The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

What’s that?!

A  lot of what we post at The Collation is weighty, chock full of information and detail and (I hope!) interesting facts about our collections, library work, and early modern studies. But sometimes all you want is to look at a picture, right? Or maybe chime in with your sense of why something is interesting, yes? So with this post we are inaugurating an occasional series featuring curious things from the Library, whether a collection item or something used to care for the collections. What makes this series different from our other posts is that I’m not going to tell you what you’re looking at! I’ll post an image of an object (or a specific detail of an object) and you’ll guess what it is. After a week or two, I’ll post the answer and a discussion of what we can learn from it.

We’ll start with one that’s not too hard  but that is still kind of fun to look at and talk about:

Click on the picture to enlarge it, leave a comment below telling us what it is, and get the discussion rolling by adding what you think we might learn from it. I’ll be back soon to reveal all!

By the way, I need a much better title for this series than “What’s that?!” so if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

UPDATE April 3rd:  Read Erin’s post to learn more about this and other fore-edge paintings!


  • Looks like a fore-edge painting! I remember the first one I ever saw in my undergraduate university’s special collections–it blew my mind! I’ve seen a couple examples of these, but don’t know how this kind of art fits into the book industry. Would a publisher/printer commission these for all copies of a book? Would a bookseller add them in order to sell the book for a higher price? Or is this the kind of customization that an owner would make after purchasing the book?

  • I agree with Rebecca W. A beautiful fore-edge painting. Always surprising and delightful. Generally not visible until or unless the pages are fanned out, right?

  • I told you that you’d know this one and you’re right: a fore-edge painting, or a painting done on the front edge of a book. I suppose the harder bit would be to identify what it’s a painting of or when it was done. And Rebecca’s questions are great ones to ask . . . I’m still in the midst of researching these things, but maybe someone with more knowledge on the subject will chime in?

  • It would be wonderful to identify the subject of the fore-edge painting as this must have had some relevance to the owner of the original book. The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive in Stratford-upon-Avon has a couple of these decorated with scenes from Stratford-upon-Avon,obvious subjects for editions of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the posts on their Finding Shakespeare blog discusses one of these books. They are magical books because the picture only reveals itself when the book is pressed in a particular way, so it’s possible to handle and read it without knowing it’s there.

  • Identification of the scene, and more on fore-edge paintings, coming up in the next Collation post!

  • Thanks for yet another wonderful post to The Collation.

    As for titling this series, my first thought was to borrow a phrase from Trinculo’s discovery of Caliban in 2.2, like “A man or a fish?” Or adapt one from Stephano: “Four legs, two voices, and an ague.”

    • Those are great suggestions! On Twitter, Jeremy Dibbell suggested Lepidus’s question, “What manner of thing is your crocodile?” I think that might carry the day, especially because it leads to such a great answer from Antony, “It is shaped, sir, like itself” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.7, if anyone wants to read the whole lovely passage!)

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