As Seen in Books: A Glossary for Items Found in the Pages of Early Printed Books

Any experienced cataloger, scholar, collector, or reader of early printing is accustomed to discovering an array of random objects within the pages of books. Even though some of these tidbits may have fallen out of ancient beards, today we celebrate and study them and put them into categories. Devon Eastland, senior specialist for early printed books, provides a handy glossary for these curious items found within various old books, some on the block in our July 30 sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts.

Marks of Use

A marginal note and its shadow.
From Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, two large quarto volumes, London, 1776. To be sold in our July 30 sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts. Estimate $70,000 to $90,000.

Marginal notes, manicules, ownership inscriptions, corrected and censored text. A Renaissance or early modern reader’s written notes and observations on a text supply subsequent generations with key information regarding contemporary reception of that text. What did an average reader of the time think about the books they read? Were they critical, laudatory, angry, sympathetic? Many early books were systematically censored by the church, and clerics would ink over individual words, phrases, sections, even great large blocks of text. Modern collectors and librarians love to see an early reader’s two cents, but this was not always the case. In the nineteenth century, collectors preferred books with clean, blank margins. No dirty notes please! As a result, many books come down to us with only the faded illegible vestiges of marginal annotations.

Detail of a manicule.
From Nicolaus Perottus [Niccolò Perotti], Rudimenta Grammatives, Rome, 1493. To be sold in our July 30 sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts. Estimate $1,000 to $2,000.

Yielding to the tastes of the time, bookbinders were instructed to bleach out any offending scribbles from centuries past. Another common practice included tightly trimming the edges of the pages, rendering them smooth to accept new edge gilding. This often resulted in the excision of marginal notes completely, leaving only letters and parts of words along the brutally trimmed margins. Now consider what an important reader, owner, and note-taker may have left behind. Great and permanent losses have come from the removal of unique marginal texts. Luckily, modern taste has eschewed the deplorable practices described above, and marginalia sits in a place of honor among bibliophiles.

Marks of Manufacture

Detail of fallen type

Type accidents, endband and sewing threads, hidden places where lost color can be seen, printed and MS waste as pastedowns, guards, etc. A book is the scene of a series of crimes. A cataloger who seeks shall find much evidence of a book’s manufacture in the book itself. Many crafts contribute to bookmaking, and each leaves physical clues behind. Handmade paper has laid and chain lines, deckle edges, watermarks, and counter-marks. Each piece of type is a physical object, as are all the invisible spacing and furniture pieces that frame the page and create the spaces in between words, lines, and define the margins. Ink is applied to the type, sometimes poorly. Occasionally the sticky ink ball snatches a piece of type from the chase, and before the printers notice, an impression is pulled. Binders leave printer’s a manuscript waste inside boards, sewing thread, and endbands for examination. Leather is very susceptible to changes in color, but look carefully under a loose pastedown, and you may spy a surprisingly bright peek of the true original color of those now drab brown boards.

Inserted Material

Hairs, bookmarks, clippings from other books, printed images, notes, flowers, leaves, rocks, wheat, pins. Finding a humanist-era monk’s beard hairs in the gutter of a book can be somewhat alarming, and pressed flowers are just destructive to paper.  I must admit that I unilaterally remove inserted plant specimens, and later acidic ribbon bookmarks from books when I encounter them, as they present a hazard to the book. But I’ve also discovered lovely handmade bookmarks, and even an amazing woodcut prayer card from the blockbook period. Currency, checks, and correspondence often get tucked into books, but I’m still on the lookout for a vintage stack of Benjamin’s.

A stray sewing pin.
From Notaire Royal manuscript, France, circa 1608-48. To be sold in our July 30 sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts. Estimate $300 to $500.

Straight sewing pins are another very common sight within the pages of old books. They are sometimes used to tack pages together, but I have found so many over the years, just tucked into the gutter, that I wonder whether a book was considered a standard storage spot for pins on the loose.


A dead fly found in the pages of an early printed book.

Wormholes, flyspeck, whole bugs, burn holes, candle wax, food, bio-predation. These quotidian finds may go unnoticed, or at least unrecognized at first. An old piece of food, or a fingernail trimming is certainly an unwelcome find, even if it is 300 years old. Likewise, a burn hole, wax drip, so-called flyspeck (which I think is spider poo), or a smashed bug are just gross. Everyone in the book world is accustomed to seeing worm trails in early books, evidence of the feeding habits of immature stages of a number of insects, most often silverfish. So, if you see one skittering through your library, you have my permission to dispatch it, post-haste, shoe-style.

Bio-predation, likely form a mouse.

Mice and other rodents love chewing on books, mainly the bindings, and especially the spines with their delicious layer of hide glue, so high in protein. I once moved a sofa away from a bookcase in an uninhabited home to reveal shelf after shelf of leather-bound books with all of the spine leather neatly chewed away. How many mouse hours would it take to do that? Cataloging damage like this allows me to use my favorite word: bio-predation, vague and multi-syllabic, it’s a very fancy way to say, “something ate this book.”

I wish I had a photograph of a meowmorable book I once handled with a charming trail of cat footprints over the endpapers. Old books are time capsules, and I encourage all lovers of the genre to focus on the details, learn the language, and pick up the clues left by our ancient books.

More from Devon Eastland: Introduction to Bookbinding: Folding & Sewing

Do you have an early printed book we should take a look at?

Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.