and decorated in just the same way as their manuscript companions. Fragments of parchment repurposed from manuscripts also appear in the collection as bindings, spine labels, endleaves, and page dividers.

SPEC Inc.CSJ.F10 Cicero (Mainz 1465) printed on vellum

Books printed on vellum would be the exception, sometimes specially commissioned, and more highly valued than the larger run of paper copies. A few copies printed on vellum are a common feature of limited editions and particularly of the output of private presses, including the Kelmscott Press

A prime example of a prized book printed on vellum is the 1888 Roxburghe Club edition (SPEC H91.36) which was, appropriately, the first printing of a 15th-century manuscript.

The fine collection of private press books bequeathed by William Noble includes (SPEC Noble A.22.18) one of the 10 copies printed on vellum (out of an edition of 210 copies in all) of the Eragny Press edition of Keats La belle dame sans merci (1896).

SPEC Noble A.22.18. One of 10 copies printed on vellum.

Noble’s bequest also contains many copies printed on ‘Japon (Japanese) vellum’ – not in fact parchment of any kind, but a particularly durable paper prepared to resemble vellum.

‘Limp vellum’ or limp parchment is a term used to describe bindings common in the 16th and 17th centuries, which might be simple undecorated wrappers or ornately decorated, for example the 1595 works of Tacitus at SPEC Y59.T4.2. Later books are also commonly half- or quarter-bound in parchment.

SPEC Y59.T4.2. vellum binding, with tape added to secure by wrapping around the volume.

U is for Uncut or Unopened

U is for Uncut or Unopened

Unopened books or pamphlets are unreadable until the top and front edges of the folded and bound or unbound gatherings have been sliced through to separate the individual leaves (see our earlier post on format).

SCA has an example of a book which has remained unopened for over 300 years: SPEC J10.1(14). But fortunately the digitized copy from Eighteenth Century Collections Online gives access to the text.

SPEC J10.1. (14). Select epistles of Phalaris, the Tyrant of Agrigentum (1718).

Uncut may be used by the unwary cataloguer when the term unopened would be more accurate: uncut has the specific bibliographical meaning that the book has survived with the rough edges (deckle edges) of its pages untrimmed by bookbinders. This makes it easier to see many kinds of bibliographical evidence about the book’s production. Uncut or untrimmed pages are unusual, since books were issued unbound, or in a temporary binding for the purchaser to have bound up to the mid 19th-century development of the publisher’s binding.

A modern example of a book showing the edges of the handmade sheet of paper is SPEC Zaina E.73 no.5 – the difference from the trimmed copy at SPEC Zaina E.73 no.195 is clear when they are side-by-side.

SPEC Zaina E.73 showing deckle and trimmed edges.

Uncut copies of a book also have the virtue of retaining all of the text and any later annotations, which are often lost when the page edges are trimmed or cropped in the process of binding and rebinding, successively reducing the margins. Untrimmed copies may be described as ‘tall copies’, to differentiate them from copies printed on larger sheets of paper (large paper copies’). The difference in size can be seen by placing the trimmed copy of SPEC Zaina E.73 on top of the untrimmed copy.

SPEC Zaina E.73 trimmed copy no.195 on top of untrimmed copy no. 5.

Still unsure? The Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, recommends using untrimmed instead of uncut and explains why in their blog post Uncut, unopened, untrimmed, uh-oh

The Grace Library – Ramchundra

This post was written by 2nd year History student Eddie Meehan.

The Grace Library of the Department of Applied Mathematics is a collection of 17th to 19th century mathematics texts, centred around the collections of Walter and Alicia Stott and Duncan C Fraser, and named after Samuel Forster Grace. The collection is rooted firmly in the city and University of Liverpool, and particularly in the Liverpool Mathematics Society and the Worshipful Company of Actuaries. I’m working on the collection as part of History in Practice, a work experience module available for second year history students at the university.

One item I catalogued in the Grace Library collection was A treatise on problems of maxima and minima, solved by algebra, written by the Indian mathematician Ramchundra in 1850. Ramchundra was born in 1821 in Panipat into a family of the Kayastha caste – a Hindu caste of bureaucrats – to a father who worked in the Indian revenue service. His father died in 1831, which forced Ramchundra into marriage in 1832 at just eleven years old, almost certainly for the financial support the dowry would provide. Ramchundra was able to pursue some education at the English Government School in Delhi and later at Delhi College, where he was later appointed to a teaching role. Here, he pursued his own work; the most significant of which was the Treatise that is in the Grace collection in Liverpool.

