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.
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.
Michael Laird, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin and the proprietor of Michael Laird Rare Books, shares some recent discoveries he made about a Bible in the Ransom Center’s collection.Read more
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.
In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.
Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.
We recently received a reference question regarding our copy of The Farewell Address of Gen. George Washington (Keene, N.H.: Printed by John Prentiss, 1812). The question had nothing to do with the work but with the possibility that our copy might be bound in boards covered with sheets from a supposedly suppressed edition of John Cleland’s 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (commonly known as Fanny Hill). And in fact, our copy is bound thus. (It is not uncommon to find “printed waste” in early bookbindings. Paper, being an expensive commodity, was reused whenever possible in the production of books.)
The text of the sheet used in our binding is not too racy. We have, for example, “After a sufficient length of dialogue, my bedfellow left me to my rest, and I fell asleep, through pure weariness from the violent emotions I had been led into… .” What preceded this passage, however, is best not discussed here.
So, here we have the farewell address of the first president of the United States coupled with the first modern erotic novel. It’s an interesting pairing.
In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Ransom Center has published Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center, a richly illustrated chronicle of its history, which is available in the ONLINE STORE. The following is an excerpt from Collecting the Imagination.
On April 19, 1943, the Texas House of Representatives voted 99 to 17 to order an investigation into the 1939 purchase of nine rare books by The University of Texas. The resolution, submitted by C. S. McLellan of Eagle Lake, charged that Read more