Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.
The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.
Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.
The Ransom Center holds the Knopf Inc. archive, which includes material related to the publication of the groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. View photos and read some of the letters that document the book’s progress and publication over several years.
Some books in the Ransom Center’s collections tell a story just by their smells. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram and literary scholar Edward L. Bishop explain how a copy of Ulysses, which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book’s history and its handlers. Learn more.
Layne Craig, a lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin, recently used materials from the Ransom Center’s collections to supplement her class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” She writes about discoveries she made in the Center’s collections and how the materials were used in the class.
As a graduate student, I visited the Harry Ransom Center for its literary artifacts: Virginia Woolf’s letters to her niece Angelica Bell, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the Hogarth Press edition of Elizabeth Robins’s Ibsen and the Actress. I only recently learned, however, of the breadth of the Ransom Center’s resources on social science movements connected to literary history. I wanted to incorporate those resources into my fall 2010 class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” With Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg’s help, I collected texts significant to the English and American birth control movements of the 1910s, along with texts highlighting the connections between birth control and the literary landscape of the twentieth century.
Some of the texts were foundational to the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger wrote “What Every Girl Should Know” in 1916, during the most politically radical period of her career, before she was charged with obscenity and fled to England to escape jail time. My students were able to look at the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of that pamphlet, analyzing both Sanger’s left-wing, feminist activism and the working-class audience she sought to reach in that text.
In contrast, we looked at early editions of British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Stopes’s decidedly middle-class-focused bestsellers, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1919). Compared to Sanger’s mass-produced pamphlets, Stopes’s books look scientific and pedantic, with text-heavy dust jackets listing the author’s credentials. Inside, however, are flowery descriptions of “the sex tide in woman”: “If a swimmer comes to a sandy beach when the tide is out and the waves have receded, leaving sand where he had expected deep blue water—does he, baulked of his bathe, angrily call the sea ‘capricious’?” Stopes’s dual self-presentation as a scientist and a poet is a source of continual fascination for me, and these editions of her books helped bring that paradox to life for my students.
I also collected texts containing fictional depictions of birth control. Perfect for my uses was a manuscript of the third chapter of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group, depicting a young woman’s visit to a birth control clinic in 1933. I love the title McCarthy gave this vignette: “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” I also made a serendipitous discovery: Charles Norris’s 1930 Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. The biblical imagery and art deco aesthetic of the dust jacket provoked conversation among my students, and the book itself, a family drama, has become part of my own work on the period.
Finally, with the help of Ransom Center graduate student intern Stephanie Bordy, I discovered a rich source of manuscript material in the newly cataloged British Sexological Society (BSS) collection. My students read a speech on “Sex Education before Marriage” given to the BSS by Jane Hawthorne, the clinician at Stopes’s Mothers Clinic, and pored over the handwritten notes of the society’s Heterosexual Study Group, to whom Sanger gave a paper in June 1920. We also perused the Society’s Library List, which included a section on “Birth Control” alongside sections on “Marriage,” “Homosexual and Intersexes,” “Venereal Disease,” and “Novels.”
My students completed a writing assignment based on the texts we examined, allowing them to visit the Reading Room themselves for a longer look at our materials. The project was as useful to me as to them, as it gave me a chance to explore the range of the Ransom Center’s collections, both in literary texts and in the cultures that influenced their production.
Among the Harry Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Bibles is a 1638 edition of what is arguably the single most influential English translation of the Bible, the King James Bible. This Bible’s front and back covers are embroidered with a nativity scene in silk and silver thread on linen. Mary, seated and holding the infant Jesus, is the most imposing and central figure in the scene. At her feet are the three Magi presenting gifts to the Christ child, while Joseph, clad in a red-and-white striped costume, stands behind her. At the bottom of the front cover is embroidered the Latin word “obtulerunt” (they offered), and on the back, “adoraverunt” (they adored), terms that refer not only to the actions of the Magi, but also, perhaps, to the devotional work of the embroiderer.
The book’s binding provides several clues about the embroiderer’s identity. The embroiderer would most likely have been a female member of a wealthy family who could have afforded the luxury goods of silk and silver with which the book was covered. Though there were professional male embroiderers at this time, embroidery was a formative component of girls’ education, and women were the main producers of embroidered household furnishings in wealthy households, including cushion covers, bed hangings, clothing, and book covers.
