Catalogue Review: Rare Books & Manuscripts in a Lockdown

Courtesy of the booksellers

Le Messager Boiteux, an almanac printed in Basel, Switzerland, ca. 1819.

We haven’t done a proper catalogue review for some time, but the relevancy and winking good cheer of “Discombobulation: or Musings on Life in Lockdown,” a collaborative catalogue presented by UK book dealers Deborah Coltham, Amanda Hall, and Susanne Schulz-Falster, is hard to pass up. As Coltham wrote by email, this catalogue "tries to capture some of the principal preoccupations facing us all at the moment. In these confusing and unsettling times as we are slowly getting used to social distancing, and new routines, the various social media memes, gifs, and videos circulating globally are inevitably focusing upon certain themes. First and foremost the great skill, fortitude, and selflessness of those in public health treating and caring for the sick and vulnerable; secondly how we are all taking time for reflection & self improvement (i.e. finally taking up that hobby we have long talked about, or reaching for a favourite book); home entertainment (be it gardening, playing games, or just letting it all hang loose); well-being & fitness (i.e. trying not to over-indulge); and finally the big question of the day - quite what does the future hold?”

I thought it might be fun to highlight one item from each of the catalogue’s five sections.

Part I covers 'Public Health,' where we find items related to the nursing profession, confined housing, and maritime quarantine regulations, but my personal favorite is an 1872 manuscript court summons for Elizabeth Ainsworth of Leek, England, whose bedroom was “so foul filthy as to be a nuisance and injurious to health.” Surely anyone with teenagers or roommates during the current lockdown can sympathize. 

Courtesy of the booksellers

In part II, 'Reflection & Self Improvement,' we take note of all the things that have become primary to our new routines, such as homeschooling, but also all the pastimes that distract us during times like these: painting, gardening, cooking, and yes, even book collecting in a french guide to collecting printed in 1756—although that one, I’m told, has been sold. Keeping a diary or a commonplace book has become popular again, and there are a few examples in this catalogue. A pocket journal of religious devotions handwritten in 1808, perhaps by someone living in London’s East End, is particularly moving.

'Home Entertainment,' in the form of riddles, puzzles, and games, frames the catalogue’s third section. Again, incredibly apropos to this moment in history, as so many struggle to fill their time at home, with or without children. Pictured below is a handmade version of a popular card game ca. 1800 that caught my eye with its pretty watercolor illustrations of the cards. It also includes a handwritten rule book, stitched in pattern paper wrappers.

Courtesy of the booksellers

Part IV demonstrates the universal importance of 'Well-Being and Fitness,' with books and manuscripts on exercise, personal care, over-indulgence, and quack medicines. Considering all the talk these days about hair dye, a 1839 first edition of Hand-Book of the Toilette, with its directions for covering the gray, is a good reminder that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Lastly, part V asks us to consider 'What the Future Holds,' illustrated by utopian (& dystopian) visions, a happiness guide for aristocrats, and almanacs. The gorgeous example pictured at top is titled Le Messager Boiteux, printed in Basel, Switzerland, ca. 1819. It provided information about astrological and astronomical phenomena and predicted weather conditions, but it also offered historical facts and included an extensive foreign news section. Perfect for readers trying to make sense of the world around them.