Lab 7 Deciphering Physical Books

Deciphering Physical Books

Lab Questions

Station 1

How can we use physical clues in historical books to uncover the histories of their production? What can we discern about their composition, format, and printing—and what literary-historical conclusions can we draw based on these observations?

For station 1, our group tried using signatures to count pages per gathering. Different books had different signature markers; some were letters, while others were numbers or symbols. Signatures were helpful in determining whether a book was a quarto or an octavo. Based on the experiment classes, signatures must have been a helpful way to keep track of pages, folding, and cutting. Other noted features were cover-material, as well as sizes of margins or typeface. Light and a magnifying glass could be used to help determine the material of the paper used. Lines in the paper would indicate chain line paper, for example. Identifying features with the proper tools could help estimate the time period in which a book may have been produced based on different book production methods throughout time.

Station 2

What happens to “a book” as it proliferates through multiple editions? Can we reconstruct a history of a text in/across culture/s through a set of physical artifacts?

Some of the clues my group used to identify the trace the history of the books were features such as length, new material, removed material, formatting changes, or year of publication. Our group guessed that the books may be textbooks for grade school based on questions listed at the ends of chapters. We theorized that the book must have been cheap to produce and thus multiple copies were bought for students to bring home and to school for work. Addition of content such as new information, maps, and history might have indicated the need for newer books as the field of knowledge kept changing. Some questions that arose were: what institutions were responsible for changes in book content? What institutions were responsible for assigning such books as educational school material? What was the relationship between institutions and schools, or institutions and books? Were the books government-mandated and who enforced the teaching of such books? These questions helped us start thinking about the different uses of books within social and political networks.

Station 3

What the heck are these books anyway? And once you figure that out, what might they tell us about some functions of books in mid-nineteenth and early twentieth-century American society?

Based on clues and similar features and patterns throughout different books, our group deduced that the mystery books were “prospectus” books, or book seller copies used for book sales and promotion of different editions. At the back of each books were lines to jot down names, dates, and addresses. Each book contained different binding samples, or picture and paper materials — indicating customizable book features that consumers could request in addition to the purchase of a book. These marketed additional features give insight into the aesthetic appeal of books in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth-century.

In “Baxter’s Procrustes” by Charles Chesnutt, and Jane Austen’s letters, both authors discussed the cultural appeal of owning books for reasons outside of reading. The possession of books itself had a degree of cultural and symbolic significance. This cultural context perhaps led to the sales of customizable books — where individuals could select aesthetic features such as paper material, book size, thickness, cover design, etc. The demand for such services must have been high if book sellers could cater to such consumer demands and make a profit.


Like books, newspapers and magazines have held different forms and functions throughout time. Today, newspapers and news magazines such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Times exist in the digital sphere as well as the physical. Further, newspapers and news magazines are only two media examples that represent “news.” Today, news is disseminated via television, facebook, twitter, snapchat, cell phones, applications, e-mail and the internet. Still, however, newspapers and news magazines persist.

History, Format, & Significance

The history of newspapers is thought to have begun in Europe during the Renaissance. Merchants would often circulate private handwritten newsletters containing information about war or economic conditions. Early printed papers existed in various different forms such as news pamphlets or broadsides, but the first successfully published newspaper is considered to be the London Gazette in 1666. America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences,was published in Boston in the late 17th century. It was initially suppressed; however, by the time of the American Revolution, as many as two dozen papers had been issued throughout the 13 colonies. Papers in America had begun to take on political influence and greatly influenced the public opinion.

By the end of the war, more than 43 newspapers were in print and the press played a crucial role in the affairs of a new America. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, over 2,000 titles were in circulation as larger presses were able to print thousands of papers by the hour. Around this time period, “pictoral” weekly newspapers emerged and newspapers began including extensive illustrations in events and the news. During the Civil War, an increasing demand for accurate news reporting “transformers American journalism into a dynamic, hard-hitting force in the nation life.” By the late 19th century, features of the modern newspapers began to appear such as “banner” headlines, extensive illustrations, “funny pages”, and coverage of sporting events. The rise of yellow journalism increased paper circulation while investigative journalism and rendered the press as a moral, fearless, and incorruptible force. By the 20th century, radio and television began to supplement and supplant newspapers as primary sources of information.

Newspaper format changed throughout time — dimensions vary from broadsheet styles to compact or “red top” tabloid layouts. Red top tabloid journalism embodies a style that tends to emphasize sensational crime stories, gossip columns. They often use straightforward vocabulary and selectively report on attention-grabbing stories for shock-value. Broadsheet newspapers on the other hand, were formatted to accommodate for reading in tight spaces such as commuter rails, buses, or trains and were less sensational both in content and style.

Paper format, layout, and style thus often had some association to their use or sociocultural significance. The same notion applies to newspapers and news magazines today. Magazines such as The New Yorker, for example, include cover illustrations, crossword puzzles, advertisements, featured art or writing. Analyzing today’s newspaper and magazine styles reveal aspects of our current cultural moment. For example, increasing amounts of newspaper advertisements might reflect a newer consumer/commercial culture of contemporary America. More compact physical formats might indicate something about changing dynamics of cities such as crowded public transportation and overall compaction of space. Games like crossword puzzles, riddles, or cartoons may speak on contemporary society as a people and culture. The digital precense of papers and magazines would reflect the role of technology in changing the paper industry as well as its surrounding society and culture. Differences between publications such as Breitbart, Times, National Geographic, or The Atlantic might speak on the different uses of newspapers, or a growing divisiveness in American politics — reflected by the partisan press.

Like the books analyzed in class, features of books pertaining to uses and functions outside of reading helped us draw conclusions on an alternative, social purpose of books. Possession of books had a cultural value that ultimately led to different formats and aesthetics. Similarly, newspapers have changed aesthetically in tandem to society and culture. New media have even emerged for papers and magazines. Phone applications replicate the effect of papers and magazines; online subscriptions have taken the physical form and process to another dimension - neccessitating new elements of design, format, and style. As Liu discussed, the medium is the message. For newspapers, both physically and socially, the medium has encaptured ongoing socio-cultural shifts — taking on and creating new meanings, new messages, new contexts.