Noted mathematician Augustus de Morgan published the work in 1859 in London to try and bring it to a wider audience outside of India, despite poor reviews from other British mathematicians working in India. During this period, there was an increasing belief in Britain that the colonial subjects of the British Empire should be ‘educated’ in European ways. This atmosphere may have stimulated de Morgan’s interest in the work, but it also hindered its acceptance. Despite being published in London, the book received little interest from scholars in Britain and Europe. Ramchundra is not particularly well known even to this day in mathematics – books have been written on topics covered by him that do not even mention his work.

The Grace collection contains two copies of the work – one published in Calcutta and thus the original, and a copy of the London published version with de Morgan’s foreword. The London version was presented by the Secretary of State for India to a Reverend Dr. Bland, suggesting that it was at least recognised by the governing authorities in India. It isn’t clear how the original came into the possession of Walter Stott and Alicia Boole and then Duncan Fraser, who bequeathed the book to the University as part of the Walter Stott collection.

T is for Title-page

Like so many elements of book design (bindings, bookplates, typography), the appearance of the title-page has been subject to fashions, and the amount of information offered on a title-page has varied over time accordingly. For example, whilst the earliest title-pages were relatively simple, in the 17th century it became standard practice to cram as much information as possible onto the title-page – with extensive sub-titles and detailed author and publisher information, often in multiple types, and within decorative frames. This trend died off in the 18th century, as a tendency for more simply set-out title-pages (often accompanied by half titles) took its place. This pattern repeated; the 19th century saw a return to more elaborate title-pages, whereas the emergence of modernism accompanied a more stripped-back approach in the 20th century.

As engraving came to be used more widely in book illustration from the late 16th century, engraved title-pages emerged. Occasionally books contained additional engraved title-pages alongside a letterpress title-page, as in the example below.

The earliest of printed books do not contain title-pages at all however; nor do most medieval manuscripts. Instead, these texts are generally identified by the “incipit” and “explicit” – the opening and closing words of the text, from the Latin verb incipere (‘to begin’) and explicitus, meaning ‘unrolled’.

An example of an incipit from a work printed in 1481.

Early printed books often closed with a “colophon” – a closing statement, providing, for example, the name of those involved in the book’s production (scribe, printer, publisher), and place and date of publication.

Earlier in this series we met the half-title page: here it is worth noting that the history of the half-title page, as outlined in this earlier post, also helps to reveal how it was that the title-page came to be – “printers would produce the pages of a text – the text-block – which they sold unbound”; a “blank sheet originally intended for protection came to be marked with a short-title in order to help differentiate one text-block from another, and it was this that then developed into the full title-page, with publication details as well as author and title.”

References and further reading:

Smith, Margaret M. “Title-page” in Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

Smith, Margaret M. The title-page: its early development 1460-1510, 2000.

British Library, Catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, 2018

S is for Subscription

From the 17th to the early 19th century, and occasionally since then, books might be issued ‘on subscription,’ to solicit orders in advance of publication from subscribers attracted by a preliminary proposal. A printed list of subscribers’ names would often appear in the published work. The first known subscription list is that for the second edition (1625) of John Minsheu’s Guide into Tongues (SPEC Knowsley 349/oversize but without the list of subscribers).

Books whose publication was financed by subscription typically included particularly expensive books (for example highly illustrated books), specialist works (for example scientific and musical works), privately printed books, or special copies (for example, ‘large paper’ copies printed on a larger size of paper) making up part of an edition. The response to the subscription helped gauge the market for the work prior to publication and acted as a guarantee for the bookseller’s outlay on publication costs.

Subscription proposal for Milton’s Works (1757). SPEC Knows. pamph. 264
Receipt for the Countess of Derby’s first payment for Milton’s Poetical Works. Signed by Thomas Houlston.

The lists of subscribers in the published work were often arranged hierarchically, giving the most eminent names first, and might include addresses and occupations. William Enfield’s 1773 Essay towards the history of Leverpool included views and a plan separately so subscribers could choose which parts of the work they wanted.

References and further reading:

  • Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford, 2010)
  • John Carter and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth edition (Oak Knoll and British Library, 2006)
  • P. J. Wallis, Book Subscription Lists: Extended Supplement to the Revised Guide (1996) and ‘Book Subscription Lists,’ Library 5/29 (1974)

R is for Rags

Making paper by hand.

