A Wooden Book

I recently inherited this wooden book shaped object, which belonged to my 5th Great- Uncle, Samuel Brillhart.  It has become my most treasured possession, representing a link between my current interests (the 18th Century, books and wood) with those of my ancestors.  This book is not a true xylotheque, which would also possibly contain seeds, leaves and other samples of the tree itself, instead it is a model or representation of a book. I think the wood is mahogany, which was being exported from Central America as early as the 17th. C.  The date, 1746, is also the date that Samuel built a church in York Co., PA.  I have a photograph of a drawing of the church, which looks to be a dovetailed log cabin style structure with two chimneys. Possibly the wood came from an alter in the Church?

I’m unclear how the writing was made, it appears to be burned onto the surface of the wood, instead of an ink that would sit more on the surface.   It measures 133 x 97 x 35 mm, giving it a more horizontal presence than many 18th C. books, and weighs 254 g. Under his name on the upper cover, there are three lines of writing, “The first/  xxxxxx   church/ York Co Pa”.

The wood is very smooth from handling, and the tear out on the head and tail suggest it was carved by a somewhat dull chisel.  The spine and foreedge are basically flat. The boards are fairly thick, around 5mm and the squares vary from 3-5mm. The top edge of the boards has parallel handsaw marks, and the tail edge is worn smooth.  I especially like the grain on the foreedge, which give a visual effect of edges of a page.

Why would my Uncle make this?  Why put the date on the spine and name on the cover? Most books sit quietly closed 99.99% of their lives: was this made to be a reminder to open and read “the book”? Is it a reminder of the power and appeal of the physical presence of the book, even a non functioning one?  What questions does it ask about the presumed function of “real” books?



10 Replies to “A Wooden Book”

  1. Thanks for the link, it is a very interesting article.
    Just curious- how long did it take to read all the posts?

  2. Hmm, I didn’t keep track. Maybe an hour or two, but I skimmed some of the longer posts. [I’m a Literature student, and I’m interested in books as technology & material culture, maybe more than in actually reading books… I’ve been lucky enough to also take letterpress and bookmaking classes, so it’s especially fun to read about bone folders and other tools.]

    And here’s a page that shows some beautiful xylotheque books, although I imagine you may have seen this before: http://www.bib.slu.se/bibliotek/alnarp/etradbibl.html

  3. I am a descendant of Samuel Brillhart the first, second, and third as well as Joseph Brillhart born 1754. Do you know who did the picture of the log cabin since it doesn’t specifically say who drew it? Just curious because it seems that drawing ability runs in the Brillhart genes. Thank you for sharing this precious piece of artifact with us. Joanna

  4. I checked John A. Brillhart’s “A Pictorial History of the Brillharts of America”, where an image of the church appears on page 23, but there is no artist cited. The drawing style is primitive, could be a Brillhart or an itinerant artist?

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