Published January 30, 2017
The impressive lace-cut margins of Marie de Medici’s prayerbook. (Source: Walters Art Museum)

“It was as if no one had ever looked for this before,
but as soon as you started looking for it, it was everywhere.”

Those are the words of Andy Stauffer, who for the past three years has been on the hunt for marginalia with stories to tell.

You may have heard of the ornate, decorative marginalia of medieval monasteries. It’s from them we get such unusual joys as a dog jousting with a rabbit mounted on a snail and the phrase, “Writing is excessive drudgery.”


But Stauffer is on the hunt for a much more ordinary form of marginalia — the little notes and messages we all might scrawl in the corners of a page.

Stauffer’s project, Book Traces, is collecting scans of marginalia and other intriguing finds in works from the 19th century. He says these traces are at risk of being lost as libraries trend towards digitizing their public domain (pre-1923) collections.

“We see a prevalent assumption in library policy circles that copies of any given nineteenth-century edition are identical,” Stauffer writes on his project website. “These books… constitute a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collections.”

And boy, does he have some stories to tell.

The Mourning Mother

Listen to Andrew Stauffer describe some of his finds.

Perhaps Stauffer’s most striking find is in the pages of The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. You’d be forgiven for not recognizing the title — despite being greatly admired in her own day, the practice of giving Hemans’ poetry to schoolchildren for study prompted a decline in her standing, and she faded into obscurity.

Hemans inspired at least one amateur poet — the possessor of the 1843 edition pictured above. Over the course of more than 16 years, Ellen Minor made markings in the text where certain passages struck her. But most moving is the final inscription on the back page, which reads:

Sing mournfully, sing mournfully
Our dearly loved is gone.
The gifted and the beautiful
Is from our sight withdrawn.
Then let us sing her requiem now
In this her parting hour
And softly breathe her name, who was
Our fairest, loveliest flower
Mary, Mary, Mary

The poem, borrowing from the lines of Hemans, is a eulogy for Mary Montague Minor, Ellen’s third daughter, who died in 1862 at age seven.

Over the course of its many years in Ellen’s library, the book became a “sourcebook of feeling,” writes Stauffer.

“Like a family bible, the book bears witness to stages and losses across many years.”

The Longfellow Lovers

Andrew Stauffer on the Longfellow Lovers

Written in the margins of a 19th century edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poems and Ballads is a Nicholas Sparks novel worth of melancholic material.

The inscriptions tell the story of two lovers, separated by sickness and death. “In the parlor of the infirmary,” the lovers bonded over Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor,” which tells the story of a ghostly viking’s love for a blue-eyed maiden. It’s the final page of that poem you can see above.

Remarkably, the owner of the book went back, years later, to annotate her loving record of the couple’s first courtship in the aftermath of her lover’s sickness and decline.

“It was after this I called you Norseman, the name we always used to the end in our letters. Do you remember?” she asks.

Need we say more.

The Confabulating Confederates

Andrew Stauffer reads the inscription made by a Confederate soldier in Prague.

A golden “flask of Rhine wine” got this Confederate soldier feeling sentimental on his trip abroad to Prague. Having purchased a beautiful Dutch copy of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (pictured above), he inscribed it to his war buddy at home in the long-since defeated Confederate States of America.

Enoch Arden is “essentially a poem about the heart wrenching consequences of coming home to a place where you’ve been forgotten,” says Stauffer. “When [the two soldiers] were reading this poem together, 19 years ago, that would’ve been 1865… Richmond was facing imminent invasion by Grant’s troops. The city would be burning as the Confederate Army made its retreat. Weeks later Lee surrendered.”

The book spawns a nostalgic memory of their days in “dear Richmond,” before the defeat of the Confederate Army. Its interior pages are glossed with phrases like, “I remember when you read this” — despite the fact that their author couldn’t read Dutch. He had learned this poem of loss and displacement by heart.

Here’s the full text of the Confederate soldier’s dedication:

Rotterdam, August 28th, 1884.

Dear Tom,

While looking in a booksellers window just now and smiling at Donby & Zoon and other English works in Dutch, I got caught in a shower. So I got this book and retreated to a cafe and got a bottle of Rhine wine and I have taken the two together.

I know the English poem almost by heart, and so I can read this Dutch without the dictionary, and it comes back to me as I read that we read it together in dear Richmond 19 years ago. Some of the lines that you read aloud then seemed vivid and fresh in my memory, things not to die until I do. And so it would seem to me that it might be a pleasure to you to see clearly, as I do through the mists of another tongue, Enoch Arden from another point of view.

And therefore through the golden light of this flask of Rhine wine, I give you this book to show you how dear to me our past has been, and how much I think of you.

James R.

Stauffer has amassed quite the archive of marginalia both intriguing and mundane, and you can view images of many of them online. His project is now partnering with libraries across the country to digitize handwritten inscriptions before it’s too late.

“We want as many seekers out there in the library stacks as we can muster,” Stauffer’s project description concludes. “The more examples we can locate, the more we will know about the history and future of the nineteenth century book.”

Listen to our full show featuring Andrew Stauffer below.


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