During the hand-press era, the raw material for the production of paper for books was cloth rags – most often linen. Rags were bought in bulk by paper-makers, often sold to them by itinerant rag collectors; rag-and-bone men. The paper-making process began with washing the linen, which was left it in a damp heap to rot. After four or five days, the rotten rags were cut into smaller pieces, and then pounded down to form a pulp, using water-powered hammers. This pounding process was repeated two or three times; with pauses in between to allow for further rotting. By the 18th century the hammers had been replaced by a rotary machine which macerated the rags using knives – a much more efficient method. Invented in Holland, the machine was known as a Hollander.

Once the process of breaking-up and rotting down the rags was complete the pulp that remained was put into a vat and watered down to form a concoction resembling a watery porridge. Further stretching the porridge analogy – this mixture was kept warm and stirred occasionally using a paddle.

A close-meshed sieve made of metal wire (the mould) was then dipped into the mixture, before being lifted out with exactly the right amount of pulp in, laid flat, and skillfully manipulated to form a uniform ‘sheet’ of pulp across the mould. The mould was then expertly shaken, first forward and backward, and then side to side, to ensure the fibres crossed in each direction, which helped to strengthen the paper. The sheets were then removed from the mould and sandwiched between layers of felt. The resultant piles of paper interleaved with felt were put under a heavy press to squeeze out excess water before being hung up to dry.

The quality of the paper produced using this method was primarily determined by the quality of the rags used to make it. The best paper was produced from pure white linen; poorer quality paper from materials such as canvas, rope and wool. Linen rags were not readily available in England, where people wore wool rather than linen. This fact, combined with a lack of skilled workmen, meant that most paper used in the English book trade, up until around the middle of the 18th century, was imported from France or Holland.

By the 19th century, the demand for rags to make paper with was outstripping supply, and prices reflected this. This intensified the search for an alternative; which eventually resulted in the majority of paper being made using wood-pulp – and increasingly using machines, rather than by hand – from the middle of the century.

As it happens, a conference, ‘The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Materials, Networks’ took place in Erlangen, Germany, on the 26th and 27th February. You can read about current research in paper, as presented at the conference, by searching for the Twitter handle #EMpapertrade.

References and further reading:

Gaskell, Philip. A new introduction to bibliography, 1972

Burke, James. From rags to paper, 2013

University of Ilowa. Paper through time: nondestructive analysis of 14th-through-19th century papers (project website).

Revealing the Rathbones: William IV and Hannah Mary

Following on from our work reconstructing the Rathbone library, we’re now turning our attention to the Rathbone archive, a large collection of personal and business records relating to this Liverpool family of philanthropists, merchants, politicians and reformers. The collection is one of our most well-used so we’re giving it some TLC, stock-checking and repackaging items where needed.

We’re also taking this opportunity to highlight some of the lesser-known family members covered in the archive. Much attention is quite rightly given to politician and suffragist Eleanor Rathbone (who is the subject of the current wonderful VGM exhibition). But there are many other fascinating family members and lots of other stories to tell. So we hope to tell some of them! We’re beginning with William Rathbone IV (1757-1809) and his wife, Hannah Mary (1761-1839).

RP.XXV.7.4-5: William IV and Hannah Mary Rathbone

According to his great-granddaughter Eleanor Rathbone, William IV was ‘born to belong to minorities and to champion lost causes’. One of his, thankfully more successful, causes was anti-slavery. A committed abolitionist from an early age, he was a founder member of the Liverpool Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a group which also included other local notables such as historian and philanthropist, William Roscoe. Battling poor health during the final years of his life, William fortunately lived long enough to see the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act pass in 1807.

Although William was initially a dedicated Quaker, he was subsequently disowned by the Friends after his inflammatory pamphlet, ‘A narrative of events that have lately taken place in Ireland among the Society called Quakers’ (1804), highlighted religious intolerance amongst authoritarian members of the Society.

RPII.3.9: A pamphlet by William IV regarding proceedings against him by the Society of Friends after his 1804 pamphlet, ‘A narrative of events that have lately taken place in Ireland among the Society called Quakers’

As well as including a wealth of material relating to the various political causes undertaken by William, the archive also contains numerous insights into his personal life, especially his devoted relationship with his wife, Hannah. They married on 17th August 1786. In a letter to her written on the very day of their wedding, William asks that:

‘My dearest friend will not blame me for wishing at least that she may share the impressions of this auspicious day to which I wake with a heart that alternately pours to Heaven and to thee the effusions of thankfulness with a glow which no language can express.’

RP111.1.132: One of many letters from William to his soon-to-be wife, Hannah

William, Hannah and their growing family (they had eight children, five of whom survived infancy) were the first Rathbones to live at Greenbank; William leased the house and estate in 1788. After his death the Rathbone family bought the freehold and Hannah had much of the house rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style.  

