The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

All the Purposes of a Library: a piece of blue ephemera

Thanks to all of you who participated in guessing for this month’s Crocodile Mystery! As some of you noted, it is a book bound in eighteenth-century waste paper, particularly waste paper related to a late eighteenth-century edition of the Cyclopaedia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by Ephraim Chambers. The tricky part is figuring out exactly what kind of waste it is.

Folger STC 5685, STC 5685.2, and STC 13682, all copies of “Certaine sermons” by Thomas Cooper, all printed circa 1580, and bound together in late eighteenth-century waste paper.

The Cyclopaedia and her Sisters

Ephraim Chambers and his Cyclopaedia (the full text of which can be viewed and best of all searched online at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago in several editions) are not as well known today as Diderot and the Encyclopédie (first printed 1751-1772), or Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary of the English Language (first printed 1755). If you ask the average thirty-year-old, they may still be able to recall learning to consult paper copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica (first printed 1768-1771) in grade school, but few non-specialists, even those who had no alternatives to paper encyclopedias, would be able to tell you who Chambers was.

The Cyclopaedia was one of the first English-language general encyclopedias produced. Completed in 1728, it followed hard on the heels of the Lexicon Technicum (1704) by John Harris, a work that chiefly focused on scientific, technological, and mathematical topics and terminology. The Cyclopaedia, in contrast, endeavored to “answer all the Purposes of a Library; except Parade and Incumbrance; and contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro’ the Body of a People, than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.” (Chambers, Preface, ii). He had good reason to make this boast. The two-volume work received wide acclaim, covered a staggering array of subjects, and set the standard for all future European encyclopedias produced during the remainder of the century.

Denis Diderot and his Encyclopédie co-editor, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, initially set out to complete a French translation of the Cyclopaedia. Recent scholarly work has made clear the deep philosophical and structural debts these editors owe to Chambers.1 In 1829, another compiler, Thomas Curtis, would describe Chambers as “the Great Father of the Encyclopaedial enter-prize.”2

The title page of the first edition of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, printed in 1728. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin.

As anyone who has been in charge of a wiki knows, one’s labors are soon all woefully out of date. Chambers himself began collecting errors, updates, and new facts to include almost as soon as the first edition of the Cyclopaedia rolled off the presses in 1728, and a second edition was issued in 1738. Chambers died in 1740, leaving material for a further supplement, which appeared in 1753. The production and printing of such encyclopedias and dictionaries was necessarily a labor of love that took years, if not a decade or more, to compile and print. In order to ease the burden (and perhaps allow for long-term work security) in the printing shops, such works were usually printed by subscription. The shop would produce a few pages each week or month, and subscribers could collect the sheets, eventually binding them all together to form a complete work.

The Cyclopaedia, revised

Abraham Rees, a Welsh clergyman, took on the monumental task of revising and enlarging the Cyclopaedia in the 1770s, just as new competitors in the form of the Encylopedia Britannica in Scotland and the Encyclopédie in France were emerging. In January of 1778, he issued a prospectus for this new endeavor, just as Chambers had done so many years before. The prospectus laid out the anticipated nature of the project, how the sheets would be physically printed and issued, as well as how often, and how the work would be illustrated.

Read the full Proposals (1778) here. 

Rees’ new, improved Cyclopaedia would ultimately make up four volumes, “handsomely printed with a New Letter [font] on a Fine Demy Paper [a size of paper equivalent to about 17.5″ x 22.5″].” Further, and finally to our purposes, sheets would be delivered each week, “stitched in Blue Paper.” At a rate of approximately one such small booklet a week, no wonder it took approximately eight years to complete printing: the first portion was printed in January of 1778, with the bulk completed in 1786. Back-matter, corrections, and other notes were not completed until 17883. I believe that the item at the Folger, STC 5685, is bound in a recycled blue wrapper from one of these weekly deliveries.

The title page to the third volume of Rees’s revised “Cyclopaedia,” printed in 1781; possibly also printed on the blue wrapper that was recycled as a binding on Folger STC 5685.

Blue Paper Wrappers

First, I have to note that I can’t say for sure that my hunch is correct. When I first found this item at Folger a few months ago, I was taking care of some routine work in our vault and happened on it by chance. I snapped a quick picture and determined to get back to it at some point. So much for that.

