Saturday, July 29, 2006


A Curious Example of Hidden Writing

A very peculiar item turned up on eBay this week: the owner of what initially looked like merely another 19th century scrapbook of newspaper clippings peeled away some newsprint and discovered a hidden journal underneath:

The seller goes on to describe it:

I decided to see if I could clear the first few pages to see if the owner's name, or scriber of the journal was present. Selecting the pages that had lo[o]se clippings I removed enough using steam and in some cases a mild warm vinegar solution with a thin artist pallet knife. My first discovery was that the beginning of the journal was kept by "The Wife of Husband Ellis Clerk." At first I thought that is was "Ellis Clark" and an internet search of the 1880 census data did find an Ellis Clark with an 1807 birth date. Only thing was it listed him as a farmer and residing in Pennsylvania at that time, which led me to believe it was not our guy as the newspaper clippings are mainly from 1880-81 New England publications. After viewing multiple entries it struck me that it may be "Clerk", and not Clark.

Next I cleared the inside front cover which was also covered with clippings, these came off rather easily but did not help. I then went to the first page which right in the top in large type-set print was "C DWIGHT ELLIS", as they say, never ignore the obvious. This time the 1880 census turned up a Dwight Ellis, born 1807 in Massachusetts, now age 78 at the 1880 census, no occupation listed, just "At home in Hartford, Windsor, Vermont." .... [I] continued to clear the first page, which turned out to be very rewarding, yet a little perplexing. The cleared page reveled a name in the center, Pierpoint Phillips, Montgomery, Alabama. Again the 1880 census picks Pierpoint Phillips up in Woodstock, Windham, Connecticut, age 75, and occupation as "Retired Merchant." Now if this is him, and I believe it is as he was born in Rhode Island, he was in Montgomery, Alabama sometime between 1819 and 1820. He would have then returned to the Milton and turn the book over to his trusted clerk, Dwight Ellis....

I also believe that is was Pierpoint that covered the journal, possibly to keep others from knowing his business, or maybe there are discrete transactions that bypassed tariffs, but whatever the case may, almost every square inch of the journal was covered, and many with the same newspaper pictures or stories.
The item didn't sell -- he asked way too much -- but it raises an interesting question. Was this a common practice? There are plenty of these old scrapbooks around; they turn up on eBay all the time. It might be worthwhile to pry up a clipping or two from them to see just what, if anything, is going on in there....

Update: Caleb Crain points out to me that he's come across other old account books and the like that were recycled in this penny-pinching manner: "It's almost a sure bet that the newspaper clippings that the ebay fellow was 'clearing' are of more scholarly interest than the old account book beneath..."

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