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The Collation

Scissors inside books?

The rusty outline we showed in last week’s Crocodile post is, as one of our responders, Giles Bergel, correctly guessed, from a pair of scissors. It appears in Folger First Folio number 58, in Henry IV, part 1 (pp. 50-51). This First Folio is currently in the Folger Great Hall, along with nineteen other First Folios, for the exhibition First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. The exhibition celebrates the return of the First Folios (the iconic first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623) from their nation-wide tour in 2016.

page from a First Folio showing the rust outline of scissors

Folger First Folio number 58 (photo courtesy of the Folger Department of Photography and Digital Imaging)

But why did someone leave a pair of scissors in a First Folio long enough (and in a damp enough environment) for the iron to oxidize and leave a rusty residue on the page? The received wisdom is that they were left there by the original binder. However, binders rarely use scissors during the binding process, and our Conservation Lab has expressed skepticism about this theory. It seems very unlikely that a binder would temporarily abandon a binding project with a pair of scissors stuck inside the book.

Also, we can’t be sure that the scissors were left there in the seventeenth century. Scissors have not evolved in shape and size very much over the centuries, and it is possible that someone left them there in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

To complicate matters, a rusty outline of a pair of scissors appears in two other First Folios at the Folger: First Folio number 67 (also in the current exhibition) and First Folio number 63. In all three instances, the scissors outline is located in the gutter in the lower half of the book. In numbers 58 and 67 the outline appears at the beginning of a quire, but in number 63 in appears in the exact center of the quire (which doesn’t really mean much in this case, since the page facing it is actually from another First Folio!).


first folio page with rusty scissor outline

Folger First Folio number 67, pp. 48-49, The Merry Wives of Windsor (photo courtesy of the Folger Department of Photography and Digital Imaging)


another folio with rusty scissor outlines

Folger First Folio number 63, p. 298, King Lear, right by the passage “fie, fie, foh, and summe, / I smell the blood of a Brittish man”

We had a theory for a couple of days that maybe it was the same pair of scissors left in all three copies, but it turns out they are all slightly different sizes. So these are three different instances of scissors being left in First Folios, and we might have three different explanations.

Our strongest hunch at this point is based on our understanding of reading practices in the early modern period. Imagine a group of people listening to someone read from the plays. It was common practice for women to engage in needlework while listening. Scissors were a standard part of one’s sewing supplies. Imagine that the reading session came to a close, and they needed to bookmark the page where they stopped. Imagine the reader popping a pair of scissors into the book to mark the spot, not having a silk ribbon or other form of bookmark conveniently available. Perhaps the next time they returned to reading, they picked up a different book, and the scissors, over time, left their mark.

This got me thinking about depictions of scissors in the period. Here’s a typical pair of scissors, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

A pair of scissors from 1636, now at the Met.

A pair of scissors from 1636, now at the Met.


Scissors also occasionally appear in paintings and engravings, among writing supplies, as in this portrait by Jan Gossaert:

scissors, depicted

Detail from Jan Gossaert, “Portrait of a Merchant,” c. 1530, at the National Gallery of Art, showing scissors.

And in this engraving included in Palatino’s famous writing manual, Compendio del gran volume dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri (Venice, 1588, but many other editions as well):

Palatino scissors

Palatino’s engraving of the essential tools for writing. From Folger Z43.A3 P3 1588 Copy 2 Cage, G7v.

The shapes of these real and depicted scissors certainly seem in line with the rusty traces found in our First Folios. What do you think? Are the scissors outlines evidence of reading practices, writing practices, binding practices, or, perhaps, nineteenth-century cutting and pasting practices? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Thanks to Beth DeBold, Caroline Duroselle-Melish, and Renate Mesmer for their help with this post)



i can’t think of any bookbinding operation that requires scissors once the book has been covered. Sewing and headbanding are part of forwarding operations. Also the scissors shown are small and decorative, much more likely to be used for embroidery or hand sewing. Bookbinders shears are much larger and stronger. I think the ‘place keeping’ idea is more likely. Strange that this has been found in so many Shakespeare folios!

Jan Kellett — December 6, 2016


Could it be a skeleton key impression?

Michele Garrick — December 6, 2016


Could the scissors have belonged to T. J. Wise?

Bill Bell — December 7, 2016


Come to think of it, isn’t it more likely to be a candle snuffer, which can resemble scissors?

Bill Bell — December 7, 2016


Stains on folios 58 and 67 looked very much like scissors to me, but the outline on folio 63 (the third image) didn’t. Images of contemporary candle snuffers are in order.

“Contemporary”? How early and how late might these stains have been made?

Deborah J. Leslie — December 9, 2016


Concerning sewing and reading Shakespeare: Mansfield Park contains a scene where Crawford reads Henry VIII to the family at Mansfield. You can see how scissors might be dropped.

Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and
gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which
at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand
while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had
appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and
fixed on Crawford–fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short,
till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed,
and the charm was broken.

Philip — December 7, 2016


As a needleworker, I will cop to having used my scissors as bookmarks more than one time, but they usually come back out before the end of the evening, if only because my cats will then investigate said anomaly in the book shape.

Janice — December 7, 2016


The fact that all three examples are in the gutter suggests to me that the scissors slid there: i.e. the ended up there accidentally rather than deliberately. Anyone sewing who wanted a makeshift bookmark could instead use something like a piece of thread. I discuss three comparable rust-marks on my blog here (and the linked pages):

Peter — December 12, 2016


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