Now I’m writing from home, with 85 tabs open and hungry cats clawing at my socks, and wishing that Past!Beth had taken the time to grab a couple more photos so that I could verify details. It’s a good reminder that sometimes we’re never able to determine something about a book’s history or materiality for sure, but this item will definitely have to wait for a more complete, closer look until the Folger’s collection is open once more (post COVID and post construction).

That caveat issued, here is why I think this item is bound in a recycled wrapper, and not (as some respondents to the Crocodile Mystery have reasonably suggested) paper that was used in other ways or bears an offset impression. First, we know that although many of these ephemeral wrappers for works that were issued serially and bound together as complete entities weren’t saved, it appears that no few were used in just this way—as binding waste. A wonderful post from Antipodean Footnotes, the blog run by Anthony Tedeschi (now at the Alexander Turnbull Library), discusses some prospectuses for Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary discovered as lining inside the binding of a 1785 edition of the Dictionary at the Dunedin Public Library in New Zealand. Please click through to the post for some excellent photos of the waste in situ. Tedeschi ends his post by mentioning that:

The second volume of the 1785 Dictionary also includes blue wrappers used as binder’s waste. These are prospectuses advertising an edition of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences with supplement by the Welsh minister Abraham Rees. Further research needs to be done on the edition advertised.

He notes throughout the post that J.D. Fleeman, a Johnson bibliographer, had mentioned finding some Johnson prospectuses used in this fashion, but didn’t know of any systematic search or listing. The blog post was written in 2011, so perhaps this has changed, but in my searching (admittedly limited by quarantine) I was unable to uncover any dedicated study of these prospectuses or serial wrappers, or of eighteenth century use of the blue paper they were printed on specifically focused on the book trade.4 Like Tedeschi, I’m sure more such wrappers and prospectuses reused as waste will turn up, and I would love to hear more from the staff at the Dunedin Public Library about the Rees prospectus on their copy of the Dictionary.

Besides the evidence that there were many of these blue wrappers floating around that were clearly intended to be discarded, and the evidence that they were used as binding waste in other books, Tedeschi discusses another puzzle I was wondering about: the number just barely visible in the lower left-hand corner of the Folger copy. I had originally thought that the binder had used a piece of waste paper from an outdated or damaged edition of the Cyclopaedia overlaid with blue paper to attempt to hide the waste, but if that was the case, why would a number appear in this position? Why would it appear above the exact center of the main title? As Tedeschi points out, of course, the serially-issued segments of an encyclopedia or dictionary would have been numbered. Scholarship on the Cyclopaedia notes that it was ultimately issued in 418 segments5 ours appears to be number 23<?> (the last number is not visible due to a tear), which means this wrapper was likely produced sometime in the middle of the production of the Cyclopaedia; perhaps around the last few months of 1782.


The title page of the Cyclopaedia again, with the portion that appears on the Folger’s item outlined in red.


A rotated and reversed image of the binding on STC 5685.


Another view of STC 5685 rotated and reversed, and run through Retro Reveal filters to try and see the printing better. It helps a little?

It seems likely that the binder simply attached the wrapper to the boards of this 1580 STC upside-down and backwards. Without closer examination, I can’t determine how the ink lies on the paper, which would help solve this issue. I also don’t have photos of the back board or the turndowns, which might reveal further clues. Sadly this will have to wait for some time. I’ve also noticed that the word “SCIENCES” in the title appears to be spelled “SCIFNCES,” which might point to printer’s waste as opposed to a discarded covering, after all.

Have you encountered any recycled prospectuses, serial wrappers, or other such ephemera while researching, or in collections with which you work? Drop me a line in the comments!

  1. For example, Richard Yeo’s excellent work Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture (2001)
  2. Richard Yeo, Encyclopaedic Visions, 2001 p. 123, quoting Thomas Curtis, London Encyclopaedia, vol. 1, iii, 1829
  3. Yeo, 66n23
  4. Of course, I did find entries on blue paper in the encyclopedias themselves, as well as a few works touching on the history of color in papermaking overall, but few specifically dedicated to its use in the book trades and how that intersected with blue paper meant to wrap other goods such as sugar. If you know of any good resources exploring other kinds of paper besides the white paper meant for writing and printing in the early modern period, I’d love to hear about it!
  5. “It appeared in 418 weekly numbers from 31 January 1778 to 1786, reaching a circulation of 4,000 to 5,000 for each number.” Yeo, pp. 66

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