Medical texts have a long history as substitutes for pornography. Books describing anatomy and reproduction have been lifted from bookshelves by curious young people and featured as the subjects of controversy for centuries. From this tradition comes the 1844 pocket edition of Michael Ryan’s The Secrets of Generation: Comprising the Art of Procreating the Sexes at Will. This book is an abridged and illustrated version of Ryan’s 1837 work, “Philosophy of Marriage.” It begins with an impressive frontispiece depicting two nude women stretched out on either side of a man in his bedclothes and the text is punctuated with four additional images of nude women.
These images are a far cry from those in the edition held by the National Library of Health, which depict the symptoms of venereal disease on men. While less appealing, the images in that copy are much more fitting; five of the book’s ten chapters cover the recognition and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The nudes have no relation to the text. They are, however, lovely classical images of women posing by lakes and forests.
The publisher of the copy in the John Bale Book Company’s collection appears to have taken a dry medical text, peppered it with mildly obscene illustrations and slapped on a “click-bait” style title that would not be out of place on a Facebook newsfeed. Despite its sensational title, The Secrets of Generation gives little practical information in its single chapter on influencing the sex of a child. However, it is strangely comforting to see that the practice of bolstering readership with misleading titles and pictures of beautiful women is not a modern aberration; the same techniques are seen in this book published one hundred and seventy years ago.
This book is not in the best of condition. Only a few remnants of the paperback cover can be seen on the spine, and the pages are spotted and folded at the corners. Despite this, the piece remains a wonderful document of nineteenth century theories of reproduction and an intriguing curiosity to explore.
“Grafting Operation Diagram,” by Shen Shaomin (1956- ), a contemporary and controversial Chinese artist, is a stark white tome. Its only exterior marking is the title reverse-etched on its thick, hinged plexiglass cover in English and Chinese characters. If the John Bale Book Company sold books by the pound, this piece would be a treasure based on weight alone. However, the real significance of the book is found on its 125 thick vellum pages. The book is a manual for the training of bonsai trees, but this is not your typical gardening handbook.
The “Grafting Operation Diagram” is a twisted parody of a bonsai manual. This book contains 38 pages of detailed illustrations of methods which push the boundaries of normal bonsai arts. Many of the techniques, such as skinning the bark from the trees and cauterization, are perfectly ordinary bonsai practices (Deadwood). However, the naturally human-like form of trees allows these methods to mirror human torture; the clamps look like thumbscrews and shackles while the process of “ant-nibbling,” where the tree is smeared with honey in order to attract ants to bite it, is similar to the ancient torture known as “Scaphismus” (Gallonio 11).
Dan and I recently unearthed a 2003 photo of Gov. John Rowland’s visit to our new shop. He was on a downtown campaign tour to promote Republican mayoral candidate Mark Forte, a longtime friend of ours. When Governor mentioned that his wife, Patty, had written a children’s book, “Marvelous Max the Mansion Mouse,” I decided to host a booksigning in time for the Christmas buying season.
We looked forward to the publicity her appearance would afford but it turned out to have afforded more attention than we anticipated.
Prior to the signing the press began questioning some of the Governor’s expenditures, citing that work done for his private benefit was performed at the state’s expense. Adding fuel to the fire, Patty Rowland rebuked the press in writing by way of a Christmas poem. On the morning she was to appear at John Bale I received an early morning call from John Murray who publishes the Waterbury Observer.
“I don’t think she’ll show,” he told me. I waited to see what would happen and, a few minutes before the signing was scheduled to begin, Patty and her driver showed up. When the press arrived I kept them at bay. As a guest of the bookstore, she was there to do one thing–sign books. Good manners dictated her visit with us should be civilized and focused. I insisted the press wait outside. The book was well received and we quickly ran through two cartons of copies.
When the signing was done, she retired to our second floor and called her husband. A few minutes later Patty asked if she could invite the reporters for a private interview.
Looking at a poster of Frank Leslie’s Gazette of Fashion and Fine Needlework from the 1850s is similar to stepping through the looking-glass of women’s fashion magazines. On such a poster one finds the latest hair styles and the most fashionable dresses, jackets, and hats. One hundred and forty years later, if one was to walk past a magazine rack the content would be more or less the same.