RPXX.1.1: Plan of Greenbank from around 1788, when William leased the house and estate

Hannah gave Greenbank to her eldest son (William Rathbone V) after his marriage, and moved to a little house she had built for herself nearby, Woodcroft Cottage. She died there 30 years after her husband, in 1839. According to Eleanor Rathbone:

‘She was adored in turn by her father, husband, sons and grandsons, and many of their friends, young and old, joined in the cult.’

We’ll be showcasing more members of this fascinating family throughout the year – watch this space!

Q is for quarter-bound

A binding which covers only the spine and the edge of the boards nearest the spine is described as ‘quarter binding.’ The amount of the board covered varies, but the binding may indeed cover one quarter, hence its name.

Quarter bindings, which use less material – leather, parchment, cloth, paper, depending on date and style – are cheaper than half bindings which cover the spine and back edge of the boards plus the outer corners of the boards. Half and quarter bindings may be described as quarter calf, half parchment, etc, naming the binding material used on the spine. Full calf, for example, describes a binding in which the full extent of the spine and boards is covered in the same material.

Common styles of binding can help to identify where and when an item was bound, or may be a recognisable ‘uniform’ such as the ‘Roxburghe style’ used for the publications of the Roxburghe Club. Their quarter bindings have a spine of brown or black leather, with the title tooled in gold, and the sides are dark-red paper-board. More recently, morocco and buckram have been used in the same colour scheme.

SPEC G.02.05: Roxburghe style binding

From the 17th century onwards, and notably in the 18th and 19th centuries, as it became usual to shelve books with the spines outward, the spines of quarter- or half-bound books lent themselves to decorative display.

SPEC Zaina C.10: leather spine decorated with gilt-tooling and colour onlay, and marbled paper boards on Paris, 1887 edition of Gautier.

P is for Paste-down

‘Endleaves’, or ‘endpapers’ are the first blank leaves of paper you come across when opening the book, and the final blank pages at the end. Found between the front or rear of the main textblock and the front and rear covers of the book, then, they are intended to protect the first leaves of text. The ‘paste-down’ is the half of the first sheet of endpapers which has been  adhered to the inside of the boards or cover of the book (literally, pasted down). Endleaves that are not pasted-down to the cover or boards are usually described as being ‘free’.

This image shows the rear paste-down, and rear free endpaper. An ownership inscription can be seen on the paste-down, which also contains a booksellers price label, and further markings in pencil.

Paste-down is a useful term to know because it appears regularly in catalogue records. This is primarily because the paste-downs of a book are often where we find a number of interesting features – such as ownership inscriptions, bookplates, bookseller’s labels, previous classmarks – which have been added after publication and help to tell the unique history of that particular book (to use another ‘p’ term, we call this the book’s provenance).

All of the hundreds of bound volumes of pamphlets from the Knowsley Hall Library collection contain precise details of their location within the library on the front paste-down.
Bookseller’s label on a colourful paste-down.

Another reason paste-downs may be of particular interest is that they can sometimes feature coloured or patterned paper:

In this image the endpaper is comprised of a colourful patterned endleaf, and contains the bookplate of the Bebington Free Library, reflecting the history of the book.

O is for Ornament

Headpiece on a sermon of 1717: SPEC LGP 425. ESTC T45992.

Printer’s ornaments are small decorative woodcuts or metal cuts used in letterpress printing as fillers on title-pages, and to demarcate the beginning and end of chapters or other sections.

Factotum containing initial T. SPEC LGP 425.

They may be described as head-pieces (at the head or top of the page) or tail-pieces (at the end or foot of the page); larger images may be described as vignettes. Ornaments include the large initials used to mark the opening section of text, and factotums, which form a decorative border into which any letter can be inserted in printing. Fleurons are flowers or other small pieces of ornamental typography.

Fleurons on the half-title of SPEC LGP 425.

Woodcut ornaments in particular show the wear and tear of repeated use, and can be used in dating and localizing publications, although in practice type may have been loaned or sold between printers. A change of ornament can also be used to identify a variant printing. In rare cases where the ledgers of a printing business survive, such as those for the firm of William Bowyer, ornaments provide rich supplementary evidence to identify anonymous printing by comparison with known imprints.

Ornament used to identify a false imprint on The monosyllable If! A satire. SPEC G12A.19. ESTC T170098

Although ornaments are generally decorative and are not used to illustrate a specific accompanying text, they may be pictorial in themselves, and are a charmingly various source for design history.


Tailpiece on SPEC LGP 425.