Closing the Loop: Creative Reuse in the Bindings of the Bank of North America Collection

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Closing the Loop: Creative Reuse in the Bindings of the Bank of North America Collection

2015-09-08 10:46

In the age of e-readers and mass paperbacks, it is easy to forget that books were once a very scarce and expensive commodity made by hand from materials equally costly and difficult to acquire.  In the distant past, before the prevalence of paper, book pages were most often cut from vellum, a parchment made from calfskin; depending on the size of the book and number of pages, a single volume could require the laboriously prepared skins of several, even dozens, of animals.  It was therefore not unheard of for such pages and books to be scraped down and reused, the new words written over the place of the old, and the contents of one book being obscured by another. 

Twice-written manuscripts of this kind are known as palimpsests, and hold a special fascination for historians and archivists.  The inks and pigments of the original text leave their trace deep in the parchment, and while often invisible to the naked eye, can now be revealed through multispectral imaging.  In this way many texts that were previously lost might be recovered, but even if the original text is known and has survived in other manuscripts, the existence of a palimpsest tells a story of its own and points to the circumstances of its making: perhaps the original text was commonplace, perhaps it was deemed heretical, or perhaps the scribe was simply desperate for a clean page on which to work.


Fragments of a vellum manuscript repurposed as support tapes
in the binding of volume 39 of the BNA collection (#1543).


Whatever the circumstances, the practices of recycling and creative reuse in the making of books continue to this day.  In our world of mechanized production, we most commonly see this in the form of recycled paper, in which case any trace of the previous life of a material is all but completely obliterated – but if we travel back two hundred years or so, to the time when many of the ledgers and account books of the Bank of North America Collection (#1543) were being made, we find many charming and illuminating instances of salvaged and repurposed materials.  Some, like the ones pictured directly above and below, are hidden, and only come to light when we take these books apart in order to mend them.  Others are self-evident, and remain visible to be enjoyed by conservators and researchers alike.


Fragment of an engraving repurposed in the spine
of a springback binding the BNA collection (#1543, vol. 187).


Often these glimpses are fragmentary, and inspire a certain curiosity and desire to identify the original source of the repurposed material.  It presents a challenge to research and see what information can be gleaned, what minor and possibly untold story might be revealed, and a wondering whether the search will culminate in historical fact or conjecture.

In a previous blog post, on the subject of marbled endpapers in the Bank of North America Collection, conservation technician Alina Josan briefly mentioned a special case where the marbled paper had previously been printed with pages from a book.  Since 2013 when Alina wrote this post, we have encountered several other instances within the BNA Collection of marbling over pages printed with text.  Many are marbled pages from the same book identified by Alina, but there is one volume that is especially curious, featuring marbled text papers from two distinctly different books – one apparently on Poland, the other on feminine health.


BNA vol. 14: front endpapers featuring repurposed
text pages from the American Quarterly Review.  


The searchable text features on Google Books and made it possible for me to identify the sources for each of these printed pages, and soon after to discover that editions of both - contemporary to this specific BNA ledger (vol. 14) - could be found in the collections at HSP and next door, at the Library Company of Philadelphia. 


Original sources for the marbled texts of BNA volume 14 (col. #1543): Page 472 from an AQR article on Poland, and Page 590 from Dewees' Treatise on the Diseases of Females.


A detail of the marbled pattern applied over page 472
from the AQR article on Poland (June 1831: vol. IX, no. XVIII).


The marbled endpapers at the front of this ledger, with the text about Poland, contained portions of pages 471 through 475 of the 18th issue of the 9th volume of the American Quarterly Review, dating from June of 1831. The AQR at this time was printed and published in Philadelphia, by Carey & Lea.


The marbled text endpapers at the back of BNA volume 14.  
The text is barely visible along the edge of the page.


The endpapers at the back of the ledger were marbled over fragments of what appeared to be an index or table of contents. It took some digging, but I eventually matched it to a book printed in 1831: A treatise on the diseases of females, by William Potts Dewees (1768-1841).  This book was also published in Philadelphia, by Carey & Lea – as it happens, the very same year and publisher as the article on Poland from the American Quarterly Review.


A detail of the marbled pattern applied over a fragment of text
from page 590 of Dewees' Treatise on the Diseases of Females (1831).


Given that both books were published in 1831, it is a safe assumption that the BNA ledger was bound sometime thereafter.  While the ledger itself did not have a binders' ticket, indicating when or where it had been made, browsing through the BNA Collection as a whole, I was able to find at least five other ledgers of a nearly identical style and proportion; four of which had binder’s tickets for Hogan & Thompson, of no. 108 Chestnut Street, and no. 50 North Fourth Street, Philadelphia.  Looking at the titles and contents of each ledger, it was interesting to see that they are all minute books, and that the dates of their contents line up nearly perfectly, spanning from July 1st of 1837 to August 28th of 1879 – over 40 years!  Gauging by the uniform appearance and signs of age, it would seem that these ledgers were all made and purchased around the same time, the blank ones stowed away for later use; a minor but interesting glimpse into the more practical operations of the bank. 


The binders' ticket of Philadelphia's Hogan & Thompson,
as can be seen in BNA volume 228 (col. #1543).


The exact story of how the printed pages came to be repurposed and eventually used in the binding of a bank ledger remains a mystery for another day.  Given that the pages were likely printed in 1831 and that the ledger was not put to use until 1837, there is a five to six-year gap in which the extra pages were marbled and found their way to the Hogan and Thompson Stationers – or perhaps were marbled at/by Hogan and Thompson.  HSP actually holds the Lea and Febiger records (Collection 227B) - which spans over 200 years of publishing, including the Carey & Lea period -and might possibly shed some light on the question of how the marbled texts came to be.  It is easy to imagine the existence of an accounts page or letter in the Lea & Febiger collection that gives evidence of a relationship between the two binderies – a holy grail of little consequence, but one that nevertheless inspires further questing.  Perhaps there will someday be a part two to this entry; for now please enjoy the related links and resources given below. 

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