Turn up, Turn down, turn over: the verso of Metamorphic books

By Colette Slagle with Jacqueline Reid-Walsh

Jacqui first became intrigued by the method of descriptive bibliography when sitting in on a rare books class at McGill. She notes that she was both struck and flummoxed when her mentor, Dr. Richard Virr, told everyone to turn the object over to see what we could learn. At the time, she could deduce nothing. Since then she has learned more about analyzing objects, and we spent some time turning objects over while sitting in Rare Books.

This skill has become crucial to understanding the Metamorphic books.  Analyzing the Metamorphic books as both an object and a text is imperative to make meaning from them due to their turn-up book format.  Upon examining the versos of the various Metamorphic books (1810, 1811, 1814, 1817, 1831), we made a few observations—and had even more questions.

One observation was that the title page is part of the verso.  The first panel without flaps serves as a title page and includes the title and publishing information.  When the strip is folded into a pamphlet format, this appears on top.  However, when opened it is clear that the title page is actually the back of the first flapped panel of Adam and Eve.  Furthermore, when the strip is turned over and laid flat, the title page clearly becomes part of the verso.

Back of the 1811 version. The image of the man sitting under the tree acts as the title page, but when laid flat it is part of the verso. (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Vet. K6 f.92)

Similarly, the final set of verses (numbered 21 except the 1811 edition) always appear on the back of the final flapped panel which features a man turning into a skeleton. The middle panels without flaps on the back vary the most.  The images change frequently, and bear no resemblance to the content of the verses or to the flaps.  They are random and decorative, some are colored, some not, but they all provide different contexts to the rest of the text.  For example, some woodcuts are reused.  In the 1810 version, the image on the back of the second flapped panel (featuring the lion and eagle) is of a provocative woman in chains, her dress colored in a deep blue.  According to D’Alte Welch, the image “was used for a frontispiece to portray Maria Martin in The History Of The Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin.  Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Joseph Rakestraw, 1809” (392).

1810 version featuring image of a woman in chains (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

Once the note to the reader is introduced in the 1814 edition, its location remains the same in other editions—i.e., on the back of the heart and money bag flapped panel.  The question that arises is when the note is meant to be encountered by the reader.  Because of the many possible ways to fold the pamphlet, and the immense difficulty of knowing for sure how the text was meant to be folded, the note to the reader can appear in different positions within the text.  For instance, when folded accordion-style, the note is hidden inside the booklet.

Amateur facsimile of 1831 version folded accordion style (Bodleian Library, Oxford Dep. f.135)

When folded inward upon itself, the note appears next to the first flapped panel with Adam and Eve.  In this case, the image on the back of the flapped panel with the lion and eagle becomes the end page.

Amateur facsimile of 1831 version with panels folded inward (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Dep. f.135)

However, when laid out as a strip, it subverts the typical notion of front and back in a conventional book or codex format.  We’ve come to realize that recto and verso are a more useful way to think about how the Metamorphic books are structured as they attend to the physical object rather than the content of the text. According to Wikipedia, “The terms are shortened from Latin rectō foliō and versō foliō, translating to ‘on the upright side of the page’ and ‘on the turned side of the page,’ respectively.”

Verso of 1817 version (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)


Works Cited:

“Recto and Verso.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recto_and_verso.

Welch, D’Alte A. A Bibliography of American Children’s Books Printed Prior to 1821. American Antiquarian Society, 1972.

Questions that arise when comparing transcriptions of two versions of Metamorphosis; or a transformation of pictures, with poetical explanations, for the amusement of young persons. Philadelphia Joseph Rakestraw no 256 North Third Street: 1814 and 1817

By Jacqui Reid-Walsh and Colette Slagle


This metamorphosis book is important in the development of the strip format to a booklet format since the 1814 edition is the earliest known publication that includes a note to the child reader. The notes shows a concern for the potentially terrifying movable images and dire words on the readers’ psyches.

1814 version with mending tape. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections) For larger view see image gallery page of website.


