Paste Paper and Poison

I spent last Saturday morning at the Salem Athenaeum helping to choose this year’s candidates for our adopt-a-book program,very gently examining amazing books from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were first-edition volumes by such diverse and esteemed authors as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (of course) and Jack London to examine, but surprisingly the works which really captured my fancy were lesser-know works on guns, robbers, and poison. Don’t be concerned; I have my reasons.

I was captivated by the Athenaeum’s copy of the classic eighteenth-century artillery manual, John Müller’s Treatise of Artillery (first published in 1768 and in America in 1779) not because of its subject matter but its bindingThis manual was not covered in leather but rather in less costly paste paper, a process devised by sixteenth-century bookbinders where a colored paste is brushed onto wet paper and then carved, combed, brushed, etc. with a variety of tools to create patterns and designs. The cover of Müller’s Treatise struck me not only as beautiful, but also rather modern.

Mullers Treatise

Paste Paper Cover 1779

Paste Paper Muller 2

Obviously the cover is a little worse for wear as it was made in 1779, and officers and soldiers carried this book around with them during the Revolutionary War, but I think the design is amazing. I’ve got a new obsession, as this is an art which is alive and well as you can see by these examples here, here, and elsewhere.

Paste Paper on Etsy

Paste Paper Book

Henry Fielding’s Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil (1751) did interest me because of its content rather than its presentation, which was rather pedestrian.  I did not know that the novelist was such an advocate for law and order and justice (he was also a magistrate), and his analysis of the causes of escalating crime in mid-eighteenth-century England (which you can read for yourself here) was interesting, particularly the last part where he discusses (and blames) the spectacle of public executions.

Fielding 1

Fielding 2

The last book that really stood out, among the array that was before me, is another eighteenth-century text:  Richard Mead’s Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays, first published in 1702 and then reprinted several times over the century (you can read the second edition here).  I don’t really work on or with the eighteenth century very much, which might be one reason these books are capturing my curiosity. Dr. Mead was a pretty eminent London physician, who counted King George II among his patients, as you can see on the title page below. The essays cover the usual suspects associated with poison and then some:  the viper, tarantula, and “mad dog”, poisonous minerals and plants, opium, and “venomous exhalations from the earth:  poisonous airs and waters” (assorted noxious fumes). I suppose the “mechanical” in the title refers to the empirical methodology of Dr. Mead; he does refer to various experiments (on pigeons and dogs) but he also seems to rely a lot on ancient unverified information.  This was surprising to me–I thought the Scientific Revolution had triumphed in the eighteenth century.

Mead Poisons

I loved the illustrations of poisonous insects in the back of the book, and as this post seems to be crying out for a skull-and-crossbones image, I am concluding with an illustration from a 1742 printed eulogy for Peter Faneuil (of Faneuil Hall in Boston fame), yet another unassuming volume in the Athenaeum’s collection.

Mead 2

Faneul Funeral Oration

8 responses to “Paste Paper and Poison

  • Elaine von Bruns

    Thank you for giving these books the acclaim they deserve!

  • Brian Bixby

    Loved the paste paper cover. Given your interest in old crime, have you read Defoe’s “Jonathan Wild”? Defoe loosely took the history of the famous “thief-taker,” who was a thief himself, and offered pointed comparisons to the government of the day. Saying politicians are crooks appears to be an old tradition!

    • daseger

      You know, I generally classify myself as an early modern historian, and the 18th century is the tail end of that era, but I am increasingly realizing how little I know about it! I’ve read some Defoe, but not Jonathan Wild, so it’s going on my list.

  • markd60

    That was a very interesting post (I read every word)
    I love old books.
    This reminds me of the day I went to the Army Corps of Engineers library and was looking at centuries old maps, unsupervised! It was an amazing privilege to have access to such documents.

  • Glenn MacDonald

    Apropos of nothing in particular and good memories of Henry Fielding generally, I thought I’d share a litthe more about the good man, himself. He lived in Covent Garden in Central London, I’m told, between Bow Street and Drury land, and sat at the Magister’s Court on the corner of the street, across from what is now the Royal Opera house.

    If you find yourself in London, you could do worse than stay at his namesake hotel around the corner from the Magister’s Court. It’s a funky little place, cobbled together from three buildings, right in the middle of everything for a litthe over a hundred quid a night. It’s a three minute walk from the Coven Garden Tube stop, which is on Long Acre, and if you turn left (SE) onto Long Acre, and follow it half a mile, or so, you’ll find your self on the fringes of London’s China Town, where there really is a place called Lee Ho Fook, and you can get a big dish of beef chow mein (Gerrard Street).

    I’ve always stayed there on my forays in London. As I said, it’s a litle funky, and has no lift, but for price and neighborhood, it’s hard to beat.


  • himalayanbuddhistart

    Thank you for this very interesting and original post. How lucky you are to have access to beautiful old books with fascinating illustrations and unusual topics! There is something to be said about etchings or engravings, they make any book seem serious and scientifically researched, probably because of the painstaking work involved.
    But what really matters in the end is contents, and you made me feel like reading the Henry Fielding book!

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