While working at the Folger Shakespeare Library last September, I was surprised when, along with a manuscript, I also received a pair of white gloves. Although such gloves had been required in reading rooms decades ago, many research libraries now have policies against their use, except when working with hazardous substances (like lead or moldy items) or materials like photographs that could be damaged by even brief contact. I understood once I opened the box:
The book inside was bound in silver, which, as anyone who has worn silver jewelry or owned real silverware knows, tarnishes easily when it comes into contact with skin’s natural oils. The endpapers were pink silk, and the book was decorated with green ribbons. It was held closed by a silver stylus, which a Folgerpedia entry explains is “too crude to be the original one” but that nevertheless gave a clue to the volume’s contents.
This book turned out not to be a manuscript miscellany but rather a set of writing tables, erasable and reusable sheets of paper coated with a mixture of gesso and glue. Unlike regular rag paper, writing tables are smooth and, as Francis Bacon put it in his New Atlantis, “shining.”
Writing on this surface with a metal stylus (usually brass, copper, or silver) leaves a thin layer of metal on the page, which can be removed with water.
Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe described the features and uses of writing tables in a 2005 Shakespeare Quarterly essay. They noted that such books would have been ideal for writing or sketching while walking, on horseback, or outdoors, as manipulating a quill, ink, and paper without a desk would have been almost impossible. (Neither fountain pens nor graphite pencils became available in England until the 1660s.) Writing tables were also instrumental in the early modern note-taking practices Ann Blair has studied and could serve as temporary repositories for material destined for miscellanies.
As Stallybrass et al point out, “makers of writing tables” were members of the Stationers’ Company, the livery company that represented (and still represents!) those involved in the production and sale of books in England. Table books were also imported from elsewhere in Europe throughout the period. Making tables involved treating the loose sheets of paper and binding them together, sometimes with a printed almanac or reusable calendar, so they were usually produced and sold by bookbinders. Tables were available in a range of sizes and levels of quality, and “erasable tables were used by every literate social class” (403). These once-ubiquitous items are probably scarce now because they were used until they were worn out and then discarded.
Affordable sets of tables were bound in paper or simple leather bindings, while more expensive tables were bound in tooled leather or precious metals. Luxurious tables made suitable gifts for the aristocracy; Elizabeth I is recorded to have received at least two sets. This set, V.a.531, was probably first owned by Alicia Gardner, who also annotated this book in ink.
Writing tables show us how early modern English people processed and managed an ever more rapidly increasing amount of information. Stallybrass et al compared the tables, especially smaller, more portable sets, to the Palm Pilot, which some of you may remember was a similarly sized personal digital assistant (PDA) with a stylus used for organizing contacts, appointments, and tasks.
The authors pointed out that while tables and PDAs had some features in common, early modern English pedagogy “emphasized the gathering of commonplaces, their organization under topical headings, and their redeployment as the materials of one’s own writing” (410–11), and Palm Pilots were never used in these ways. But this was two years before the iPhone appeared, and it seems to me that we use smartphones in ways that are roughly analogous to early modern writing tables. A smartphone has similar proportions — my iPhone 6 is 138.1 x 67 mm to V.a.531’s 103 x 67 mm — but, like its early modern counterpart, it is more flexible than the Palm Pilot. I often use mine to capture information that will be moved to a more permanent, organized, and easily searchable repository like Zotero or Evernote, which, in this analogy, function like high-tech versions of commonplace books and miscellanies.
Smartphones also reach a broader market than Palm Pilots did. Just as one could choose between tables bound in paper with printed material from the English Stock or a deluxe silver-bound set like V.a.531, one can purchase an inexpensive phone with the same basic functions or a cutting-edge, aesthetically pleasing device with a price to match. Cases and other customizations allow users to alter the way their devices work or express their personal taste. The binding of V.a.531, though beautiful, does nothing to change the tables’ use, just as the rose gold iPhone does not function differently from the space gray model. Nevertheless, I would not want to be the one presenting the queen with a dull gray phone. For good or ill, the design of portable objects like writing tables and smartphones communicates information about their owners to anyone who sees them.
P.S. I recently spotted this Paperblanks journal in several gift shops in Paris. Of course, I had to pull out my phone and compare the two covers. (Do I know how to have fun on vacation or what?) The Jesse tree filigree designs, though similar, are not the same; the notebook’s inside cover explains that its design is from an early nineteenth-century German book. The “Blush Pink” notebook can be yours for €14.95, or, if you want to be really meta, you can go for the similar “Maya Blue” tablet cover, which is currently on sale for €40.76.
Works cited and consulted:
Baker, Kathleen A., and Randy Silverman. “Misperceptions about White Gloves.” International Preservation News 37 (December 2005): 4–9. Accessed 10 May 2016. http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/pac/ipn/ipnn37.pdf
Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. Yale University Press, 2010.
Stallybrass, Peter, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 55.44 (2005): 379–419.
Except where otherwise credited, all photos by Erin A. McCarthy courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.