Unfortunately, one line of the note is largely obscured with what appears to be mending tape, an intervention that was presumably performed by an earlier collector. Fortunately, special collections also owns an 1817 edition also published by Rakestraw. It has the same cover and the same order and numbering of verses. Since it is in better condition we can easily read the full text of the note:


“That we may not mislead our lit-

tle readers, it is desired they would

understand the Mermaid and Grif-

fin to be only creatures of fable, that

never did exist.  And although Death

is represented in the form of a hu-

man skeleton, yet this is only an

emblem ; for Death is not a being,

but a state.”


1817 clean version of note to reader. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections)

In addition, we noticed discrepancies between the two versions that take us back to all four versions transcribed so far (1810, 1811 {in the Bodleian), 1814 and 1817). The most obvious change in the 1817 version is the spacing in the final set of verses (no. 21) that unusually are presented as one stanza.  In the three earlier versions no. 21 is split into three stanzas. Furthermore, the final punctuation mark has changed slightly among the versions. In 1810 the verses end with a question mark, in 1811 the final punctuation is an exclamation point. In 1814 and 1817 a period is used.  The different punctuation marks change how the sentence is read and casts a different inflection on the final message. The lines read: “How little of our little time is spent/ In pleasing God, for which that time was lent” Reading aloud together we could hear how the moral changes considerably with different punctuation. We move from a question that demands an answer, to emotional affect, to neutral observation.

1810 version last set of verses ending with question mark. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections)

1811 version last set of verses ending with an exclamation point. (Photo courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, Vet. K6 f.92)

1817 version with one stanza instead of three, and the verses ending with a period. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections)

An experience of transcribing two turn-up books: Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures… 1810 and 1811

By Colette Slagle with Jacqueline Reid-Walsh


As Jacqui and I continue our experimental foray into semi-diplomatic transcription, we have made several small observations along the way, both about the texts themselves, as well as reflections on the transcribing process.  One such observation came out of comparing two versions of the Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical Explanations for the Amusement of Young Persons, an 1810 version published by Solomon Wiatt, and an 1811 version published by Jonathan Pounder.


We transcribed Jonathan Pounder’s 1811 text at the Bodleian Library in Oxford first, back in May of this year.  Earlier this month, Jacqui and I transcribed Solomon Wiatt’s 1810 text at Penn State.  We noticed that both texts listed the same publishing address (No. 104, North Second Street, Philadelphia) though the people who published the texts were different. Jacqui speculated what their possible relationship might be.


It is useful to give a bit of context about the nature of the texts first.  The verses on each flap of the turn-up books are numbered, instructing the reader in which order they are meant to be read.  As Jacqui has previously noticed, the first twelve numbered verses are part of the original poem—they clearly correspond with the flaps and the transforming images.  The following additional verses were added later, and though the numbers suggest they are a continuation of the original poem, the lines themselves read like an entirely different poem.  The flap order also changes with the additional numbered verses—the images seem irrelevant to the meaning of the text after the original twelve verses.


While transcribing Pounder’s 1811 version in England, I ran into a conundrum.  In Pounder’s 1811 text there are two 12s listed in his text.  One is obviously part of the original poem, while the second is located on the back of the artifact.  This second 12 includes 3 stanzas—the longest of any of the numbered verses on the text.  At the time, I was not sure where to put this second 12 in my transcript.  Did I put it after the first 12?  Was it meant to go at the end of the poem instead?  I decided to follow the order suggested by the numbers at the time, placing the two 12s next to each other, though it seemed a bit odd.  I read the three stanzas as a turning point in the poem, thinking that perhaps it was meant to act as a climactic moment in the text to help shift between the original 12 verses and the additional verses.


After transcribing Wiatt’s earlier 1810 version this month, it became clear that Pounder’s version was more than likely a misprint.  Instead of two 12s, the verse on the back of Wiatt’s version was labeled 21, placing these three stanzas at the very end of the poem.  Jacqui speculated that the printer likely set the type incorrectly in Pounder’s version—given it needed to be done upside-down and backwards—and simply left the mistake in due to its being an instance of “cheap print.”

