Book history and the Origins of Egyptology

The three books I have chosen to describe are the following: A two volume work from 1853 by John Gardner Wilkinson entitled A popular account of the ancient Egyptians; a second work by the same author from 1878 in three volumes, notably produced by a different publisher, entitled The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians; and finally Egypt, the land of the temple builders, by Walter Scott Perry. Notably, perhaps because of my interest in limiting my search by subject and not considering a larger swath of literature about ancient Egypt, the works I looked at skipped over the period of the early 20th century, sometimes considered a ‘golden age’ of Egyptology, at least in terms of subject awareness in the popular imagination.

The earlier book by J. Gardner Wilkinson, it turns out, is an abridged and popularized version of the latter, which is a subsequent edition of the 1841 Quelle from which both derive. Thus both works have an interesting relationship both to each other and an as of yet unexamined predecessor. One difference that is immediately evident from the front matter of  A Popular account of the Ancient Egyptians is that the original lithographic illustrations have been reworked as woodcuts for the popularization. In all likelihood this was done to make the work more affordable, but may also have been done for size as the Popular account appears to be in sexidecimo format, hardbound in ochre book cloth with a gold embossed title. The actual page dimensions are 20 cm x 12.5 cm.

Other than university markings there is no sign of previous ownership. Neither volume contains a colophon, leaving the only publishing information to the front matter title page. Lacking even a date, the book, we are told, was produced for the Harper & Brothers publishing house in New York, located at 329 & 331 Pearl St., Franklin Square. The only date is provided by the author’s own preface which is signed “August, 1853.

The paper is quite smooth, lacking in visible grain, and possibly coated. I do not have enough experience to tell if this choice in paper was due to the number of illustrations or if it was common for books of this period, but judging from the lack of yellowing this was a high quality production, despite having been prepared for a general audience. The type is discernibly embossed onto the paper indicating the expected use of a letterpress for the printing process. The font used is a decidedly narrow Roman style font. Pages are laid out with a generous provision of white space and feature 34 to 36 lines of regular body text per page. Footers are used for notes and headers feature chapter number, page number, and, in all caps, the section subhead. Pages are devoid of watermarks.

As noted on the title page, in an unusually ornate font, the work is “Illustrated with five hundred woodcuts,” presumably a valuable marketing asset. There is no credited author for the woodcuts, but biographical information on the author suggests that all such designs were at least ‘based on’ his own original drawings, done during his fact finding journeys to Egypt. Both volumes contain a frontispiece, the first volume’s being printed on a regular leaf and depicting “a complete Egyptian temple.” 

The frontispiece for the second volume is more interesting, an oversize illustration that has been printed folded and then pasted into the book. The paper used for this illustration is also noticeably thinner and coarser than that used in the rest of the volume. One other irregularity that appears in the second volume but not in the first, is an extra leaf which appears prior to the frontispiece and simply presents the words “history of nations.” in all capitals, center justified and appearing just above the center of the page. This otherwise unexplained notation suggests that the work as a whole might be part of, or might have been intended to be part of, a larger series.

My supposition is that, perhaps, the book was intended for a student audience as well as for common consumers, and that this might explain this appearance of such an abridgment, but without having one of the early editions for comparison at this time it is speculative on my part. In the preface the author notes that there is new information provided, both in the form of text and imagery, which was not contained in the previous book due to his own subsequent research. He also explains that the work lacks references (unfortunately) but does contain a useful new index at the end of the second volume. 

The second work, as already noted, is by the same author as the first and a later edition of the original work from which that first book had been abridged and updated. This work, too, is presented as an updated edition of that early 1840s edition. A three volume set, this instance is unfortunately lacking the third volume. The two volumes that are represented are bound in new cloth library bindings, titles and call numbers embossed in white ink upon the spine. A sticker in the back labeled Heckman Bindery Inc., and dated Feb. of2004 offers fairly conclusive proof that this book has been rebound. The paper is again smooth and of good quality, having resisted much yellowing and any fragmentation, though it is coarser to the touch than the previous item. The paper appears to be uncoated but hot pressed and lacking in watermarks. The fine condition of the work and the lack of markings or plates suggests that the library was the original owner of this book.

There is no date given again on the title page, and the work lacks a copyright page. As in the previous work we must deduce the publication date from other parts of the frontmatter, in this case the dedication page, which is made out to the “The Earl of Beaconsfield” and is dated “February 2, 1878.” There then follow three prefaces, the final being specific to this edition and written by Samuel Birch, who is credited as a co-creator responsible for revision and correction. That final preface is dated February 9th of the same year. Still offering comparison with the first work, we note that this second book has been published by a different publisher: Dodd, Mead and Company, still based in New York. I can only wonder, at this juncture, if there is yet another, different, English edition, as the aforementioned digital Quelle was published in London.

