The rusty outline we showed in last week’s Crocodile post is, as one of our responders, Giles Bergel, correctly guessed, from a pair of scissors. It appears in Folger First Folio number 58, in Henry IV, part 1 (pp. 50-51). This First Folio is currently in the Folger Great Hall, along with nineteen other First Folios, for the exhibition First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. The exhibition celebrates the return of the First Folios (the iconic first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623) from their nation-wide tour in 2016.
But why did someone leave a pair of scissors in a First Folio long enough (and in a damp enough environment) for the iron to oxidize and leave a rusty residue on the page? The received wisdom is that they were left there by the original binder. However, binders rarely use scissors during the binding process, and our Conservation Lab has expressed skepticism about this theory. It seems very unlikely that a binder would temporarily abandon a binding project with a pair of scissors stuck inside the book.
Also, we can’t be sure that the scissors were left there in the seventeenth century. Scissors have not evolved in shape and size very much over the centuries, and it is possible that someone left them there in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
To complicate matters, a rusty outline of a pair of scissors appears in two other First Folios at the Folger: First Folio number 67 (also in the current exhibition) and First Folio number 63. In all three instances, the scissors outline is located in the gutter in the lower half of the book. In numbers 58 and 67 the outline appears at the beginning of a quire, but in number 63 in appears in the exact center of the quire (which doesn’t really mean much in this case, since the page facing it is actually from another First Folio!).
We had a theory for a couple of days that maybe it was the same pair of scissors left in all three copies, but it turns out they are all slightly different sizes. So these are three different instances of scissors being left in First Folios, and we might have three different explanations.
Our strongest hunch at this point is based on our understanding of reading practices in the early modern period. Imagine a group of people listening to someone read from the plays. It was common practice for women to engage in needlework while listening. Scissors were a standard part of one’s sewing supplies. Imagine that the reading session came to a close, and they needed to bookmark the page where they stopped. Imagine the reader popping a pair of scissors into the book to mark the spot, not having a silk ribbon or other form of bookmark conveniently available. Perhaps the next time they returned to reading, they picked up a different book, and the scissors, over time, left their mark.
This got me thinking about depictions of scissors in the period. Here’s a typical pair of scissors, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Scissors also occasionally appear in paintings and engravings, among writing supplies, as in this portrait by Jan Gossaert:
And in this engraving included in Palatino’s famous writing manual, Compendio del gran volume dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri (Venice, 1588, but many other editions as well):
The shapes of these real and depicted scissors certainly seem in line with the rusty traces found in our First Folios. What do you think? Are the scissors outlines evidence of reading practices, writing practices, binding practices, or, perhaps, nineteenth-century cutting and pasting practices? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
(Thanks to Beth DeBold, Caroline Duroselle-Melish, and Renate Mesmer for their help with this post)