In investigating three wonderful pieces containing botanical illustrations in the MIT Special Collections library, I wanted to highlight the progression of printing and coloring technique and how that paralleled the deepening of scientific understanding over time. From wood cuts and simple coloring schemes at the end of the 16th century (John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plantes) to black and white copper engraved plates (Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants) and finally to richly colored engraved plate images of mushrooms in Bavaria (Schäffer’s Fungorum qui in Bavaria et Palatinatu) towards the end of the 18th century, it is clear the evolution of printing technology played a crucial role in advancing scientific understanding of the natural world. Needless to say, it is true that once you get hooked on a book, you can’t look away, and for me, that was Schäffer’s three-volume collection of mushrooms. Mesmerized by the beautiful, hand colored illustrations, I became fascinated by the level of detail and the pigmentation of the colors used in the volumes.
Some of my favorite mushroom illustrations.
One aspect of my investigation that was particularly exciting was meeting with Stephen Skuce, Jana Dambrogio and Ayako Letizia from the MIT conservation lab to investigate some mysterious paper damage I had observed in the first few pages of the first volume of Schäffer’s mushrooms. It was a great experience talking with book conservators and “reverse engineering” the damages to the book as well as observing how the repairs were done. It was clear the large tear was not due to mold, water or insect damage and that it, in fact, was mechanical. On the back side of the first seven leaves affected by the tear, a paste was applied to keep the pages intact. The paste contributed to the increased stiffness and yellow discoloration of the pages, and likely interfered with the water-based pigments, as there is some color smudging near those illustrations. However, a good quality paste was probably used because the pages have not turned dark brown, which is what would have happened if a low quality repair was attempted.
The large two-way branching tear from the first few pages (left) and the smudges of illustrations covered by the repair paste (right)
Other small tears in the top center corner of the first couple of pages of the volume show that the conservator took great care in matching the chain lines and paper quality for the mend.
Repair in the top corner.
Looking at the volume in this way illuminated its history as the pages were restored and unbound and rebound for their repair. It brought many insights to the question of “How did this book come to be?” Each book’s materiality tells us an enormous amount about the reader experience, and the quirks of each rare, old book challenge us to come up with explanations and search for answers beyond its leaves. I’m sure there is no limit to amount of treasures you can find in the MIT Special Collections Library, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to discover some of them this semester.