The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An unfinished gold-tooled binding

July’s Crocodile mystery asked: why is this binding interesting? There are any number of answers, but the one I had in mind was: it’s unfinished. Last week’s picture shows the front cover of Folger call number STC 13051.3, the 1630 edition of A helpe to memory and discourse: with table-talke, as musicke to a banquet of wine. It’s 14 cm high, bound in dark blue goatskin, and has a strange-looking pattern of gold-tooled flowers and circles.

Dark leather binding with widely-spaced gold tooling.
Front cover of Folger STC 13051.3 (Photo by Erin Blake)

If the binder had stopped at one flower in each corner, or even the existing flower-plus-small-circles at the corner, the design would have looked finished (though I’d have gone with three circles rather than two, for visual balance). But instead, there’s also a flower at head and foot, and an array of widely spaced circles that seem like they ought to meet on the sides but don’t. What the heck? As soon as you turn the book over, the reason for the odd-looking front cover becomes clear:

Dark leather binding with intricate gold tooling.
Back cover of Folger STC 13051.3 (Photo by Erin Blake)

The same tooled flowers and small circles are present on the back cover, but thanks to the addition of alternating stars and small flowers, plus an overall pattern of dots, they barely register. Instead, an inner frame of large half-circles and small flowers dominates the design. For some unknown reason, the binder got three-quarters of the way through the gold tooling, then stopped.

There was no binding description in the Hamnet record (though there will be by the time you read this) so I started poking around to see if I could figure out whether the book was already bound when it was acquired by the Folger. Hamnet gave the “accession” number as 5/8/45, so I knew it had been received by the library on May 8, 1945.1 That meant the original correspondence would be in Acquisitions, not in Mr. and Mrs. Folger’s files, so I headed to the office next door.

The Acquisitions Department maintains a card file of all pre-Hamnet acquisitions filed alphabetically by “main entry” (that is, by the author’s surname, or—in the case of a title whose author is unknown—the title, omitting any initial article). Known as the “Alpha cards,” this is where you go if you need to find the purchase order number for anything acquired before the six-digit accession number system started in the late 1940s.

Type-written 3 x 5 card.
“Alpha card” recording order information, filed alphabetically in the Acquisitions Office.

The Alpha card told me to look for purchase order 6931 in the Acquisition’s Department’s set of three-ring binders containing carbon copies of orders placed in the 1930s and 1940s.2 The carbon copy of the letter to the dealer showed that the blue goatskin binding with gold tooling had to have been made some time after the book arrived at the Folger: at the time the order was placed, the book was bound together with another title, the 1630 edition of Helpe to Discourse:

Typed letter
Detail from carbon copy of order letter.

As the letter states, the library already owned that edition of Helpe to Discourse (Mr. and Mrs. Folger had purchased it from Pickering and Chatto in 1912, as it happens) but perhaps the dealer, Percy Dobell, would be willing to sell A Helpe to Memory and Discourse separately, seeing as how the binding was unsound?3 Evidently Dobell was willing, since the purchase order shows that the offer of £8/8/- was accepted, and no further mention is made of the other title.4

Further evidence that the book was bound after arrival at the Folger came from an old Cataloging Department worksheet, where a handwritten note described the binding as “Modern mor. (bd. here)” meaning “Modern morocco, bound here.”

STC worksheet
Cataloger’s worksheet, showing changed STC number. (The note “Bo’t bd. w. Helpe to discourse, 1630” is incorrect: although it was bound with Helpe to discourse when first offered, it was bought after the two titles had been separated.)

Although the note was undated, the STC call number in the upper right corner gave me a clue where to look next. The original note was written in blue pencil, but at some point the last part of the STC number was erased and a “2” was added in regular pencil. The number in the upper right of the Alpha card reproduced above showed that the original STC call number had been 13051b. That sent me to the old card file of STC number changes kept in the Cataloging Office, where I found this:

Typed 3 x 5 card recording old and new call number
Card recording STC call number change in 1960.

Because cataloger “ML” changed the call number from “STC 13051b” to STC 13051.2″ on February 29, 1960, it’s certain that the book was bound at the Folger before that date.

Knowing that the 1630 edition of A helpe to memory and discourse was bound at the Folger some time during the fifteen-year window between 1945 and 1960 still doesn’t answer the question of why the person doing the gold tooling stopped before finishing the front cover. My purely imaginary scenario involves a hypothetical senior bookbinder about to go on vacation, and only just managing to apply the leather before leaving. On his way out the door, he said to the junior binder “Finish this while I’m gone, okay?” meaning “Apply the pastedowns so this can get back into circulation.” Returning from vacation, the senior binder was horrified to discover that instead of quickly wrapping up that book and moving on to other tasks, the junior binder had spent the whole time laboring over gold tooling:

Senior Binder: Stop! We don’t have time for this kind of frippery!
Junior Binder: But sir, I’ve only got half of one cover to do….
Senior Binder: I don’t care. You’re done.

Rest assured that this scenario is based entirely on my own anxiety about time management; I have no idea how the bindery was staffed between 1945 and 1960.

As it happens, this book crossed my desk because its Folger call number has just been changed again thanks to our “Ghost Busters” project to update Folger STC call numbers so that they match the numbers given in second edition of A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640. See the post “New STC call numbers for old” for details. After fifteen years as call number STC 13051b, then fifty-six as call number STC 13051.2, it is now (and forevermore?) shelved as STC 13051.3.

  1. Although Hamnet labels this field “Accession number” this is, in fact, simply the date received. It is shared by three other books in Hamnet. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Folger began assigning unique sequential numbers to new acquisitions and including them in the catalog record.
  2. It also told me that the person using the date stamp on May 8th forgot to change it from the day before. That’s a “7” turned into an “8” by a pencil squiggle.
  3. A request like this would be unthinkable today, when preserving the book as a complex artifact, not just as a printed text, is highly valued.
  4. In 1945, the British pound was pegged to the wartime exchange rate of US$4.03, so £8/8/- would be…. ummm…. let’s see…. twenty shillings in a pound, so eight shillings is 8/20ths of a pound, which is the same as 4/10ths, so 8 pounds 8 shillings is 8.4 pre-decimal pounds…. and if you multiply $4.03 by 8.4, you get $33.85. According to the Consumer Price Index, $33.85 in 1945 would have the same purchasing power as $446 today, but I’m pretty sure the standard bundle of goods and services used to calculate the CPI does not include antiquarian books. See the Measuring Worth website for the source of this information, and associated caveats about how difficult it is to make financial value equivalencies across time.

One Comment

  • Thanks, Erin. I feel better that no one else figured it out, either. It would have made a good Car Talk puzzler. Wait, mainly too visual for that.

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