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The Forgotten History of the Dog-Ear

The Forgotten History of the Dog-Ear

The Forgotten History of the Dog-Ear

Damage or devotion? Ian Gadd tells us about the controversial history of 'dog-earing' a page.

On 13 February, Ian Gadd, Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa, gave a lecture at the Holburne Museum on the ‘Forgotten History of the Dog-Ear’. Tracing the history of the act of folding book pages, Ian highlighted the change in perception of this practice - common in the early modern period - to its modern day incarnation, which the OED defines as an act of damage or disfigurement.

Books are a complicated thing to navigate. They are at once physical and functional objects to be used and loved and travelled, that also contain the immaterial: the ideas, emotions, and stories of its authors. They are, in a sense, both sacred and profane.

Ian’s talk sets out to shine light on changing attitudes to the book throughout the centuries, exploring how the act of folding a page reflected both the inner and outer world of its author and user, as well as the shifting perceptions towards literacy, printing, and the dissemination of ideas.

'Turning down the leaf' - an early history

The tale begins with the first mention of the dog-ear in print, a 1627 Shrovetide play by the school boys of Hadleigh in Suffolk, which notes that ‘For one whole year, thou must smooth out the dog-ears of all they fellow’s books’: a process of resetting books for a new round of readers common in schools and libraries. In the seventeenth century, the act of folding the page, or ‘turning down the leaf’, was not a process of disdain or disfigurement, but the sign of a good, engaged reader. A third of the books owned by Isaac Newton have their pages marked in this way as,throughout his life, Newton used the dog-ear to signpost to a specific area in the text that he wished to return to.

Ian discussed how this idea of marking and returning acted as a metaphor in the literature of the day. There was a mention of ‘turning down the leaf’ on your grief for one author, while in plays the folded pages of their characters indicated a state of mind or suspicious intent. For some, repeated folds in a Bible represented extreme piety, or the appearance of such piety. In a particularly amusing example, a dog-eared copy of the Bible carried by an illiterate man was seen as an outward display of devotion that may not have reached deep within.

A shift in attitude

So when do we start calling it a 'dog-ear'? Ian noted that while the mention of animal ears is not specific to Britain — German, Dutch and Polish equivalent terms cite the donkey as opposed to the dog — Britain does seem to be the most frequent user of this specific term. It is not, I suspect, due to the British love of dogs - or is it? Ian rightly pointed out that the real folded dog-ear is, in fact, a result of human experiments with breeding, which ties into the idea of folding as a larger symbol of human action and intervention.

The eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries changed our concept of the book itself, which also had a knock-on effect on how we viewed the practice of folding the corners. Ian attributes this to a number of causes: 

  • The change of reader's attitudes towards books, which was a result of an increase in literacy and book production
  • The rise of public libraries, meaning that books could pass through the hands of many strangers
  • The development of the antiquarian book market which changed the way people saw the nature of old books - they become collector’s items and thus precious
  • There was a later move from linen rag paper - which could withstand the folding - to wood pulp, which could not

The preservation instinct

In the twentieth century, and even today, the dog-ear played a part in our continued evaluation of the preservation of books and cultural heritage. Book owners and libraries admonished practitioners of the dog-ear, and the act was completely outlawed in New South Wales altogether. A project funded by the US Councils of Library Resources in the 1950s tested the durability of paper, and concluded that the books under current conditions might not survive another 50 years. 

The dog-ear, however, lives on. The creation of a digital icon to represent the document for word processing software in the 1980s resulted in the ubiquitous image of the folded page as a icon of meaningful use.

Ian’s talk highlighted a number of ideas that we don’t often think about when it comes to reading. The mechanical process of turning the page, of folding and saving - it is this use and interaction with an object that gives that object value to us.

As Ian rightly noted, the dog-ear of a book is an inherently personal process. Unlike an annotation, it does not give direct indication of why the mark was made, and thus becomes a secret exchange passed only from reader to book. The journey, however, of the act of folding the page - from personal, to social and literary, and finally now digital - highlights how a simple, personal and human act over time becomes an essential part of our language and culture. 

Listen to the full lecture below. 

Abraham Bosse, Woman Reading from a Prayer Book, c. 1629, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain
Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith, c.1670-72, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain
Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.

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