Mystery Monday: Marks in Shakespeare’s First Folio

Often figuring out who owned a book before begins with researching the marks we can see on its pages.  However, in some cases the first challenge is to be able to see those marks at all.  As I wrote in a recent post, POP has recently begun including images of provenance marks from the Folger Shakespeare Library, including images from 8 of their 82 First Folios (more on the Folger First Folios coming up in a future guest post on the Folger’s blog, the Collation).  This made the POP team curious about the provenance in our First Folio at Penn Libraries (Folio PR2751 .A1).  There are some very faint traces just barely visible in some places in our copy of the book, but the pages had been washed by a previous owner, a process that left them looking, for the most part, pretty bare.    The few things that are visible still, like the inscription shown above, are very faint and hard to see.

POP assistant Ben Turnbull, Penn Post-Baccalaureate student in Classical Studies, recently applied his photoshop skills to making this and other marks in Penn’s First Folio easier to see.  Above is the same image now much easier to read.

Of course this version of the image makes the  inscription easier to read in one way, but not in others.  The first part likely says “for Brooksbank Jun[io]r…” or “Jos Brooksbank Jun[io]r…” and appears to be written in an 18th century hand.  However, the final part remains a mystery that we are looking to solve.  What the letters separated by the + sign are and what they signify is uncertain.  Is it an abbreviation of some kind?  A date?

Similarly, this inscription written in pencil has been made easier to see, but not necessarily easier to read, and what it says has not yet been transcribed:

Other things written in the book were almost completely invisible:

But thanks to Turnbull’s work are now much more visible:

A closer look at this and writing on other pages reveals that this and other similar writing on other pages is a list of characters from the play facing the page it is written on.  For example, here is a detail of a dramatis personae written opposite Coriolanus:

We’ve been able to uncover these casts of characters written opposite three of the plays in Penn’s First Folio:  King John, Coriolanus, and Macbeth.  Several plays in the First Folio are lacking a list of the cast of characters, so some previous reader wrote this information in.  It may have been a reader who was having trouble keeping track of the characters, or someone thinking about performing the play, or perhaps someone who simply wanted the text to be more complete based on a later edition that listed the characters.

While these character lists are not provenance inscriptions pointing to past owners, being able to see the marks that previous owners made does help us to understand more about the history of this book.  The fact that the marks were washed away to begin with is also, in and of itself, a part of the book’s history.  The pages were probably washed primarily because they were in very dirty condition.  There is evidence that the pages of this copy of the First Folio were covered in grime, crumpled and torn.  The margins of many of the pages were clearly damaged or cut off in some way and have been completed with segments of more modern paper, and a few pages have been pieced together from multiple fragments that had come apart with age and use. At the same time, washing the pages and thereby fading away the inscriptions they contained, also was making a statement about how a previous owner saw the book and its purpose.  Removing the evidence of previous owners attempts to restore a book like the First Folio to a state that is as close as possible to the way it may have looked near to the time of its printing, implying that some of its value lies in being able to envision it in a specific historic moment.  By contrast, many libraries and collectors today seek out books that contain the evidence of how they were marked and used by people in the past because of what we can learn from such marks, valuing the layers that we can see accumulated in the pages across time.  Making the marks of the past visible where they were once almost entirely erased provides the opportunity to solve new mysteries.

Update:  While there is no decided identification of what the dx  + oy inscription by the name Brooks Bank Jr. means, several people have suggested that it may be either a price code or some form of date. 

Do you have ideas about what one of the two inscriptions at the top of this page say?  Comment on the POP Flickr feed or on this blog.

Click here to see all the images from Penn’s copy of the First Folio on POP.

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3 Responses to Mystery Monday: Marks in Shakespeare’s First Folio

  1. Michael Spires says:

    The 1886 Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 6, pp. 415-16) references a Joseph Brookbank (Brooksbank, or Brookesbanke), born 1612, who was a minister and schoolmaster. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in Michaelmas Term 1632, albeit as a poor scholar, so he might have acquired a copy of the Folio during his studies. Possibly he dedicated the book to one of his children? (Although the DNB entry is silent on whether or not he had issue. A reference in Joseph Horsfall Turner’s Halifax Books and Authors: A Series of Articles on the Books Written by Natives and Residents, Ancient and Modern, of the Parish of Halifax (privately printed, 1906), suggests that he might have. Turner references a John Brooksbank of Elland ca. 1689 (p. 109), descended from a Joseph Brooksbank of London, who had endowed a chapel of the Nonconformists in Elland, and a free school, and who was also the author of a 1660 book entitled “The well-tuned Organ, &c.” which was among the works credited to Joseph Brookbank in the DNB article.


    • Thanks for these great leads! I had come across the author of “The well-tuned Organ” since posting this and added him to the list of possibilities. One of my colleagues here at Penn Libraries has also suggested this could be a son or other relation of the British MP Stamp Brooksbank (1694-1756) I do think your suggestion of the Joseph Brookbank, b. 1612 would be an interesting one, making it the inscription of an original owner of the Folio. Multiple people have suggested that the hand looks early 18th century, but it could be from the 17th.


  2. Pingback: Mystery Monday: Who signed the Newberry Library’s First Folio? | Provenance Online Project

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