Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best. Book. Ever.
(Part II: 21 cool things inside)

I hope y'all weren't underwhelmed by the first "Best. Book. Ever." post last week.

I realize, though, that it might have been hard for you to share my enthusiasm for this tome, given that I only showed you its exterior and didn't share any of the goodies inside — the stuff that really catapulted it toward the top of my list.

(Regarding that list, some of my other favorite books have included a 1900 Grimm's Fairy Tales, a doodle-filled geography book, a book with mystery photos tucked away inside, and a different geography book that was filled with pins and thread.)

The book in question, as we move into Part 2 of this post, is the school textbook A Brief History of the United States, which was published in 1885 by A.S. Barnes & Company.

And now it's time to crack it open and divulge all the cool secrets with this 130-year-old volume. We'll go through the book from front to back.

1. Homemade endpaper
When A Brief History of the United States was crisp and new (during the first Grover Cleveland administration), the inside front cover was blank and white. At some point, it was the recipient of a good bit of artwork. The side-by-side color waterfront scenes, now half striped away, appear to be a kind of ink or watercolor image that was applied directly to the page. Then there's the dramatic pencil drawing of a man firing a shotgun at a bear (or werewolf?) standing on its hind legs. The page, with its mixed media and decay, reminds me of some of the Brooklyn graffiti I documented in 2012.

2. Introduction to the former owner
The second page features another of the color images that were applied directly to the page. And we're introduced to one of the members of the family that used this textbook so many decades ago. Written in cursive are references to Charley Bryson of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Charles Brison of Columbia. This is a recurring theme — the spelling of the last name as both Bryson and Brison at times. There might be a logical explanation for this. Or it might simply be that many American families didn't start taking the spelling of their names seriously until the late 19th or early 20th century.

3. A butterfly flutters by
Also on Page 2, below Charley Bryson's name, there is a colorful image of a butterfly, with the "tongue" labeled in pencil. Disturbingly, it appears as if a rudimentary skull and crossbones has been scratched into one of the butterfly wings. Agree?

4. Indian Head cents
On Page 3, someone took an Indian Head penny rubbed it with pencil lead or perhaps charcoal, and made impressions of the coin on the page. That's pretty nifty, especially because it was an Indian Head that was used.

5. Charley Bryson, in lovely script
On Page 4, this appears to be the official spot where Charley Bryson of Columbia was recorded as the owner of this textbook. The letters are slightly over a half-inch high. (Also note that the book was once for sale in a used-book store for $10.)

6. The artistic version
Also on Page 4, Charley attempted to get a bit artistic with his name. But he didn't plan well. There was no room for the "N" in Bryson.

7. The bizarre artistic version
And finally on Page 4, underneath the first two versions of the name, is this oval-shaped illustration/doodle featuring what are presumably the owner's initials.

8. Contents
This textbook is well illustrated, quite elaborately in some spots, and this design atop the table of contents is one good example.

9. Willie Brison and an Indian
On a blank page (the reverse side of a color map) toward the front of the book, we find the name Willie Brison and a light sketch of a Native American. I think it's safe to assume that Charley and Willie Brison/Bryson were brothers and this textbook was a hand-me-down at some point.

10. An odd doodle
This small doodle with a touch of color appears on the same page as #9.

11. Textbook illustration of Puritans
As I mentioned, the book has excellent illustrations. This is a mauve-ish full-page plate showing "Puritans Going to Church."

12. Steal not this book...
On the back of a color map illustrating the routes of the British Army during the Revolutionary War, William Brison has written a common (for the time) warning to those who might snatch his textbook. (I will say, though, that this is probably the last place a book thief would look.) The text states:

Steal not this book my honest
friend for fear the gallows
will be your end and God will
say on judgement day where
is that Book your stole and
if you say I do not know then
God will say go down Below

For more, see Papergreat's February 2011 "Steal not this book..." post.

13. Man on horse
This is one of the more impressive doodles in the book. It shows a man on horseback, wearing a backpack labeled "US." He is holding up a small flag labeled "truce."

14. Willie H. Brison
These students just liked writing their own names. Here, Willie wrote his name and hometown in elaborate fashion. He did have some trouble with the letter "N," though, getting most of them backwards. Or did he just do that on purpose to be silly? This page, randomly, also features a small color doodle of a turtle.

15. Nice beard and moustache
Here's another large sketch featuring a foreign-looking soldier with a sword. His hat is labeled "CORPAL," which I'm guessing is supposed to be corporal.

16. Some silly graffiti
On an illustration featuring "Federal Leaders of the Civil War," someone has added a pipe and a cigar to the mouths of David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, respectively. Maybe this chapter was a bit dry.

17. Deep thoughts
I don't think these are original, but here's a page of deep thoughts provided by Willie Brison. My favorite: "May your life have just enough clouds to make a beautiful sunset."

18. Odd-looking character
I'm not sure who this doodle is supposed to represent. He has spectacles, a curled mustache, a pointed beard, an umbrella, a top hat and tails, a murse, and cross-hatch pantaloons. (He looks a little like Kenneth Branagh's character is the execrable Wild Wild West.) It's certainly creative!

19. Random sketches
OK, now someone was really bored. This page just contains random sketches of everyday objects. I wonder if one of the Brison/Bryson boys ventured into a career in art.

20. One more signature...
Here's another Willie H. Bryson (with a "Y"), dated 1893.

21. And one more sketch...
Finally, here's the sketch that appears on the next to last page of the book, under the name Willie Brison. I have no idea what's going on here, or what words were supposed to be coming out of those cartoon balloons. But it's just one more thing that adds to the charm of this 130-year-old textbook.

I could have probably scanned and posted another 10 illustrations or inscriptions. But I think you get the picture. Obviously, we shouldn't encourage students to scribble in their textbooks while they're still in use. But, if they do happen to get a little overzealous with the with their pens and pencils, maybe we should tuck those books away for future generations. We couldn't have had all this fun if this history book had gone into the garbage 70 years ago.

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