Mind over Medium

Art, Literature, and Pseudo-Science

Tag: red rot

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!

For the Love of Books: My Sacrificial Book

I was perusing the MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD (located north of El Paso, TX), when I found the front cover and first 4 pages of an 1841 classical dictionary.

It awakened the book-hungry librarian in my soul and I was determined to find the rest of it–there had to be more! After all, there was a clearly marked $9 price on the last ripped page. Even a greedy antique store owner is not crazy enough to charge $9 for the first four pages of a mythology dictionary (then again, who knows?). THE MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD is huge– over 11,000 sq. ft., plus outside and whatever is hanging from the ceiling– so I was certain the rest of the dictionary had to be around somewhere, even if it took forever to find it. It took another hour of searching to find it, but I finally dug it out of a box about a yard where I’d found the cover. Sometimes things like to hide from me in plain sight.

Yes, it's lying on both covers...:(

Man-oh-man is it in rough shape! For those of you unfamiliar with the Chihuahuan Desert, it’s dry. Very dry. In fact, the day I found this dictionary, the air was filled with dust and howling wind. You couldn’t see the mountains, or even the sun for that matter. It’s crispy and crunchy like a cracker everywhere you go, which you know is bad for your healthy, living skin. Now, imagine what that dry, sizzling heat does to 170-year-old dead cow/pig/sheep skin. It’s not pretty:

The book, however, is not yet a total loss! It was obviously a very pricy book when it was first published, evidenced by the very fine leather-on-board binding and a prettily printed page edge in a turquoise pebble pattern.

The inside is crammed full of text and more text and more text. If you want to know about the right toe of Palaemon, a son of Priam, this is your tome! And a true tome it is; weighing in at over 4 pounds, measuring an impressive 3.5 inches thick.

Both covers are off and it isn’t really safe to have it in any position other than flat right now. Others have attempted to conserve it, visible as a few ill-thought pieces of tape and an earlier, more professional addition of leather strips at the spine hinges. These, however, all failed and now both covers float freely, doing more harm than good when it comes to protecting what remains of the inside. The spine itself is intact, but the leather cover  flakes and cracks with the slightest movement. Even just taking these pictures put an almost unbearable strain on the cover, despite my best efforts at being gentle. However, all is not lost! This poor tome, left to become dust in a bone-dry corner of THE MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD, offers the perfect opportunity to explore the world of book restoration. The paper and glue are all pretty well intact, aside from the ripped front leaves, with no mold or water damage. The book’s most troublesome condition issue lies in the leather. The leather is suffering from “red rot,” a condition in which the tannic acid used to tan the leather all those years ago has begun to eat away at the leather, reducing it to a felty, powder-covered mess.

Red Rot is the Black Death of the book world.

 The profusion of orange dust on my fingers bears witness to the severity of this dictionary’s case of red rot. The powder literally leaves a dust print of the book wherever it is laid. It’s like having flour on your hands after making cookies. One swipe on your black pants and poof! Everyone can tell what you’ve been doing. I came up to the counter holding the dictionary and a few other items piled in my arms. I came out of the store with a square print of orange dust right smack in the middle of my chest! I thought the powder-dry binding was beyond hope, but a little bit of internet research lead me to a product called Cellugel. Cellugel is a book archival preservative that promises to help treat red rot without further damaging the book. It’s kind of like Oil of Olay for books: it promises to magically reverse wrinkles, but let’s face it, no matter how much you slather on cream, your face is eventually going to shrivel up. Like deep wrinkles, red rot is irreversible (after all, the leather is dead skin, so it can’t heal by producing new cells), but it can be controlled and I really want to try Cellugel out on my sad classical dictionary!

Click to visit Zombie Manuscript Girl. She's cool.

A jar of the stuff is expensive, $35 with shipping, but it’s an adventure! If it kills the covers of the dictionary, the tome will be no worse off than it originally is, but if it works…hello happier classical dictionary! Then it will be on to re-attaching the covers and stabilizing the spine. I think this dictionary could be one of the best books I’ve gotten so far since it offers me the opportunity to have a sacrificial book: one I can explore book preservation with. Most book conservation and preservation schools recommend having this sort of book around to learn basic techniques on before moving on to more difficult and valuable books. I am very interested in the field, so I want to try it out. It might make a good career or at least a viable, fascinating side business!