As a teenage girl growing up in the twenty-first century, I can recall numerous times I would ask my mom to buy the latest copy of Seventeen or Cosmopolitan. I could not wait to bend the binding and discover new things about femininity: new make-up tricks, new ways to style my hair, tips on how to socialize. My mind would reel at the thought of trying out what I learned as soon as I could; magazines helped me in discovering who I wanted to be. They answered questions I did not dare to voice out loud. If the magazines of today could have such an impact on my life, what sort of effect did magazines of the nineteenth century have on its readers?
As it turns out, The Boston Globe asked the same question back in August of 1877 when they published an article titled “Influence of Magazines.” The consensus of the time was that while magazines did “put your own thoughts into vigorous English” they also created “few writers [that] gleam with bright intelligence” (“Influence of Magazines” 1). In other words, magazines did not produce great works of literary merit; they were soft, light, entertaining, and perhaps detrimental to our intellectual growth.
Looking closer, perhaps these “superficial” magazines hold more merit than given credit. They may not produce epic, legendary documents of the written word but they do capture, in less than one hundred pages, a snapshot of the social order of the time period. Women’s magazines cater to the topics that are most on the minds of their readers. O Magazine is geared towards women that average 47-years-old and promotes a “core mix of advice, spirituality, beauty, fashion, health, lifestyle, and fitness” (“O Positive”). With over two million subscribers, it would seem these topics are at the forefront of the minds of women in today’s world. Continue reading Frank Leslie’s Gazette of Fashion: A Model For How We Read Magazines→
“The Bookmaker’s Sweetheart,” a hand-colored lithograph by Clarence Paul Meier, was created during the Prohibition, but it vividly rejects the ideals of moral sobriety that the “noble experiment” hoped to encourage. The vibrant print depicts a raucous and irreverent scene: a voluptuous woman flirts with and distracts the clientele of the titular bookmaker as they make illegal wagers on a horse race. A second woman on her own drinks contentedly while a third flirts with a jockey. The jockey’s picture hangs on the wall over a crack and beneath a reversed horseshoe, hinting at an underhanded attempt to influence the results of the race. It seems that a loss would be in the bookmaker’s best interest and he is throwing drinks, women, and superstition at the jockey to ensure it happens.
When Dan begins digging in boxes he tucked away years before, you never know what he’ll unearth. This time it was a bookshop log I started when, in 2003, we moved from our location in the basement of Howland Hughes to our present location on Grand St. Our present 158 Grand St. store is a far cry from where we stared–down the street in a 400 s/f space.
I hope this blog will allow us to highlight some of the things we do in the café and some of our community activities, but for today, I’d like to lay down the foundation of how we began in 1992. It may have been empty nest or a mid-life crisis but Dan and I wanted to have our own business. But what? Dan was certain it had to be downtown for sentimental reasons (he started working as a delivery boy at age 13 for Cappy’s Deli on South Main St. He went on to earn a business degree from NYU so felt confident the world would be his oyster).
Me? I was on a sabbatical from my job at what was then called Mattatuck Community College and on the board of directors for Literacy Volunteers. I knew there were too few opportunities for our students to buy inexpensive books. Voila! A used bookshop would be our experiment.
The storefront was a “white box” thanks to the landlord Gary Bellard and he offered us an inexpensive rent in order to fill the space. Remember, in 1992 the Great Downtown Business Exodus had begun.
Part of the excitement of working at an antiquarian bookshop is the chance to participate in shows. This weekend (January 10th and 11th), Papermania is being held at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut and the John Bale Book Company is once again proudly taking a booth. As a company, we’ve been participating in Papermania for well over 15 years and this year we have some truly exciting material that is coming with us.
One particular item that I find really fascinating is a small archive of collected and bound legal briefs relating to the copyright and trademark cases taken on by 20th century attorney Harry Dwight Nims. These 8 bound volumes of legal briefs from Attorney Nims’s practice provide a representative selection of his work from the 1910s to the early 1950s. The books, comprised of printed and carbon copies of in-house papers, official court documents, and related material, are often extra-illustrated with original evidence and labels used in defense of copyright and trademark court hearings. Hand-written notations, throughout, combined with photocopied and mimeographed advertisements, labels, and articles provide unique insight into the minutiae of copyright and trademark cases of the 20th century.