A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, often attributed to Hugh Plat, was first published in 1608. A women-owned edition of this work in a Sammelband was discussed by Tara Lyons in April 2019. Like the copy previously featured, this second edition is also bound in limp vellum, but in this case it is purely utilitarian with no tooling or decoration.
It is inscribed on the inside front cover in a slightly spidery hand “Mary Squire her booke.” Though we do not have an image of it, the original bookseller’s description documented a second inscription at the foot of page 29: “Mary Squire / Her Booke / 12.” (What could the ’12’ have meant?)
The text was popular, with seventeen editions appearing by 1656. Despite its wide circulation, comparatively few copies survive today, which is certainly due to heavy use by owners. The book provided a variety of recipes for cosmetics, candies, cures for common ailments, and perfumes and was often issued with Plat’s famous Delights for Ladies, although the contemporary binding of this copy suggests it was purchased discretely as well. The book’s strong association with Plat is still belied, however, by the manuscript spine title, which reads Dolightes ad […?].
The bookseller’s description noted that “a number of leaves [were] significantly stained and thumbed” and it seems safe to say that the book saw good use while it was in Mary’s possession. Mary is unidentified, alas, and a search of ESTC does not bring up any hits in spite of her somewhat common name.
This work, falsely attributed to Aristotle, is one of the best known manuals on reproduction and sex published in the early modern period. This particular edition, the third, contained, like the ones before it, a compendium of beliefs on conception, pregnancy, and birth, along with detailed recommendations and descriptions of intercourse, including bawdy poems, which gave it a reputation as a sex manual.
Mary Fissell has written extensively on its tremendous popularity, which lasted all the way into the twentieth century. The book emphasizes the need for female pleasure in order for conception to occur and thus authorizes its frank and often deliberately erotic discussion of sex and illustrations of naked women, as seen on the title page and a separate front leaf. Alluding to a popular belief, the image features a black child, apparently conceived by white parents who looked at a black man during copulation, and a hairy woman, whose mother looked at an image of John the Baptist wearing animal skins at the point of conception.
Although the bawdy verses and descriptions of genitals and sex have received much attention, Fissell notes that “the book also provided a solid framework of contemporary knowledge about the basics of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health, detailing topics such as the signs of pregnancy, how to tell false labor from true, the various positions the baby might present in, etc. Not surprisingly, since it was plagiarized from another midwifery book, this information was largely unexceptional” (Birds). In addition, there were “dozens of recipes for household remedies and a guide to physiognomy.”
Along with practical recommendations for housewives and midwives, the book includes a section on monstrous births, featuring for instance a description of a boy born with one head, one body, four ears, four arms, two thighs, two legs, and four feet. There is also a description and image of a hairy child born in France in 1579.
There are many reasons why a woman might have wanted to own this book, aside from its instructions on sex and midwifery. It provides advice on how to conceive, what to do after conception, how to determine whether you are carrying a boy or a girl, and so on. In light of the medical content, it is not surprising that appended to it is A Treasure of Health, or The Family Physician, a short text filled with home remedies for a variety of conditions.
This particular copy of the book contains a female signature on the title verso, “elisabeth Scott her book” along with the date “1743.”
We are, unsurprisingly, not able to trace this particular owner and whether she was a midwife or just an interested reader. Fissell has found a variety of copies of Aristotle’s Masterpiece with female inscriptions. In a 2014 article, she discusses an inscription by a woman named Sarah in the library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and adds, “there’s Alice Burton in a copy at the New York Academy of Medicine, Elizabeth Vincent and Sarah Fackerall, two different women readers, separated by a century, in a first edition in the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, and at Johns Hopkins there is a first edition inscribed by Elizabeth Wright” (“Material,” 144). Elizabeth Scott, it seems, was one of many women who owned and likely used and enjoyed this book.
Many thanks to Patrick Olson for calling our attention to this book and for his meticulously researched description of it in his catalog, to which this post is much indebted.
Source: Book offered for sale by Patrick Olson Rare Books, September 2021; since sold. Images reproduced with permission.
Mary Fissell, “Material Texts and Medical Libraries in the Digital Age,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 15.2 (2014): 135-145.
