What is the Oldest Thing You Made That You Still Use?

Bottom half of a sheet metal tool box I made in shop class.

A few days ago I wondered, what is the oldest thing I made that I still use? After digging through a lot of stuff, I think it is this sheet metal tool box that I made in high school shop class in 1981.

At that time, it was one of the standard projects in metal shop. I still use the skills I learned when I made this: how to layout and bend thin metal, how to follow a two dimensional pattern to make a three dimensional object, how to join sheet metal, and the value and economy of using off the shelf parts in conjunction with handmade ones. I didn’t have enough time to paint it, so it remains with the layout blue exposed.

I still use the toolbox for storage, even though the spot-welded, piano-hinged lid failed a long time ago and is lost. The bottom part of the box is currently holds over 15 pounds of scraps, and is totally solid.

It is comforting to have had this tool box for the past 38 years, and still use it, even though it is damaged. Like an old friend, it is easier to overlook its faults. It is satisfying knowing this toolbox will outlast me — like most of the tools I make and use, and the books I work on —  a persistent reminder we are not so important.



DISCARDED stamp on a former New York Academy of Medicine Bookplate. This book has been discarded twice, and is now back in a Rare Book Collection.

A somewhat ironic placement of this DISCARDED stamp.  I suspect every institution has sold, discarded, or recycled books in their collection, often quite quietly, not just the NY Academy of Medicine. I’m amazed how many books I have worked on that were deaccessioned at some point in their lives, then recollected, once again deemed valuable. What is considered a rare book changes. I’ll lay good money that a lot of currently “non-rare” books will become rare at some point in the future. Will all paper based codex books be rare someday?

A Scrapbook? An Altered Book? A Work Book? Outsider Art? Something Else?

One trait that unites book people (bibliographers, typographers, librarians, book conservators, graphic designers, collectors, book historians, printers, booksellers, curators, papermakers, bookbinders, etc…) is an emphasis on using an accurate terminology when describing aspects of the material book. The problem is that these sects have developed their own distinct usage, which sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. For example, the term “text block” means something entirely different to bookbinders and printers.

Booksellers and bibliographers often refer to Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Conservators are largely adopting the Language of Bindings from Ligatus, which is supposed to be available as a book from Oak Knoll soon. Binders usually use the lingo of the workshop where they learned the craft from. Printed resources include Etherington’s Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books and Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book.

Most of us learn our terminology haphazardly. Considered historically, prescriptive attempts at linguistic change often fail, even if what they propose is more rational or accurate. Given improvements in text searching, and the ease of taking and disseminating digital images, I wonder if the need to use a strict terminology is as important as it once was.

Top Edge. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

That said, I recently purchased a book that does not fit neatly into any existing descriptive framework that I’m familiar with. The distortions on the top edge of the book caught my attention when I looked at it in the store. Then I noticed the extremely crude backing, making it a useful “how-not-to” example when teaching. Many sections have two reverse folds! Then again, these reverse folds may have helped lock the sections into place, given the typical detaching of the spine linings: note the pages are not falling out at the foreedge. The binding itself is in good shape considering wear, even with an additional quarter inch or so of added material. The case binding structure is quite adaptable to different text block thicknesses.

But the real reason I bought it was for the neatly glued in newspaper clippings of quilt patterns on the first twenty-four consecutive recto leaves. As in the example below, they typically completely cover the entire text block. The high quality of the text paper has helped buffer the newsprint, preserving it, though at the expense of the host: note the extensive staining on page 92, again quite typical.


Typical layout of four patterns per page. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

It is not unusual for books to become repositories for all sorts of things: plants, leaves, receipts, scribbled notations, and the occasional hair-on mouse skin. I’m guessing the quilt patterns were added in the early 20th century. The additions cover and obscure the original text.

What to call it?  Gary Frost, I think, would consider this in his broad rubric as an “intervention”. While it is certainly an altered book, I don’t think it has the artistic connotation that the phrase usually implies.  It is not really a commonplace book, or an artist’s book. It is not extra-illustrated. It is more than a scrapbook, since the additions change the original book into something else.

Originally the book was about Daniel Webster, who created the first American dictionary, and a dictionary documents the recorded usage of words. This particular copy was altered in a way that obliterates the text in order to become a reference for quilting. Even through there is some text on the quilting patterns, images dominate. Likely unintentionally, this book is a physical manifestation of the conflict between text and craft, the book learning verses practical activities, the head and the hand. How are books used? More than reading, it seems.


While rereading this post, and looking through the book again, I noticed at least 22 pages near the end with pressed plants. Most seem to be intentionally arranged, resembling marginalia. or in this case the title page of the Doves Bible. Hmmm.

One of over 22 pressed plants. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.