Wiatt’s 1810 version with the correct numbering. (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)


Pounder’s 1811 version with two sets of verses numbered 12.  (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Vet. K6 f.92)

Although a simple typographical mistake, it drastically changed the way I transcribed the text—and, perhaps, the way the text was read as well.

Back to Metamorphosis books: What is quasi-diplomatic transcription?

By Jacqueline Reid-Walsh with Colette Slagle

Since coming back from England mid-May, one joy has been going to Rare Books once a week. When visiting home in Montreal over the summer, I went to McGill; now that I am starting back in State College, I am making my first visits to Special Collections at Penn State. While in Oxford I was encouraged to pursue my close comparisons of the Beginning, Progress and End of Man with the Metamorphosis books and with the homemade versions. Not the least important discovery is my learning of a German language tradition from collectors Mr. Alcock and Mr. Temperly, and through email on the project website to (retired curator) Sandra Stelts a German scholar Dr. Schultz who has written articles on the subject. These I can admire only in terms of the visuals but am looking for someone to translate for me for a modest sum.


One way to extend my project thinking is my aim to teach myself quasi or semi-diplomatic transcription since I realized that no two versions of the turn-up books were the same. My questions concern how to recognize which changes are trivial and which are important. To do this, I came to appreciate that apart from carefully photographing the items, I needed a detailed transcription of each text. I first became acquainted with this process when sitting in on Dr. Richard Virr’s classes in descriptive bibliography at McGill where they transcribed ornate title pages of early printed books. I thought, yes, it makes sense with those priceless objects, but what about 17th -19th century “cheap print” and children’s and families’ homemade texts?


In Oxford I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Giles Bergel and learning about his digital project devoted to the variants of the ballad, “The Wandering Jew” at:  http://wjc.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

Apart from the fact he is a computer whiz and a literary scholar, his project is devoted to another “cheap print” text and one component is this kind of transcription. Here my question was—how detailed should this be? Just before leaving England, I copied a couple of Metamorphosis in the Bodleian in a cursory way along with my research assistant Colette Slagle. Over the summer I looked repeatedly at several copies of the Metamamophosis at McGill. First, I practiced normalizing the spelling and ignoring the font style of the verses, but soon realised this reduced the visual dimension and the characteristics and individual spelling of the verses.


What is semi-diplomatic transcription anyway? In “Electronic Textual Editing: Levels of transcription” by M. J. Driscoll on the TEI or text encoding initiative at http://www.tei-c.org/About/Archive_new/ETE/Preview/driscoll.xml, I found clear definitions and examples. Driscoll defines diplomatic transcription in the following way:

“[T]here are transcriptions which may be called strictly diplomatic, in which every feature which may reasonably be reproduced in print is retained. These features include not only spelling and punctuation, but also capitalization, word division and variant letter forms. The layout of the page is also retained, in terms of line-division, large initials, etc. Any abbreviations in the text will not be expanded, and, in the strictest diplomatic transcriptions, apparent slips of the pen will remain uncorrected.”

Recalling sitting in on Dr. Richard Virr’s descriptive bibliography class, I realised this is what the students were doing with the frontispieces of the early printed books they were examining.


Driscoll’s notes go on to state that the opposite process is fully normalized transcriptions, which hardly seem like transcriptions, especially with early materials. I discovered this with my attempts to modernize the spelling and fonts of the over 50 printed Metamorphic books since the verses are in many cases close to one another, so the differences reside not only in occasional verse alternations and additions but also in how they are represented by the printers over a hundred-year period.


The article says that the in-between method is called semi-diplomatic or semi-normalized—but how much in either direction? I looked over the list of aspects:  Forms of letters, punctuation, capitalization, structure and layout, abbreviations, corrections and emendations. I realise that although many of the examples are from scribal culture or early printed books, I would like to make the transcription as “diplomatic” as possible (love the pun).  My logic is that the visual aspect in the piece is as important at the verbal, and that the visual encompasses not only the woodcut illustrations but the presentation and the appearance of the verse.


Accordingly, I have decided that I want to reproduce the visual effects of typographical variants, such as the long s that looks like an f, capitalizations, abbreviations, the contractions, the punctuation and spelling, and importantly the structure and layout since the text is verse. Although this may be too detailed, it may help me understand the changes the text underwent over the years. Since the illustrations were often updated, I am interested in whether the temporal “modernizations” occurred on both the verse and the woodcuts together or not.  Now that I am back at Penn State looking at the published and homemade versions, I realise that the quasi or semi-diplomatic transcript is the format I need to learn to use.

As shown by the automatic spell check in the transcription, the word processor marks  a non-normalized word as an error. As I have come to realise, the contractions capture the informal tone of the speaking voice that would be erased by normalized spelling.


Another avenue of questioning, which we will address in a later blog, concerns the paratextual matter of the sampler-like letters and numbers that are also different in some books. I need to learn more about how they were printed. They surround the woodcut illustrations yet feature capital letters—were they set with regular type or special carved blocks?

Anthony Wood’s House at Merton College

By Jacqueline Reid-Walsh

A short time ago I had the opportunity to see inside Anthony Wood’s house and walk around Merton College. Since the house had been leased by his family for generations he lived here all of his life. My gracious host was Dr. Julia Walworth, the Fellow Librarian at the college. Previously I had walked by “Postmasters” house or “Portioners’ Hall’ (nothing to do with mail!) on Merton street but had not seen the interior. The building is presently used by Merton for classes and conferences, while the upstairs is where visiting scholars are housed. Since the university is now on break between terms the house is not currently being used so we were able to see inside. It is a largish medieval cottage renovated in the 17th century and subsequently divided for the present use. Looking around the beautifully maintained dark beamed, high ceilinged rooms on the upstairs two floors I felt like I was on international academic housefinders!

Woods’ living quarters are described in the DNB article by Graham Perry, based on Woods’ autobiography, in the following way:

In February 1660 he improved the upper story of the family house opposite Merton, putting in a fireplace in one room and throwing out a window over the street in the other, so making himself a two-room hermitage where he conducted his studies for the rest of his life.

Although the house now has a renovated attic—I wondered did he use it for storage–?  I presumed that Wood lived on present second floor, composed of two good sized rooms, while his brother and wife lived downstairs. Looking around the larger paneled room, with beautiful carved moldings and large storage chest, I wondered where he put his books and more especially where he put his ballads that he collected and placed in bundles.  It was a beautiful airy and bright space with lovely views over the street to Merton.

Wood and his family are buried at Merton and there is a plaque in the chapel devoted to him. The house is opposite the main entrance to the college. We walked across the narrow picturesque street, through the porter’s entrance and stone walkways to the exquisite grounds. Quite near the front entrance is a beautiful, large chapel with ancient stained glass windows. I gazed at the plaque in the entrance hall of the church. It was restrained yet emotionally moving to look at.

From entering these two spaces I felt I had connected in some way with the great collector and historian.  The experience of entering his work and living space makes him more tangible as a scholar and a person.  I could imagine him, when not reading in the splendid Duke Humphrey’s library at the Bodleian, here in this comfortable space devotedly working on his histories of Oxford and organizing his collections of ballads that was a recreation from his serious labour. Here in these surroundings I could understand his thoroughness in including a unique broadside that is the turn-up strip “the beginning, progress and end of Man”, carefully annotating the date and placing it amongst his bundles of ballads. I only wish he had added a comment or doodle to as he had done on a number of other items to reveal a personal insight!


Clark, Andrew, ed. The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Antiquary of Oxford, 1632–1695, Described by Himself. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891.

Kiessling, Nicolas. The Library of Anthony Wood.  Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2002

Parry, Graham. ‘Wood, Anthony (1632–1695)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29864, accessed March 24,17]


Photos of Postmasters’ Hall with the kind permission of The Warden and Fellows of Merton College Oxford’