Vellum Revolutions

Book Detective, Nathaniel Sandler investigates a recently acquired 18th century vellum scroll.

Vellum is a material we no longer consider suitable for the transmission of text or image. It’s rare to handle a vellum manuscript mostly because it’s so difficult to make one. Traditional vellum is made from the skin of animals, typically a young cow, through an arduous and now medieval process. In fact, recent research has shown that the traditional large format folio size of a book (15 inches) is most likely directly related to the size of a sheep’s body without the head and legs.

In the late 19th century, innovations in technology and manufacturing allowed for the development of wood pulp-based paper, which all but eradicated vellum as a viable medium. Most “vellum” that craft paper artisans sell today for ceremony such as wedding invitations is cotton based. It is, perhaps fittingly, a word game and supposed to give the consumer a feeling of elitist superiority through branding.

Seal of King George III

The University of Miami Special Collections Library recently acquired a vellum manuscript originally hand inscribed for receipt of goods rendered to the British troops stationed at the fort in St. Augustine during the American Revolutionary War. The scroll is composed of three sheets woven together and is thrice emblazoned with the seal of the King George III, the first combined enemy of American patriots. It measures 11.5 inches wide by 77.5 inches. It is rare for these reasons, but its most unusual feature is, perhaps its connection to Florida, which was under British rule from 1763-1783. The manuscript specifically refers to “victualling the forces” stationed at “the garrison at St. Augustine and outposts in East Florida”. The British demarcated the area into East Florida and West Florida, a determination the Spanish kept until Florida was relinquished to the nascent United States after the Civil War. The receipt is for provisions delivered from March 16th 1776 to February 23rd 1778.

Florida before the 20th century remains something of an enigma and outside of the present day national narrative of America’s inception. Its history is not typically taught in schools, so it falls into the realm of unknown collective knowledge. However, East Florida was a British stronghold in the truest sense of the word. It never fell out of British hands and though it was not heavily populated, it was a safe place for loyalists and strategically important as a launching point north towards more populated parts of America.

Colonial revolutionaries, in the form of Georgia militiamen, made a few attempts to take the fort at St. Augustine and consistently failed. The most famous instance was the Battle of Thomas Creek, in which the militia were completely overrun by the British and Native American forces. Though there is some conflict on the actual numbers, 8 men were killed, 9 wounded, and 31 captured, of which half were then massacred by the Native Americans as retribution for an earlier killing and mutilation of one of theirs.

The date of that battle was May 17th, 1777. This receipt would have covered the rations necessary to feed the repelling British forces.

Detailed view of vellum scroll

When initially encountering manuscripts hundred years old and given a beautiful patina with age, there is an innate desire for unknown secrets to jump off the page and dramatically reveal themselves. What we rarely expect is banality, pure ordinary behavior, or comings and goings, without a plot or hero. Yet effectively, this scroll is merely an elaborate receipt, an invoice of pre-modern war. It was written by a bureaucrat and read by a merchant, serious men doing serious things, and is not unlike a precursor to something you might read delivered from UPS or Fed Ex today. Here in the digital age, we could one day see receipts go the way of vellum, and perhaps the packing list for your last purchase from Amazon could end up in a rare book library.

But what 18th century procedural documents do have is flair, something we now typically consider archaic in this situation. Handwriting, itself teetering on the brink of becoming outmoded, is perfectly presented in the document. The shape and formation of the letters is exquisitely neat and displayed with uniform flourish when necessary, as the capital letters thinly ribbon down into subsequent lines. It is actually beautiful and somewhat humbling to hold and study.

Accounting symbols

The strangest thing to encounter for a neophyte to this particular kind of scroll is the system of numerals used to describe cash amounts. Familiar Arabic numerals are used for dates and counting rations, however, when fiscal sums are presented they are in a highly stylized script which is completely unreadable to contemporary eyes. When first viewed, it is jarring and disorienting. But upon further study, we see there are superscripts written above the sums for pounds (li), shillings (s), and pence (p). The superscripts can also be used for multiplication purposes. When digging more deeply into the numbers, we can see they are much like our own Roman numerals, just visually more difficult due to stylization, i.e. “iij” equaling 3, instead of III.

As with handling any manuscript, reading isn’t the only time you should be supremely careful. You should always return the materials in the exact state in which you received them. To do so, the 18th century scroll needed to be tightly rolled back up, wrapped with acetate rolls on its ends to hold it in place and returned to the box built for it by the bookseller. Strangely, after being out in the air of Special Collections, the manuscript expanded to the point of not fitting within the acetate provided. Vellum’s sensitivity to the elements is impressive and one can’t help but think that perhaps the estimable scroll is yearning to return to its natural sheep sized form. It is equally obvious why, and a shame that Vellum is not used anymore.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections