Looking for that je ne sais quoi : the conservation of Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré

By Christina Amato, Book Conservator

NYAM conservator Christina Amato removes a damaged and ill-suited spine from a 1633 copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré/

NYAM conservator Christina Amato removing a damaged and ill-suited spine from a 1633 copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré

Many books come through the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation lab, and often they receive minimal stabilization, or are rehoused in new boxes or folders. Occasionally one comes through that is in need of an entirely new binding, and requires some research before getting started.


Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, before treatment. Click to enlarge.

This copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré came to the lab in rather sorry shape; it is a 17th century book that had been rebound at some point in its past. The new binding, or cover, was clearly made centuries after the book was created, and was damaged to the extent that handling the book was very difficult.  The usual practice in conservation is to use as many of the original parts as possible when repairing a book; in this case, however, the binding was not only heavily damaged, but inappropriate, so the decision was made to make a new binding for the book.

What kind of binding would be appropriate for a 17th century French book? Beyond historical appropriateness, we had to consider the functionality of the new binding as well. It is a rather large, heavy book; what would be best for a book of this size? How often would this book be used? How would it be stored?

We began with the first question of historical appropriateness. We are lucky to have access to the library’s rare book collection, and were able to find other books from the same time period and location, and study their bindings.  We also made use of our large collection of books about binding history, researched other libraries on-line bindings databases, and talked to colleagues.

Models of "semi-limp vellum" bindings

Models of “semi-limp vellum” bindings. Click to enlarge.

With these things in mind, we decided to explore the possibility of making a variation of what is called a “semi-limp vellum” binding.  Such bindings are commonly used in conservation, for their historical appropriateness and functionality.  With a little digging, a picture started to emerge for us of a typical French, 17th century vellum binding.  We did not find a lot of details about how these bindings were made, however.  It was very helpful to make a few small models before tackling the original book, to work out these details, and try variations to understand differences in functionality.

With all the knowledge we acquired from these models, and from our research, we can now approach this treatment with confidence. Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré will have a well-thought out new binding which is faithful to its time period, and will protect it well, for years to come. Check back to read about the final stages of treatment and see pictures of the book in its new binding.

Valentines for a Valentine

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

In honor of Valentine’s Day, these two “valentines” seemed appropriate items from our collection to share this week.

Micrography valentine for Valentine Mott

Valentine 1. Click to enlarge and marvel at the minuscule script.

Dr. Valentine Mott

Dr. Valentine Mott

Pioneer American surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott (1785-1865), NYAM’s third president (1849), was the recipient of these two examples of micrography, created by David Davidson. Mott was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, and attended medical school at Columbia College. As a student, he also trained under a cousin, Dr. Valentine Seaman. After receiving his degree in 1806, he sailed to Europe, where he studied with Sir Astley Cooper in London, and then spent time in Edinburgh. When he returned to New York in 1809, he began to lecture in operative surgery at Columbia. By 1811, he had been appointed a professor of surgery, and in 1818 he was the first doctor to successfully perform surgery on the innominate artery, two inches away from the heart, to repair an aneurysm in the right subclavian artery. His patient survived for 26 days before succumbing to a secondary infection. For the rest of his career, he divided his time between the United States and Europe, serving on the medical faculties of the Rutgers Medical College, Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, the University Medical College and the Medical Department of New York University, and performing an extraordinary number of surgical procedures.

Micrography valentine for Valentine Mott

Valentine 2.

Aside from the charming but obvious play on Mott’s name and the tenuous connection to his surgery on the innominate artery, there is nothing on these “valentines” that explains why Davidson chose to make them. Davidson remains a bit of a mystery himself. Born in Russian Poland in 1812, he immigrated first to England and then to the United States, where he settled on the Lower East Side for awhile before moving on to Baltimore and finally to Boston. Davidson describes himself as an “Artist in Penmanship” at the Stuyvesant Institute on one of the valentines, and he was the creator of a number of different micrographic specimens, including portraits of famous figures and renderings of important buildings. Micrography, the art of using miniscule script to create abstract shapes or representations of objects, is a Jewish art form that dates back to the tenth century. In micrography, the writing itself is so small that the words themselves are not apparent except under close examination. Davidson is credited as one of the first practitioners of micrography in the United States. Various sacred writings were used in the execution of micrography, and for some of his creations Davidson used Hebrew texts, but for these two valentines he used English versions of the Book of Jonah and of a number of Psalms.

Hot Springs: Respite for the brain-weary and infirm

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Blizzards, cold weather, and short days call for vacations to warmer climes.

Fortunately, our collection contains a large number of items relating to balneology, the science of baths and bathing, including pamphlets from hot spring resorts across the United States from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even if we can’t really get away, we can take a virtual trip to a warm soak thanks to these guides.

Some of the content in these pamphlets has not aged well, due to both medical progress (no one today could claim that a hot spring could cure syphilis) and political correctness (Hunter’s Hot Springs’ view of Native Americans is appalling by today’s standards). But they offer a unique look into how these destinations marketed themselves using the medical claims and social mores of the era.

Arrowhead Hot Springs

“Here the brain-weary may forget a busy world, the seeker after pleasure find it unalloyed with vice, and all, with their loved ones, secure under the watchful care extended to guests night and day.”

Cutter’s Guide to the Hot Springs of Arkansas

“The following diseases are successfully treated, the failure to cure being the exception; where a perfect cure is not effected, a benefit is experienced by all where the waters are properly used: Rheumatism, Gout, Scrofula, Paralysis, Neuralgia, Ozena, Catarrh, Sore Throat, Syphilis—acquired or hereditary, in its different forms—Asthma, Gravel, Diseases of the Kidney and Bladder, Eczema, Psoriasis, Uticaria, Impetigo, Prurigo, Rupia, Chronic Ulcers, Glandular Enlargements, Ring Worm, Migraine or Sick Headache, Enlarged Tonsils, Menstruation Troubles, and Sterility. This is a long list, yet the truth is not half told. Not a week passes but some remarkable cures are effected where all hope of recovery had been abandoned before a visit to these Springs had been concluded upon.”

Cincinnati Sulpho-Saline Springs and Bath House

“Cincinnati is in fact positively the only place where mineral water, fresh from mother earth, can be employed for the restoration of the sick to health and vigor, where all the advantages of a great city can be enjoyed at the same time.”

Hunter’s Hot Springs at Springdale, Montana

“The fact that the Indian of untutored mind should be able to appreciate the value of thermal springs may strike us at first as strange and inconsistent. But the Indian, and particularly the Indian of the wilds unchanged by contact with the whites, lived very close to Nature and learned many of her secrets.”

El Paso de Robles Hot and Cold Sulpher Springs

“On the skin of an average-sized adult there are about seven million pores—seven million little sewer outlets—which are discharging vents of twenty-eight miles of connecting tubes or pipes—through which a large proportion of effete, worn-out débris of the human body, and noxious, poisonous substances, as I have just proved, are cast out from the animal economy . . . The large quantity of bi-carbonate of soda and of sulphur in these waters washes out all these obstructions from the mouths of these millions of little sewers, and after a few days’ bathing leaves the skin almost as smooth as satin.”

Which vacation destination would you pick?

English Gingerbread Old and New

Food historian Stephen Schmidt wrote today’s post, which includes findings from research he conducted at NYAM last summer. The post was originally posted on the Recipes Project blog.

Food writers who rummage in other people’s recipe boxes, as I am wont to do, know that many modern American families happily carry on making certain favorite dishes decades after these dishes have dropped out of fashion, indeed from memory. It appears that the same was true of a privileged eighteenth-century English family whose recipe book now resides at the New York Academy of Medicine (hereafter NYAM), under the unprepossessing label “Recipe book England 18th century. In two unidentified hands.” The manuscript’s culinary section (it also has a medical section) was copied in two contiguous chunks by two different scribes, the second of whom picked up numbering the recipes where the first left off and then added an index to all 170 recipes in both sections.

The recipes in both chunks are mostly of the early eighteenth century—they are similar to those of E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, 1727—but a number of recipes in the first chunk, particularly for items once part of the repertory of “banquetting stuffe,” are much older. My guess is that this clutch of recipes was, previous to this copying, a separate manuscript that had itself been successively copied and updated over a span of several generations, during the course of which most of the original recipes had been replaced by more modern ones but a few old family favorites dating back to the mid-seventeenth century had been retained. Among these older recipes, the most surprising is the bread crumb gingerbread. A boiled paste of bread crumbs, honey or sugar, ale or wine, and an enormous quantity of spice (one full cup in this recipe, and much more in many others) that was made up as “printed” cakes and then dried, this gingerbread appears in no other post-1700 English manuscript or print cookbook that I have seen.

And yet the recipe in the NYAM manuscript seems not to have been idly or inadvertently copied, for its language, orthography, and certain compositional details (particularly the brandy) have been updated to the Georgian era:

25 To Make Ginger bread

Take a pound & quarter of bread, a pound of sugar, one ounce of red Sanders, one ounce of Cinamon three quarters of an ounce of ginger half an ounce of mace & cloves, half an ounce of nutmegs, then put your Sugar & spices into a Skillet with half a pint of Brandy & half a pint of ale, sett it over a gentle fire till your Sugar be melted, Let it have a boyl then put in half of your bread Stirre it well in the Skellet & Let it boyle also, have the other half of your bread in a Stone panchon, then pour your Stuffe to it & work it to a past make it up in prints or as you please.

Eighteenth-century recipe book, England.

Eighteenth-century recipe book, England.

From the fourteenth century into the mid-seventeenth century, bread crumb gingerbread was England’s standard gingerbread (for the record, there was also a more rarefied type) and, by all evidence, a great favorite among those who could afford it—a fortifier for Sir Thopas in The Canterbury Tales, one of the dainties of nobility listed in The Description of England, 1587 (Harrison, 129), and according to Sir Hugh Platt, in Delightes for Ladies, 1609, a confection “used at the Court, and in all gentlemens houses at festival times.” Then, around the time of the Restoration, this ancient confection apparently dropped out of fashion. In The Accomplisht Cook, 1663, his awe-inspiring 500-page compendium of upper-class Restoration cookery, Robert May does not find space for a single recipe.

The reason for its waning is not difficult to deduce. Bread crumb gingerbread was part of a large group of English sweetened, spiced confections that were originally used more as medicines than as foods. Indeed, the earliest gingerbread recipes appear in medical, not culinary, manuscripts (Hieatt, 31), and culinary historian Karen Hess proposes that gingerbread derives from an ancient electuary commonly known as gingibrati, whence came the name (Hess, 342-3). In England, these early nutriceuticals, as we might call them today, gradually became slotted as foods first through their adoption for the void, a little ceremony of stomach-settling sweets and wines staged after meals in great medieval households, and then, beginning in the early sixteenth century, through their use at banquets, meals of sweets enjoyed by the English privileged both after feasts and as stand-alone entertainments.

Through the early seventeenth century banquets, like the void, continued to carry a therapeutic subtext (or pretext) and comprised mostly foods that were extremely sweet or both sweet and spicy: fruit preserves, marmalades, and stiff jellies; candied caraway, anise, and coriander seeds; various spice-flecked dry biscuits from Italy; marzipan; and sweetened, spiced wafers and the syrupy spiced wine called hippocras. In this company, bread crumb gingerbread, with its pungent (if not caustic) spicing, was a comfortable fit. But as the seventeenth century progressed, the banquet increasingly incorporated custards, creams, fresh cheeses, fruit tarts, and buttery little cakes, and these foods, in tandem with the enduringly popular fruit confections, came to define the English taste in sweets, whether for banquets or for two new dawning sweets occasions, desserts and evening parties. The aggressive spice deliverers fell by the wayside, including, inevitably, England’s ancestral bread crumb gingerbread.

As the old gingerbread waned, a new one took its place and assumed its name, first in recipe manuscripts of the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and then in printed cookbooks of the early eighteenth century. This new arrival was the spiced honey cake, which had been made throughout Europe for centuries. It is sometimes suggested that the spiced honey cake came to England with Royalists returning from exile in France after the Restoration, which seems plausible given the high popularity of French pain d’épice at that time—though less convincing when one considers that a common English name for this cake, before it became firmly known as gingerbread, was “pepper cake,” which suggests a Northern European provenance. Whatever the case, Anglo-America almost immediately replaced the expensive honey in this cake with cheap molasses (or treacle, as the English said by the late 1600s), and this new gingerbread, in myriad forms, became the most widely made cake in Anglo-America over the next two centuries and still remains a favorite today, especially at Christmas.

By the time the NYAM manuscript was copied, perhaps sometime between 1710 and 1730, molasses gingerbread was already ragingly popular in both England and America, and evidently the family who kept this manuscript ate it too, for the second clutch of culinary recipes includes a recipe for it, under the exact same title as the first. Remembering the old adage that the holidays preserve what the everyday loses, I will hazard a guess that the old gingerbread was made at Christmas, the new for everyday family use.

150 To Make Ginger Bread

Take a Pound of Treacle, two ounces of Carrawayseeds, an ounce of Ginger, half a Pound of Sugar half a Pound of Butter melted, & a Pound of Flower. if you please you may put some Lemon pill cut small, mix altogether & make it into little Cakes so bake it. may put in a little Brandy for a Pepper Cake

Recipe book England 18th century.

Recipe book England 18th century.

An interesting question is why the seventeenth-century English considered the European spiced honey cake sufficiently analogous to their ancestral bread crumb gingerbread to merit its name. It may have been simply the compositional similarity, the primary constituents of both cakes being honey (at least traditionally) and spices. Or it may have been that both cakes were associated with Christmas and other “festival times.” Or it may have been that both cakes were often printed with human figures and other designs using wooden or ceramic molds. Or it may possibly have been that both gingerbreads had medicinal uses as stomach-settlers. In both England and America, itinerant sellers of the new baked gingerbread often stationed themselves at wharves and docks and hawked their cakes as a preventive to sea-sickness. (Ship-wrecked off Long Island in 1727, Benjamin Franklin bought gingerbread “of an old woman to eat on the water,” he tells us in The Autobiography.) One thinks at first that the ginger and other spices were the “active ingredients” in this remedy, and certainly this is what nineteenth-century American cookbook authors believed when they recommended gingerbread for such use. But early on the remedy may also have been activated by the treacle. Based on the perhaps slender evidence of a single recipe in E. Smith, Karen Hess proposes that the first English bakers of the new gingerbread may have understood treacle to mean London treacle (Hess, 201), the English version of the ancient sovereign remedy theriac, a common form of which English apothecaries apparently formulated with molasses rather than expensive honey. I have long wondered what, if anything, this has to do with the English adoption of the word “treacle” for molasses (OED). Perhaps a medical historian can tell us.

Works Cited

Harrison, William. The Description of England. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994

Hess, Karen. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Hieatt, Constance and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglysch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

“Treacle, I. 1. c.” The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1991.

Stephen Schmidt is the principal researcher and writer for The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, an online catalogue of pre-1865 English-language manuscript cookbooks held in the U. S. repositories, which will launch in early 2013. He is the author of Master Recipes, a 940-page general-purpose cookbook, was an editor of and a principal contributor to the 1997 and 2006 editions of Joy of Cooking, has contributed to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink and Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, and has written for Cook’s Illustrated magazine and many other publications. A resident of New York City, he works as a personal chef and a cooking teacher and hopes soon to complete Lemon Pudding, Watermelon Cake, and Miracle Pie, a history of American home dessert.