One of the more interesting considerations as this blogging site progresses will be tracing the regularity of specific books that bear female inscriptions. Tentative research findings have found that religious works, particularly bibles but also prayer books, psalters, and sermons, feature prominently among female book collections . In a world where faith and religious convictions were a central component of early modern life this is hardly surprising. Consequently books that are neither religious nor theological usually spike our interests because they offer different perspectives of women’s individual reading habits and preferences. When female-authored works come to light it raises equally fascinating questions about gendered reading practices and the reputation of women writers. (On this, a search through the RECIRC database is well worth your time!)
Of the female-authored works we might expect to find women’s ownership inscriptions are books by the noted English writer Hannah Woolley, who published on household topics such as recipes and domestic advice . Sure enough, she is no stranger to this website featuring on two occasions already. Her Gentlewoman’s Companion;or, a Guide to the Female Sex – a hugely popular work published in 1673 that outlined how women should behave – was owned by Ann Starkey (you can access the post here). Another favourite among female readers was Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet, Or, Rich Cabinet; the sole illustration depicting six scenes of women in the kitchen serving as a clear reminder of its target audience. It recorded an impressive five editions between 1670 and 1685. A recent post (click here) has uncovered a copy of the first edition being in the possession of Thomasin Francklyn from Hampshire. But now we can reveal a third (and fourth!) female admirer of Woolley’s works.
Ann and Elizabeth Webb’s ownership of the fourth edition of The Queen-like Closet (1681) is striking for a number of reasons. First, it reaffirms the continued appeal for Woolley’s work on household management among women. The Webbs’ desire for a copy eleven years on from when it first went to press highlights Woolley’s increasing influence and the significant contribution she had on matters concerning domestic life.
Second, the inscription marks left by Ann and Elizabeth leave tantalising questions about who owned the book. Do they indicate single or dual ownership? Could it be that it was initially purchased by Ann and subsequently handed down to Elizabeth? What might their relationship say about reading practices? If they were mother and daughter, or sisters, does this add to our understanding of the influence senior female figures had on the reading habits of younger kinswomen?
Third, while female ownership of The Queen-like Closet is unsurprising, the fact that Ann and Elizabeth stamped their names on their copy suggests they greatly valued the book. Furthermore, it builds on our expanding knowledge about how texts by women were circulated. Most important of all, it sheds further light on the reputation of early modern women writers .
Source: Huntington Library, Rare Books 424744. Photographs by Martine van Elk, reproduced with permission.
 Marie-Louise Coolahan and Mark Empey, “Women’s Book Ownership and the Reception of Early Modern Women’s Texts, 1545–1700,” Women’s Bookscapesin Early Modern Britain: Ownership, Circulation, Reading, ed. Leah Knight, Elizabeth Sauer and Micheline White (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).
 Wendy Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
 For more on this visit RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700: https://recirc.nuigalway.ie
Hannah Woolley’s hugely popular work has been featured on our blog before. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673) contained not the recipes for which Woolley was famous but directions on how to behave properly. Yet, there is a twist: Woolley herself denounced the work in a later publication; it appears to be an unauthorized edition with a complicated history and uncertain authorship. The frontispiece is not an image of Woolley and is itself the subject of speculation, as Heather Wolfe has explained in a fascinating blog post.
Adding to the interest of this book, the printer was Anne Maxwell, who had a long career independently of her husband (after his death), spanning from 1660 to 1684. The English Short Title Catalog credits her with having printed 98 works, including a number of works by the famous writer Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It is difficult to know to what extent Maxwell was responsible for or aware of the unauthorized printing; usually the publisher and bookseller Dorman Newman is named as the offending party. But Maxwell reprinted the work for another bookseller, Edward Thomas, after Woolley had complained in her 1674 Supplement to The Queen-like Closet that she had been “much abus’d / By a late printed Book, my Name there us’d: / I was far distant when they printed it, / Therefore that Book to own I think not fit.”
Regardless of the tricky status of the authorship of The Gentlewomans Companion, it seems unlikely that the two female owners who inscribed their name in this copy were aware of the controversy; the name Hannah Woolley had ensured the work’s success. This copy has signatures on the opening and closing pages of the book: Eliz[abeth] Bamford and Ann Starkey, who added the conventional phrase “Her Book.”
Source: copy at the Huntington Library, shelf mark W3276A. Photos by Martine van Elk.
Maureen Bell, “Women in the English Book Trade,” Leipziger Jahrbuch zur Buchgeschichte 6 (1996): 13-45.