Friday, July 24, 2009

Lesson 1. Altered Books? Who started all this?

As early as the 11th century, old manuscripts were scraped to remove the ink and reused by monks. In effect, they altered the originals. Some of the older ink stains still show through.

In 19th century here in America, you didn't go to the dime store and buy a pad of paper, or to the office supply store. You used what you had. So, our great grandmothers reused books, and glued in newspaper clippings with recipes, poetry and images.

I had the privilege of being one of the archivists working with the John Muir Papers. Among his papers are several scrapbooks. One of them had originally been a used ledger book. Muir collected things like obituaries of famous people, poetry by Robert Burns in particular, and any article he could find on Alaska and nature. He also clipped and pasted images of animals and plants. It was a joy to hold them and see what was precious to him. One of his scrapbooks has sweet little drawings and scribbles done by one of his daughters when she was very young.

In my personal collection of books, I have an old spelling book that was transformed into an altered book full of newspaper clippings of poetry, humor, and short writings. I also have a beautiful Victoriana scrapbook full of ephemera. I'm posting pics of these two things for your enjoyment.

Most of our mothers altered their recipe books! Writing in tips in the margins, and changing the ingredients to suit their tastes. Or writing in other favorite recipes. Goodness knows the most used cookbooks got spattered and stained with cooking liquids and even cake batter when the mixer was raised from the bowl too soon.

Most students have altered their school books. The notes made in the margins is called marginalia. This is a common practice of scholars almost universally. John Muir, as a very young boy in Scotland, wrote and drew in his school books. Some of them are in the John Muir Collection at University of the Pacific. People come from all around the world to view them. In his later life, Muir made small tic marks on a page, and then in the back of the book he would record the page number and make his corresponding notes there. And of course the Muir family bible has the handwritten notations where his mother recorded the births and deaths of family members.

Most people credit the artist Tom Phillips of England with taking book altering to a new artistic level when he altered the book "The Human Document" into "The Humument". This was in the 1960s. Since then, thousands of artists around the world are finding new ways to express themselves by altering books - in just as many ways.

I'd love to hear what "altered books" you have in your family. You might be surprised to find you have been altering books for a long time! I invite you to share here by leaving comments.


  1. This looks like this will be a well written and interesting blog. I'm looking forward to it...thanks!

  2. I love your new blog. Great information here. I am going to point a couple of newbies in my group to come read this. Thanks so much. Are you going to have "Followers"?

  3. This is really interesting - thanks for sharing it! I have cookbooks with my mom's and grandma's handwriting and recipes from newspapers (and dried cake batter!) in them and treasure them.
    Love your new blog!
    Linda B.

  4. I figure the dirtier the page, the better the recipe must have been because it was used so often. You are lucky to have your treasure. Have you altered them by putting their pictures inside the books?

  5. This is such a good post. I remember how many thought it was a "sacrilege" to "deface" books. This little history will certainly put that to rest. (I am a book alterer!)

  6. What a wonderful experience that must have been to have worked with the John Muir Papers. This is such an interesting blog, and your efforts are well appreciated! I am looking forward to reading each entry.