Document from 1889 on calfskin vellum; The Abbey Studio

By Maryanne Grebenstein –

I took a group to London and Cambridge this past February/March to view manuscripts and participate in a workshop in Cambridge. While in Cambridge, we came upon a wonderful antiquarian bookseller’s shop called G. David. I purchased a few old legal documents because of the beautiful calligraphy and binding techniques that were used on them. I’m posting this blog because I thought you might like to take a closer look at the techniques. (I’m offering a workshop on July 20, 2019 where we will try our hand at some of these techniques.)

The first document (my favorite), shown in Photo 1, has beautiful Copperplate Script and is lettered on calfskin vellum.

A real estate contract from 1889; The Abbey Studio

Photo 1

It’s a real estate contract from 1889 and was produced by someone with a very fine hand! I’m guessing the words “This Indenture” and the beautiful flourishes around them were somehow printed or stamped on the vellum, as the ink is blacker and duller than the rest of the document, and the Gothic lettering used in those words is not used elsewhere in the piece. But all the rest of the text and drawings were done by hand directly on the vellum.

It’s interesting to note the similarities between the red margin marks in this 1889 document and the margins found in much older documents, such as the 15th-century manuscript MS M730 (fols 3v-4 shown in Photo 2) in the collection at the Morgan Library in New York City. As a matter of fact, the markings are not entirely dissimilar from loose-leaf notebook paper and composition books you may have used in school!

15th-century manuscript MS M730 from The Morgan Library

Photo 2

The real estate document is created in folio format, containing two bifolios, yielding eight pages. The open bifolio measures approximately 21”w x 16½“h and is folded to 10½” x 16½” (Photo 3).

An 1889 document containing two bifolios; The Abbey Studio

Photo 3

As mentioned earlier, the lettering is beautiful – take a look at Photo 4 to see some details.

Close up of Copperplate script on calfskin vellum in 1889 document; The Abbey Studio

Photo 4

But there is more to this document than beautiful calligraphy! For starters, take a look at the three embossed stamps (complete with sterling fragments to verify the value) that can be seen in Photo 5.

An 1889 document on calfskin vellum; The Abbey Studio

Photo 5

There are two three-pound stamps and a five-shilling stamp, showing payment of the £6-5/- fee penciled to the left of the stamps. And on the verso (back) of this folio, the royal monogram for Queen Victoria is visible (Photo 6).

An 1889 document on vellum with embossed payment stamps; The Abbey Studio

Photo 6

I love the “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” designations above the signatures on the final pages of the document in Photo 7.

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 7

And so that there can be no question about the exact location of the property that is the subject of the document, there is a lovely little hand-drawn and painted map on the back of the document (Photo 8).

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 8

All these little details are charming, but what I consider the most interesting aspect of the document is the way in which the pages are bound together. Photos 1, 9 and 10 show what appears to be a solid ribbon on both the front and back of the document.

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 9

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 10

There are actually nine tiny holes (or in some cases, side-by-side slices) in the vellum, allowing the green ribbon to be woven through the papers to hold them together. The weaving is begun in the center hole, up one hole, down the next, reversing directions at the head and tail of the spine and ending at the center hole. The tails that are left at the center hole are then tied and knotted, securing the binding (see Photos 11 through 16).

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 11

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 12

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 13

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 14

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 15

An 1889 document on vellum with ribbon binding; The Abbey Studio

Photo 16

The next document (Photo 17) is from 1904 – a mere 15 years after the first document – and is also on calfskin vellum; however, it is printed, not hand-lettered.

A 1904 document on calfskin vellum

Photo 17

You can see the registration fee was only 5/- (5 shillings). Like the previous document, it also contains a hand-drawn map (Photo 18), and a very interesting wax seal, attached by ribbon (Photos 19 & 20).

A 1904 document with a hand-drawn map; The Abbey Studio

Photo 18

A 1904 document with a wax seal attached via ribbon; The Abbey Studio

Photo 19

A 1904 document with a wax seal attached via ribbon; The Abbey Studio

Photo 20

The seal is what makes the document official, similar to a signature. It’s difficult to be sure exactly how the ribbon and seal were attached, but it appears the ribbon is woven through two slits in the vellum, and then brought forward from the back through a small hole in the ribbon and the vellum. It is then secured with the sealing wax. This is a particularly messy looking wax seal, which I think is the result of the wax seal being placed over ribbon, which became bunched- up when pulled through the invisible hole in the vellum. Almost always the ribbon used with a wax seal is grosgrain, as seen in this document, because it is stronger and less likely to fray than satin ribbon. And I believe applying the wax seal to the ribbon rather than simply stamping it directly on the document is a security measure. The wax seal could possibly be scraped off the vellum. But if the ribbon is woven through cuts in the vellum and the wax attached the ribbon to the document, it would be obvious if the seal and/or ribbon were removed.

The final document, Photos 21 & 22, is written out in a beautiful Copperplate Script, although not as fine as the first document.

Document from 1819 written in Copperplate hand; The Abbey Studio

Photo 21

Close up of document from 1819 written in Copperplate hand; The Abbey Studio

Photo 22

It was written on paper, not calfskin vellum, in the year 1819. It is not done in folio format, but in individual pages. It’s a seven-page document, written on one side of the paper only. The pages are secured by an interesting technique incorporating three tiny pieces of calfskin vellum scraps (Photos 23 & 24) .

Front of a type of "staple" made from vellum scraps; The Abbey Studio

Photo 23

Reverse side of a type of "staple" made from vellum scraps; The Abbey Studio

Photo 24

Two pieces are somewhat rectangular in shape and are aligned with each other on the front and back pages. Two tiny slits are cut all the way through the paper and vellum pieces. A third vellum piece is laced through the slices and tied in a knot on the back. A much nicer technique than a staple!

It’s so interesting to take a close look at documents from previous centuries. It is sometimes a little bit like a puzzle to try to figure out how a particular technique was executed. And even with our best attempt at imitating the techniques that were used, we really can’t be certain we’ve figured it out precisely. But we can have some fun deciphering a way that the technique could have been done!

If you enjoyed this blog, watch for the next one, which will be about another old document – a manuscript from 1797 written by a 13-year-old school girl in Medford, Massachusetts.

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The Abbey Studio; calligraphy; blog; Lettering on door for Boston Athenaeum
A Different Kind of Lettering Project
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The Geometry Book of Lydia Bishop
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