Piece of Cultural History Hilarity of the Day

Wow, we’re really capitalizing on this “of the day” meme, aren’t we?

From the blog of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library:

This is the binding on a recently acquired copy the Scholar’s Arithmetic, or, Federal Accountant, a textbook published in 1814 at Keene, N.H. by John Prentiss “proprietor of the copy right.”… The book is still in its original binding as issued. In this case the decorative paper is marbled paper, whose color and pattern results from laying the paper over oil pigments floating on water. Again, wear and age allow us to see what was once hidden by blue pigment. There are blocks of print separated by wide margins, signaling this sheet to be several pages of text imposed for book printing. There are 31 lines per page with a page number centered in brackets over the middle of line one. Layout is the same on both front and back covers.

What is this text? Closely reading one portion reveals a surprise.


[service] under these good people; and after
[supper] being showed to bed, Miss Phoebe,
[who ob]served a kind of reluctance in me to
[strip and go] to bed, in my shift before her, now
[the maid] was withdrawn, came up to me, and
[beginnin]g with unpinning my handkerchief
[and gow]n, soon encouraged me to go on with
[undressi]ng myself; and, still blushing at now see
[ing mys]elf naked to my shift, I hurried to get
[under th]e bed-cloaths out of sight. Phoebe
[laugh’d] and was not long before she placed

Racy stuff, indeed. One library describes books with comparable decorative papers as “Bound in boards covered with a marbled sheet from a suppressed edition of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. [Boston?, ca. 1810]”

I checked a text of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (more popularly known as Fanny Hill), and yep, that selection is from the same hilariously tacky 1749 pornographic novel. It was involved in a huge obscenity to-do at the time of its publication and an unexpurgated version wasn’t published until after the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, which overturned British obscenity law. It was first published in the US in 1821 (though not unexpurgated until a 1963 landmark Supreme Court case), so I’d be really interested to know the story of the paper used to bind the textbook the library blog is talking about. How did an underground edition come to be produced, I wonder?

If you don’t read any of the various blogs maintained by the Princeton University Library, I highly recommend you check them out. The librarians aren’t always the most adept at writing in a snappy blog style, but they put up great pictures and facts about items in the collection. I’ve met a few of the librarians in Rare Books and Graphic Arts, and they’re wonderful people—I’m so glad that they’re reaching out to the wider community with their blogs.

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