If time was a doorway into which I could
slip through to yesteryears what would I find?
The past is written on pages of history books;
lives lived, some celebrated, some unknown;
weathered old graves, scattered leaves dancing
over Elizas and Daniels, long forgotten.
A little piece of living past. A Charming Discovery I made earlier this year. George Elliot’s Scenes of Clerical life (published by Blackwood and Sons), dating from I think, the 1880s.
I was showing this book to a friend a few months ago, having had this book on my bookcase for about a year; I had not even read it. I like to collect old books, the beautiful embossed covers, the crackle their old pages make as you turn them, they have a certain charm that modern books lack. This book I found for 10p in a second hand bookshop- it was so little a price for a late nineteenth century book, but its loose front cover set its lowly price.
After my friend had left, I noticed its spine was loose, and on closer inspection I saw something sitting inside the spine.
Intrigued, I carefully lifted out this little piece of history. It appeared to be a fragment of a ledger book, dating from 1836, made from rag paper.
The clothes that made this rag paper could possibly date from the Regency period, so about the turn of the nineteenth century, as in those days clothes were worn until they were almost worn out- people would sell their clothes to rag men for rag paper factories.
I spiral back into time, wondering what the clothes were that made the rag paper- who wore them, what clothes were they? An elegant gentleman’s jacket worn on a carriage ride with his fiancée? A lady’s nightgown?
I see the poor women and children in the factory, labouring long, weary ten hour days to make the old clothes into paper, and finally..the paper arrives bound into plain notebooks, by horse and cart, wrapped in brown paper parcels to Blackwood and Sons Publishing House in London, or perhaps Edinburgh. A serious looking clerk sits at a heavy wooden desk, with ink and pen, head bent over his book, meticulously recording the company’s expenditure.
The Paper still sits inside the spine, its home for the last 134 ( or thereabouts) years. I am probably the first person to touch it since the 1880s, which delights me and I wonder who the man was who placed it there- what was his name? Was he happy in his life? I have been told by the bookseller that old paper was often placed into spines of books when bookbinding to set the pages together. This little fragment, is a link to then and now; from the unknown man to me. I have a fondness and a certain respect for it- it has long survived its makers and will outlast modern day paper, for rag paper is an archivist’s delight. Wood pulp paper eventually disintegrates, rag paper survives for centuries–it might well survive me.
Every so often I lift the front cover away from the spine to look at it, marvelling at the exquisite handwriting, which has far more appeal than an Excel spread sheet, the modern equivalent I suppose, and breathe in the old paper smell. The past has that special scent; earthy, dusty and real. In the future what will they have to smell or even touch? Computer programs exist in a virtual space, odourless, intangible, efficient and time saving yes, but charmless.
The Paper holds many stories of the past, what secrets can it tell?
A carriage rolling over gravel, pulled by black horses;
An elegant gentleman and his sweetheart,
taking long walks in the park.
Her gloved hand in his, she wears her new dress,
shimmering blue which is echoed in her eyes,
and admired by her gentleman companion.
Marriage follows, a family of six children,
the faded dress given to the maid in the kitchen,
who wears it every Sunday into holes.
The Rag man collects it at the back door,
throws it into his cart, it begins a new life-
Pulped by rough, red hands in a big vat,
the dress mixes with other rags, old unwanted
garments transforming into paper.
Its new life records the publisher’s expenses;
pencils, ink, pens; all neatly inked into
its surface, kept in a book in a bureau.
Years pass and the records become old;
no longer needed; the pages are torn out,
cut neatly with scissors in a steady hand,
and fitted into the spine of a new book,
Which tells the fictional tale of Milby Town.
History and fiction merge into one;
young lovers, hard working servants, Rag Men
and factory workers; pages turn- they record lives;
both real and imagined and speak to the future.