Mind over Medium

Art, Literature, and Pseudo-Science

Tag: preservation

1864 Math Book with a Mysterious Secret

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.


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…


What’s that?!

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


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.


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!



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:


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?


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.


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?


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.


Test Subject: A Sacrifice for the Good of Science

As I mentioned previously, I found a neat old Classical Dictionary rotting away into fine, spongy leather dust. This sad , fat volume is helpless, after all, there is no cure for red rot. There is , however, a stopgap that can extend the life of a book. For my birthday today, my parents surprised me with some CELLUGEL! I stole the manufacturer’s description so you can get the gist of what the stuff does:

“Cellugel uses cellulose ethers (specifically hydroxypropylcellulose) and isopropanol to treat red rot by penetrating the surface of leather. It consolidates the leather substrate, depositing a thin film which provides resistance to atmospheric conditions but does not darken or discolor leather surfaces. It will not stain other materials it comes in contact with. Cellugel dries quickly and the book may soon be handled safely. A second coat may prove necessary for extremely thick or badly deteriorated volumes. It is an excellent choice for consolidating powdery leather surfaces prior to conservation treatments.” – Conservation Resources

Okay, so that may be a bit much hoity-toity talk for us average Joes and Josefines. Basically, Cellugel makes a film over the book, keeping it from powdering up your hands. It’s easier to apply than frosting on a donut and golly, it works! In less than the time it takes to get through a commercial break, I had zapped that red rot into submission!

My super-technical workstation full of high-tech equipment, including a state-of-the-art butter dish.

The applying Cellugel is so much easier than applying to grad school!

I’ve never been this giddy watching paint dry…

Sadly, it won’t heal the flaking and splitting in the spine of the book, but the covers are now almost powder free! The little flakes I’m going to fix up with some unholy glue (conservationist everywhere begin sharpening their pitchforks).


Glue will have to do ! This book is pretty dead already. If I’m going to bring it back to life, I’m going to need to get all Dr. Frankenstein up in here!

I have applied the first coat and will see how the covers hold up with just that. I find it kind of ironic that something that contains 100% isopropyl alcohol– the industrial version of the stuff used in hand sanitizer and by evil fathers to singe the germs right out of your roadrash– will preserve powder-dry red rot. After all, isopropyl dries out your hands like nobody’s business! I made the mistake of getting some on my fingers. My hands are now as dry and crackly as the old dictionary used to be!

I only dipped my hand in it one time. ONE TIME.

Anyway, I am beyond pleased with the Cellugel. Along with the amazing bookbinding dictionary and book care guides my parents gave me, I am well set to forge ahead into my conservation experiments on this sad old tome! Huzzah!