1864 Math Book with a Mysterious Secret

by Liz

I’d like to introduce you to a flaky, mouse-nibbled math textbook from 1864:

Christopher found this book moldering amongst a the brittle remains of many other leather-bound tomes at my new favorite treasure hunting ground, Maine Barn and Antiques in Azle, in July of last year– quite some time ago! But I wanted to save this gem for March. Why?

It does have marvelous marbled pages, great geometry graphics, and a wonderful gilt-stamped spine, and it was published in the midst of the American Civil War.

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Besides the poetic surprise that Victorian math has “couplets,” the pages of this book were filled with more than complex word problems. In fact, as soon as Christopher picked it up to show me the red-rot dusting the cover (I was looking for another candidate for using up the last of my Cellugel), we noticed that it felt like something thick was tucked inside…

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What’s that?!

The book blossomed open to reveal an amazing surprise: a pressed four-leaf clover and a thick lock of dark hair!

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They had been in the book so long their ghostly shadows had burned into the acidic paper

This was a math book with a special sort of story problem– why would someone press a lucky clover and a lock of hair in a math textbook instead of, say, a diary or a book of poems or an album? There were no inscriptions anywhere in the pages to indicate that this book had special significance to its owner. There was no bookplate or dedication or anything…just the antique store owner’s penciled in price and inventory numbers.

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But the story doesn’t end there! When I got it home, I was taking pictures for this very blog when I turned another page and discovered yet another clover tucked inside! This one wasn’t just four-leafed, either…it has FIVE!

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Excitement mounting, I continued carefully rifling through the pages and found two more clovers and a bunch of small slips of paper with the word “Credit” handwritten over and over again in script:

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I am thoroughly delighted by this unexpected trove of unexpected tokens! Was this the sentimental horde of some Victorian accounting student or did someone choose to save these things in a book that they believed was so unassuming no one would disturb their secret stash?

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I did not want to risk losing any of these puzzling pieces, so I carefully coated the cover with Cellugel and, after it had dried, wrapped the whole tome–flora and all– in archival tissue to hold everything in place before putting it away.

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I tucked a note under the knot so that I’ll remember what’s inside, but can you imagine someone finding this curious package after I am gone? What might they think of such a strange bundle?

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If you like intriguing antique finds, you are welcome to check out my “Find of the Month (ish)” posts on my other blog, The Pragmatic Costumer.

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