The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Uncut, unopened, untrimmed, uh-oh

Do you despair when when you hear “decimate” used to describe a reduction of more than ten percent? Does seeing the caption “Big Ben” on a souvenir postcard showing a London clock tower rather than the largest bell within it make you cringe? If so, heed this warning: never use the phrase “uncut leaves” when describing a book. Even though you know that you’re using it with precision, and even though I know that you know, using it at all keeps a confusing phrase in circulation. Too many people hear “uncut leaves” and think of leaves that are still joined together at the fold, like this:

Trial of Chivalry features unopened pages, making it one of very few extant examples of a playbook as prospective readers would have encountered it in the London bookstalls.
Trial of Chivalry features unopened pages, making it one of very few extant examples of a playbook as prospective readers would have encountered it in the London bookstalls.

Such leaves are, as pedants delight in pointing out, unopened, not simply uncut. John Carter’s wonderfully opinionated ABC for Book Collectors provides the following definition:

UNOPENED
This means that the leaves of a book issued entirely untrimmed (and therefore having the folding of its component sections still intact at the top and fore-edges) have not been severed from their neighbours with the paper-knife. It must not be confused, as it often is by philistines, with UNCUT.1

Carter’s corresponding definition of “uncut” is eight times longer, so I present instead the more concise pairing from Geoffrey Ashall Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book:

unopened: a book sold with the bolts uncut, to be hand-slit by the purchaser with a paper-knife. It is then said to be opened. Cf. uncut.2

and

uncut: a book is said to be uncut if the edges of the paper have not been cut with the plough or guillotine. Cf. unopened.3

The difference between “unopened” and “uncut” is significant for the history of reading: unopened leaves are a pretty good indication that a book wasn’t read when it was new. Uncut leaves, on the other hand, only show that the text block was not neatened up by having the edges trimmed to the same size.

For the history of printing, on the other hand, the difference between “unopened” and “uncut” is largely irrelevant: both circumstances provide evidence of the bibliographic format of the book because the rough edges of handmade paper—known as deckle edges—bear a relationship to the way the text was laid out. A book printed in folio format, for example, can have a deckle edge on any of the three sides, and will never have an unopened fold. Each leaf is folded in half only once, so the fold is always in the gutter:

Mock-up of folded sheets in folio imposition.
Mock-up of folded sheets in folio imposition.

A quarto, on the other hand, will never have a deckle edge at the top. Because the sheet of paper is folded in half, then in half again, the top will either be a fold, or a sliced edge where the fold used to be. To see this for yourself, start folding a sheet of lined paper, where the printed lines mimic the chain lines of early handmade paper (see “Learning to “read” old paper” for more on chain lines and paper making).

Four sheets of notebook paper imitating a full sheet (unfolded), a folio (folded once), a quarto (folded twice), and an octavo (folded three times).
Four sheets of notebook paper imitating a full sheet (unfolded), a folio (folded once), a quarto (folded twice), and an octavo (folded three times).

Notice that the orientation of the chain lines changes between horizontal and vertical with each additional fold. For example, they’re vertical when the sheet is folded in half (folio format) and again when it is folded into eighths (octavo format). When all folds and deckle edges are cut off, you can’t tell the difference between a small folio and a large octavo:

Sheet of notebook paper folded in half three times to imitate octavo format.
Sheet of notebook paper folded in half three times to imitate octavo format.

This is exactly what happened with the earliest known edition of  XII Sibyllarum icones: the prophecies of the twelve sybills “sould by Roger Daniell at the Angell in Lumbard Streete” and engraved by Martin Droeshout (the same Martin Droeshout who engraved the famous “First Folio” portrait of William Shakespeare). Pollard and Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland (2nd edition) identifies it as an octavo based on the cut-down title page in the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, which was previously thought to be the only surviving leaf from that edition. In 2007, the Folger acquired a complete copy with deckle edges still present on some leaves. Evidence from the deckle edges and the positions of the watermarks in the Folger copy (now cataloged as Folger STC 22527a.5) allowed the publication to be re-identified as a folio.

Plates 1 and 11 from Folger STC 22527a.5 with remains of deckle edges circled in red.
Plates 1 and 11 from Folger STC 22527a.5 with remains of deckle edges circled in red (all thirteen plates can be seen in the Folger’s Digital Image Collection)

Using “partly uncut” to describe a copy like the Folger’s XII Sibyllarum icones would be technically correct, but potentially confusing: too many people would think it meant “unopened” either because they’re not familiar with the specialized vocabulary, or because they suspect the cataloger wasn’t familiar with the specialized vocabulary. Long story short, to avoid confusion between “uncut” and “unopened,” Folger catalogers strive to use “untrimmed” instead of “uncut.” John Carter wouldn’t be happy about that, but grudgingly admits that it will do:

TRIMMED
According to some authorities, cut means that the edges of a book’s leaves have been cut smooth; trimmed, that they have been more roughly levelled. Unfortunately this convenient distinction is regularly observed neither by printers nor by the cataloguers of antiquarian books, so that in effect trimmed and cut are for our purpose almost synonymous.4

One final word of warning: note that I said we strive to avoid “uncut” in Folger catalog records. In fact, catalog records have been created by so many people over so many decades that there are many instances of “uncut” in Hamnet, and I’m sure a few of them should say “unopened” instead. If the difference is important to your research, and the record isn’t clear, please ask.

  1. John Carter, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth US Edition with corrections, additions and an introduction by Nicolas Barker. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2013, page 225.
  2. Geoffrey Ashall Glaister, Encyclopedia of the Book. Second Edition, with a new introduction by Donald Farren. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1996, page 494.
  3. ibid., page 496.
  4. John Carter, ABC for Book Collectors. Eighth US Edition with corrections, additions and an introduction by Nicolas Barker. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2013, page 221.

5 Comments


  • Hi Erin – I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uncut leaves, on the other hand, only show that the binder left wider margins than usual when trimming the text block.” If the binder trimmed the text block, can it be said to be uncut? I’d reserve uncut (or untrimmed) for a text block that is completely untouched by a binder’s knife/plough. I suppose “partly uncut” is accurate here (that is, parts of some leaves were not touched by the knife), but in such a case, I’d want to make an explanatory note about what parts weren’t cut (for instance, if the top edge were cut but the fore and bottom edges were not – most such cases I’ve seen involve also gilding the top edge; I’ve encountered the situation only in modern books trying to have the best of both worlds – deckle edges and gilding in the same book). The distinction between “uncut” and “untrimmed” has always seemed artificial to me, and certainly understood by relatively few.

    • Your puzzlement is entirely justified: the sentence as quoted was the result of an editing error on my part when shortening the post. I’ve changed it to “Uncut leaves, on the other hand, only show that the text block was not neatened up by having the edges trimmed to the same size.”

  • Can’t resist sharing this comment, which came by email from a Collation reader unwilling to be publicly identified as the source of such a groaner:

    Erin, your latest Collation reminds me of the old joke about the freshman who gets an old edition of Julius Caesar in his college’s rare book room and finds it’s unopened. He asks the librarian “what kind of book is this?” and the librarian says “that is the uncuttest kind of all.”

  • Reminds me of another quip (I can’t remember who said it) about how discriminating collectors like their books to be not only unread, but unreadable (that is, unopened).

  • Bravo. Over the more than half a century that I have been teaching the principles of descriptive bibliography, I have found that pedagogically the safest and most useful names for these music-hall comedians are “unopened and untrimmed,” *open but untrimmed” [or just “untrimmed”], and “trimmed.” I have found that “cut” in any of its forms is dangerous [cf. the difference between “flammable” and “inflammable”].


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