Through her embroidery, too, she would have participated in the seventeenth-century debate over needlework’s role in women’s education. Many contemporary writers praised needlework’s role in shaping women’s virtue, claiming that it kept women from idleness and talking too much. For example, a popular seventeenth-century pattern book, The Needle’s Excellency, begins with a poem by John Taylor called “The Praise of the Needle”:
And for my Countries quiet, I should like,
That Women-kinde should use no other Pike [i.e., needle].
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more.
The Needles sharpenesse, profit yields, and pleasure,
But sharpnesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.
But women’s needlework also troubled early modern moralists because it encouraged women to aspire to the more “manly” virtues of artistic creation and public display. Others, however, saw the private and public faces of needlework not in opposition but as a continuum. Hannah Wolley, a writer of household manuals, recommended that women wear clothing they had worked themselves as public signs of their skill and virtue. And still others explicitly perceived needlework as authorship. The tomb of Dame Dorothy Selby (ca. 1572–1641), for example, describes her as a woman:
Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.
The needle, then, was also seen as a tongue or a pen with which women could participate in public dialogue with and about the world. Mary’s prominence in this Bible’s embroidered scene, for example, is no accident. The most popular sources of pictorial embroidery in the seventeenth century were Biblical stories of heroic and virtuous women. That the intimate and domestic nativity scene on the cover of this Bible is also one of public worship by the Magi makes it a fitting representation of the simultaneously private and public roles of domestic needlework and its maker.
The embroiderer of the Ransom Center’s 1638 Bible would also have been someone of artistic sensibility. Placing the family against a background of silver thread recalls the painterly practice of situating holy figures against a metallic background to highlight their otherworldly qualities. The flowers and leaves on the spine are examples of raised work, a very popular embroidery style in the seventeenth century. Its three-dimensional effect is part of the contemporary trend towards textured effects in other artistic media. We welcome readers’ advice in identifying the particular stitch this embroiderer used here.
Finally, thanks to the numerous marks of ownership inside the book, we may even know the needlewoman’s last name. Written on verso of the title page to New Testament is the inscription: “John Sleigh, Inner Temple. 12 Nov AD 1850.” Written inside back cover is the note: “James Sleigh ye sonne of Hugh Sleigh was born ye 26th [?] day of Jany 1688.” And inside the front cover is pasted in a hand-drawn shield that includes the arms of the Sleigh family of Derbyshire, England.
This artifact’s text, annotations, and decoration thus combine to enrich our understanding of women, domestic life, economics, reading practices, art, religion, and material culture in seventeenth-century England.
Brooks, Mary M. English Embroideries of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2004.
Jewitt, Llewellyn, ed. The Reliquary, vol. 7. London: Bemrose & Lothian and John Russell Smith, 1866-7.
Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. “The needle and the pen: needlework and the appropriation of printed texts.” In Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Morrall, Andrew, and Melinda Watt, eds. English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature. New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: Women’s Press, 1984.
Click on thumbnails for larger images.
Image: The Holy Bible, HRC BS 185 1638 L5 1638. Printed by Robert Barker, London, 1638. Size: ca. 6 x 3.5 in. Cover materials: silk and silver thread on linen.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.
Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.
The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.
Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.
The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.
Tonight, J. B. Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Fellow of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and Roy Flukinger, Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography, discuss the lives and work of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim at the Ransom Center.
In this video clip from a 1978 interview, Colson asks Helmut Gernsheim about his passion for collecting and his career as a pioneering historian of photography. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual study. In this clip, Gernsheim discusses how and why he started collecting photography before it became an established practice.
The current (and final) installment of the Ransom Center’s series on Books of Hours surveys the 300-year reign of the Book of Hours as a medieval bestseller, from its beginnings in the fifteenth century to the Age of Print to the Post-Reformation period.
Part I of the series describes the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. Part II discusses and illustrates the most common elements found inside a Book of Hours.
With 2010 drawing to a close, Ransom Edition, the Center’s print newsletter, asked writers and scholars to share their picks for the best book of the past decade. See the recommendations of Booker Prize-winner Penelope Lively, writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair, writer Stephen Harrigan, writer and journalist Selina Hastings, and associate professor Randolph Lewis.