There are many exciting things a Conservator can find between the pages of a manuscript. Not only animal droppings, human hair originating from unknown body parts, and other delights, but also something that looks very much like toe nail clippings. Except, at a closer look, they are actually quill pen shavings!

Page of a book, with old handwriting and small white quill shavings
A late 18th c. Scottish Board of Custom minute book with quill pen shavings and residues of feather.

After lines and lines of written text, after several dips of the tip of the quill into iron gall ink, the tip would wear off and the scribe would sharpen his tool. Sometimes there and then, over the manuscript. Shavings can often still be tinted with ink and show how the pens were cut to allow the ink to flow onto the page.

Excess ink could be absorbed using a scrap of blotting paper, and, in some cases, sand would be sprinkled over the page for the same reason. Both blotters and sand can still often appear between the folds of manuscripts.

Finds of this sort have a clear historical significance, as they shed light on manufacturing and habits, always bringing the manuscripts to life, reminding us of the other people who have worked on the documents, and bringing a smile to our faces.

Brown blotting paper with ink stains shown against a manuscript.
Blotting paper found inside the same record. Un-sized and therefore extremely absorbent.



Gloria Conti, Conservator

One thought on “Manuscript pedicure

  1. Conservation is an essential part of the work of a archives but what is not always appreciated the historical information and background it can give. For example British government documents from the Napoleonic era have watermarks showing that the paper was manufacturing in France. Most probably commerce did not let a war get in the way of trade.


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