An Ugly Hunk

Image: Ref 1996.8.1

Any guesses what is pictured in the above image?

I’m really happy museums are collecting this kind of thing.

It is from the Maritime Heritage East, and it is a hunk of beeswax that sailors waxed their whipping cord with, much like traditional bookbinders do with sewing thread. Looking at this, I can see how someone pulled the thread through it, likely holding it in one hand between their thumb and forefinger and rotating it 90 degrees occasionally to prevent the thread from cutting through. In fact, the museum notes that Harold Scot, an orphan sailer, received this wax in 1933 when he was 16, and used it for the next 66 years. It is unusual to have this type of provenance concerning tools and craft materials.

So what? Why does this ugly hunk of beeswax matter? Because here we have a physical record of technique, seemingly frozen in time. We can interpret the technique from this object, and it is an interesting object because it is a material that acts like a tool. The thread is shaped the wax, somewhat like a potter’s rib shapes clay. It is difficult to know, from this isolated example, if this was a common technique or waxing thread, a local custom, or possibly novel.  It would be interesting to compare other examples of beeswax, possibly from other trades. Was this hand sized square of wax a common size?

We do know that using beeswax to prevent kinking and reducing abrasion of sewing thread was common in many trades, including bookbinding. Yet materials like this are not commonly passed on when a bindery is sold. The use of beeswax seems to be waning, because of concerns about acidity and the fact it is not really necessary if the needle is the right size, and the thread properly relaxed. In fact, the sewing thread of most early bindings I’ve examined does not seem to be waxed.

beeswax in holder

Image: <;

A 20th century “innovation” in beeswax is the plastic holder pictured above, which is marketed to bookbinders and other sewing related crafts and even sold at Walmart. I suspect that one motive was to sell more tiny disks of beeswax, and the holder encourages waste because only part of the wax can be used. To be fair, the holder does keep the beeswax and the workers hands clean. But unless you are very careful, it is easy to abrade the thread on the sharp plastic edges, in contrast to the advertising claim that this device “strengthens” the thread. What does the holder, with its regulated placement of the thread imply about the marketing and deskilling technique in modern craft? Is the holder akin to training wheels?

Since the history of craft technique is generally unwritten, it is the responsibility of craft practitioners and conservators to interpret—or at least preserve and draw awareness—to these physical traces of past technique.


4 Replies to “An Ugly Hunk”

  1. Not a pro- binder but ,I identified the object before reading.Thought it was for waxing linen cord.Good guess on my part!!

  2. This ugly hunk is also unusual, at least to my mind, in that the sailor used the same hunk of wax for 66 years. I willfully toss mine (or scrape them) before too long since they seem to attract dust and lint. I wonder if the dark color of the one you have pictured is due to age or dust?
    I was also wondering if conservators use paraffin more than beeswax due to the pH. I don’t like using paraffin since I’ve heard it’s a petroleum product. Any thoughts? I have actually seen books that have a slight shadow in the fold where the thread resides, sometimes also showing a shadow tracing a knot where thread was added. I always assumed it was a slight acid burn from the beeswax, though never tested it.

  3. I generally don’t use any wax, especially since I switched to more loosely played sewing threads. In terms of deteriorated thread that stains the page, I usually assume (possibly incorrectly) that it was improperly cleaned/ prepared. The thread in most of the older books I’ve seen does not seem to be waxed, but who really know what type of wax they might have used.

  4. The “beeswax” in the plastic holders is probably mostly paraffin, though the mixture presumably includes tiny a bit of beeswax to avoid fraud. But I know two beekeepers, one of whom is always eager to give away huge lumps in cupcake papers, and I still have lumps bought in the 1960s before the plastic holders. Real beeswax is yellowish and the smell is pleasant, relatively strong, and distinctive. Plastic-holder wax is neither. The important difference is that plastic-holder-wax has a greasy, slippery feel, whereas real beeswax is distinctly sticky. The stickiness is desirable, since it helps keep the thread from slipping around. The stickiness, and the ability to adjust the effective thickness of the thread by the amount of wax added, are why I use wax.

    If you do a lignin test on new Barbour’s or French linen thread you’ll get a slight positive reaction. With some coarse unbleached linen canvas, and wit flax seaming twine, the positive is pretty strong. My assumption has always been that the slight staining from centuries-old thread was due to the lignin in the thread. It doesn’t worry me, since both the thread and the paper under it seem to hold up. The only class of books where I recall failure of the thread as the typical cause of disintegration is some post-Civil War American bindings where the thread is quite white and looks more like over-bleached cotton rather than linen.

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