02 March 2012

Ephemera #1: 'Printed on the Thames being Frozen'

Last week I returned from Melbourne and a very enjoyable/ informative Rare Books Summer School session on the importance of printed ephemera for historians of the book. On the flight back to Dunedin, my thoughts turned to some interesting examples of ephemera in the Heritage Collections, and so decided to begin a new series around this interesting, wide-ranging, and subjective topic.

The first in the series is the earliest piece of printed ephemera in the Reed Collection, a frost fair keepsake printed on the River Thames in 1683/4.

The Thames had frozen over near London and Westminster a number of times since at least 1092. According to Brian McMullin, the winter of 1683/4 was 'the earliest recorded occasion on which printers took to the ice', and it must have been a true test of ingenuity to stabilize the presses for printing.

The keepsake in the Reed Collection was printed for the attorney Richard Blackall (d. 1743) of Wallingford, Berkshire (Wallingford is now located in Oxfordshire). Blackall later used the keepsake as a book label, affixing it to the front pastedown of a quarto Bible and Prayer Book (London, 1712; ESTC T89271) acquired by the Dunedin Public Library in 1973.

Unfortunately, the name of the printer who produced this keepsake was not included. The only frost fair printer known to McMullin by name is George Croom, active in London between 1671 and 1707, who printed a variety of frost fair keepsakes including one for Charles II and the Royal Family on 31 January 1684. Phrasing and typographical differences, however, suggest that Croom was either not the printer of the Blackall keepsake or allowed some visitors to try their hand at setting their own type.

The 1683/4 Thames frost fair was documented by the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706), who wandered its booths constructed of blankets and poles, and recorded in his diary for 24 January 1684:

The frost still continuing more & more severe, the Thames before London was planted with bothes in formal streetes, as in a Citty, or Continual faire, all sorts of Trades & shops furnished, & full of Commodities, even to a Printing presse, where the People & Ladys tooke a fansy to have their names Printed & the day & yeare set downe, when printed on the Thames: This humour tooke so universaly, that 'twas estimated the Printer gained five pound a day, for printing a line onley, at six-pence a Name, besides what he gott by Ballads &c: (4:361-2).

See Brian McMullin's "An Excursion into Printed Keepsakes: III: 'Printed on the Thames Being Frozen'" in the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin vol. 11 (1987; issued Nov. 1989) for further details on the printing of frost fair keepsakes.

For the Evelyn reference see The Diary of John Evelyn edited by Esmond de Beer, 6 vols. (Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1955).

For other seventeenth-century printed ephemera in the Reed Collection, see my post 'Upon beat of Drumme' from early last year.

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