Reading between the lines

Paul Sparkes
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Obscure clippings hidden in a salesman’s book

Our word today is “palimpsest.” One such thing has been sitting in my bookshelf for some years. Every blue moon I take it out and study its peculiarities and its uniqueness.

A heartsick sailor and a blind child were the subjects of postcards worth keeping. They are pasted over some of Fanny Stenhouse’s best parts. — Submitted images

Years ago, I came to realize that what this book was originally far more interesting than what it became. For a “palimpsest” is a book (usually) that has been copied over or pasted over, its original pages obscured by new things. In other words, someone wanted to use a real, intact book in order to save and preserve things, clippings perhaps; photos, pictures, sketches.

My palimpsest was originally an itinerant book salesman’s volume promoting “Tell it All: A Woman’s Life in Polygamy” by Mrs. T.B.H. Stenhouse, of Salt Lake City. It is, in reality, an order book, in the front showing the two types of binding available and in the back containing lined pages whereupon orders might be recorded.

Fanny Stenhouse’s book was published in 1874, and whoever was the salesman who carried this sample/order book, he worked the Springhill region of Nova Scotia. How the book ended up in St. John’s, I have no idea. And I also have no idea of how I came by it. The salesman secured 40 orders, with people’s names and addresses given and the cost indicated — based on the type of binding with most of those 40 buyers opting for the more expensive “gold sides, sprinkled edges” binding at $3.50 per copy.

Copies of Mrs. Stenhouse’s book are now worth around $275. While mine never was the full book, being a salesman’s sample and order book and mostly (although not fully) pasted over with clipped drivel, who knows? As a palimpsest based on a (now) rare book it might be worth a fortune. It is, after all, a one-of-a-kind. Then again, so is my late aunt’s crocheted and starched swan designed to hold artificial flowers. And I am thankful that it is a one of a kind.

The order book suggests canvassing of potential buyers was conducted widely, reaching as it did into rural Nova Scotia and having been written and published in the U.S. That says something about marketing 140 years ago.

The clippings pasted on its pages date from, on average, 1918. There is a lot of First World War sentimental slop: feeble poems, some obituaries, wedding write-ups — all, for the most part, eminently forgettable stuff.

 A few snippets of the original sample book remain:

“The husband became the lord, and frequently the tyrant and the despot; and the wife was either the toy of the hour or the drudge who looked after the children  — but never the cherished companion, the hep-meet of the man. Such was the influence of polygamy — such the results of the ‘Celestial Order of Marriage.’”

In another part of her book, Mrs. Stenhouse tells the story of one of the Mormon prophets, Orson Pratt, who had left one wife and children in Tooele, Utah, and, once in Salt Lake City, was busy securing another wife. His first wife was in a deathly fever and the people around her sent word to Pratt to come if he wished to see his wife alive.

“A young man rode all night to compel him immediately to take the coach for Tooele, the young man paying his fare so that he might have no excuse. Then, at last he came.

“Arrived at the little town where his poor wife lay dying, Orson conducted himself like the philosopher he professes to be. Before him stood the hovel within which were his deserted little ones — wailing, as if sensible of a great loss of a mother’s care which they would soon have to sustain. And there, on her dying bed was that poor wife and mother tossing in wild delirium.

“But he, the cause of all that woe, passed by that wretched hovel and its death scene to the comfortable home of a well-to-do brother, at whose house he first obtained his supper, and then calmly returning, entered the place where his wife was lying, and for a moment, surveyed the scene. Then he quietly remarked to one of the sisters present, “She has a good deal of fever.’”

For a few minutes, I turned my attention to the yellowed newspaper clippings in the book, I stopped at “The Ship that Never Returned.” This is a long poem, and it had this introduction: “A number of requests have been made for this old favourite. It appeared in these columns a number of years ago. An old copy attributes the song to G. Garrett.”

Well, the song was actually written by the same man who wrote “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “Marching Through Georgia” and that was Henry Clay Work (1832-1884). The song is typical of the period, fraught with foreboding, sweetness/light tinged with awesome tragedy, replete with weeping, all but helpless women and bull-headed, determined men with missions in life:

“Only one more cruise, said a gallant sailor as he kissed his weeping wife; only one more bag of the golden treasure and ‘twill serve us all through life; then I’ll spend my days in our cozy cottage and enjoy the rest I’ve earned; But, alas, poor man, he sailed commander of the ship that never returned.”

What was especially interesting to me was to Google the title of that song and to find several performers of it — you can click and hear. And among those, none did it better than our John White (1930-2009) in his 1966 version — the video is complete with a changing selection of Newfoundland scenes. There is also an earlier recording (1959) by Omar Blondahl.

So, there you have a sampling of a palimpsest. Odd things, for certain. To end with here is one small  clipping in my book (remember, this is close century-old humour):

A prominent New Hampshire farmer of the old type has two grownup sons. One is a preacher of the gospel while the other is a liquor dealer. A New Yorker, in company with several other friends, was talking at the old man’s home about his family. At last one of the company present asked the old man what his sons did for a living. The old man replied, “One is serving the Lord and the other, the devil, and both are doing well.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued

by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador.


Organizations: U.S. That, Google, New Yorker

Geographic location: Salt Lake City, Nova Scotia, Springhill Tooele, Utah Newfoundland and Labrador New Hampshire

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