People have long taken pleasure in adding some element of individual expression to the media they use to read. This is apparent nearly everywhere on the computers and websites we use daily to access news, scholarship, social updates and more. We customize our cover photos and profile pictures on sites like Facebook, adorn our laptop screens with “wallpaper, and choose artistic, blingy, or ironic covers to enclose our phones. These are all not only statements intended to convey something about who we are to the people around us, but also serve as reminders to ourselves that we have something unique to contribute to the world every time we turn to read an online article or a text from a friend. This universal desire to combine individual expression with the experience of reading and viewing material was the basis for a recent catchy MacBook ad in which a rapid succession of images shows the iconic apple logo on the case of a laptop adorned by various customized stickers, from hipster hats to Homer Simpson: https://youtu.be/5SIgYp3XTMk The ad is selling a product intended to act as a person’s gateway to the world’s information, and plays upon the concurrent need for the object offering that experience to give people an experience in common together, suggested by the apple logo that unites all MacBook owners as a group, while at the same time providing a distinctly personal experience, expressed by the imaginative stickers.
The image at the top of today’s blog post is, in many ways, an 18th century equivalent of our Facebook cover images and digital wallpaper. It shows the spine of an embroidered binding covering a Book of Common Prayer bound with a Bible. The book is located at the Library Company of Philadelphia (Am 1719 Eng Al 99 no. 218), but owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Their collection boasts a rich range of material from documents related to regional and family histories from the 18th century to the present, to nationally important historical documents such as the first draft of the United States Constitution. Several images from books owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and located at the Library Company have recently been added to POP. The title page of the book is like many other devotional 18th century printed texts of the period:
A reader turning to it would receive the sort of message appropriate to the work it contains, a book of common prayer intended to be a reading experience in common between the pious reader and her social group. Seemingly numberless 18th century households would have contained a similar bible or prayer book. However, this particular copy of a universalizing text has not only been adorned with the inscription of a past owner named Martyn Jervis but has, more spectacularly, been wrapped in the brilliant colors of a distinctly personal creation. From across a room the beautifully preserved colors, worked in worsted wool in a a bold, flame stitch pattern, make an immediate statement that this is a book that was owned by someone with something to show the world.
A closer examination of the spine reveals a hand stitched provenance mark showing the name, Elizabeth Sandwith, and the date, 1759.
The owner, Elizabeth Sandwith, is better known by her married name, Elizabeth Drinker, and was a notable member of the early American Quaker community. Her diary, which is also a part of the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Collection 1760), is a well known document of the experience of a Quaker woman in the revolutionary era. It also contains a specific reference to this book. In an entry dated January 15, 1759, when she was 24 years old, she writes: “Stayed home all day. Began to work a large worsted bible cover.” This brief note of the moment in time when Drinker (then Sandwith) began stitching the colorful book cover reinforces the sense, already evoked by the stitching itself, of the human fingers that crafted the pattern to show the world some glimmer of the human mind that read the prayers and verses printed in the pages between the covers. This embroidery work, taken up by a woman in a quiet moment at home 256 years ago, today serves as a reminder to us that all we put our names to, all we add of our own selves to the world, and all the ways what we read, view, and watch are wrapped in the colors of our own individual experience.