The first two prefaces refer to the original 1837-1841 edition of Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, and deal primarily with the content and structure of the work. In the “Preface to the present edition” (xii – xiv) however we are afforded more information about this reworking. First we learn that the esteemed Sir Wilkinson has passed away between publications and that this work is being offered posthumously. Because of this fact there is a distinguishing feature of initials given after textual notes to differentiate between Wilkinson and Birch, his editor. Birch also indicates that the present work should be considered authoritative on ancient Egypt calling the “present work a text-book on the subject” (xiii). He also notes that in some cases he has revised the orthography of certain names and terms. 

 Some other features that distinguish this production from the former is that it is occasionally studded with oversized foldout illustrations, some of which are printed in color. It is not explicitly stated how the images are produced but the type and images are smooth to the touch so it is my supposition that the book is printed with a lithographic process, though the color and fold out images are printed on a thicker and coarser stock than the inline images and type. Some of the regular pages in the first volume are regularly creased towards the fore edge of the book.

The typeface of this edition is less vertical and of a denser ‘color’ than that of Popular Account, making an overall impression of being more contemporary though only twenty five years separates the editions. There is also less whitespace on the page, the format is larger, and each page averages more than 40 lines of text.

As there is no overall table of contents available in this edition, it was necessary to examine a digitized copy of that final volume to understand its contents, which continue the work contained in the first two volumes and then ends with a comprehensive index. There is no colophon or other material following the index.

The third book in my survey, Egypt, the land of the temple builders, by Walter Scott Perry, came 20 years after the second, making the three books as a group  more or less equally spaced apart in time. It is notable, therefore, that each book also uses a different means of image reproduction. Clearly the late 19th century was a time of rapid technological innovation in printing and image making, judging from our sample. That the final work was not an additional continuation of our first author’s work is unfortunate, but John Wilkinson had passed in 1875, leaving the field of Egyptology open for new explorers and adventurers to advance. 

This third book was published as a single volume, slender and small compared to our previous entries. Like the other two, it appears to have been rebound in library binding, green cloth with gold embossed titling, though this book suffers in terms of condition when compared with the earlier works. The work appears as if it may have been bound as a series of singletons as opposed to a collection of gatherings. The text is set in a rather nondescript Roman font much like the previous work.

Markings tell us something about the provenance of this volume. A book plate inside the front cover tells us it was a gift given to the John Herron Art Institute presented by William Coughlin, benefactor. Facing this is a sticker labeling the later ownership of Indiana / Purdue University at Indianapolis. Again, on the copyright page we see the name of William Coughlin inscribed beneath the publisher’s name, hand-written in ink. Finally, inside the back cover there are covered stickers and security labels, as well as a binders mark for the National Library Bindery.  

Again, like the other books we have a very fine grained paper, probably coated, definitely pressed for smoothness. This book has been treated in a rougher manner than the other two, or at least has suffered more scars from handling, and though the pages are not overly yellowed, some have cracked and torn along the bottom edge. The frontispiece in this tome is a map of the Nile and the Egyptian countryside surrounding it . The work has been pasted onto the page and has separated from it, leaving a torn upper left hand corner to the image.

A short preface declared the books intent to serve as an art educational manual for teachers and students, and notes that the photographs reproduced belong to the work of the author. No closing date is given as signature to the preface. A table of contents, a list of the many illustrations, a black line reproduction of the rosetta stone, and a brief introduction follow (i-xv). The book itself is laid out in a rather peculiar manner, seemingly unevenly, providing oversized margins of whitespace at the outside and bottom edges of the text and image blocks. The book looks as if it could easily have been printed in a much smaller format. Another peculiarity with respect to the printing is that the textual leaves and the image leaves alternate, so that each image is printed with another image on its reverse, while each text block does so similarly. Thus as we page through the book it presents an alternating pattern of text on the recto side followed by text on the verso side. Each image page is stamped on one side (always the verso) with a John Herron Art Institute stamp. The photographs are reproduced with halftone lithography whereas the typeset pages appear to be letterpress. 

Works Cited:

France. Commission des sciences et arts d’Égypte. (1809). Description de l’Égypte ; ou, Recueil de observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’éxpédition de l’armée française / publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’empereur Napoléon le Grand. Paris: Imprimerie impériale.

Hawks, F. L. (1850). The monuments of Egypt: or, Egypt a witness for the Bible.. New York.

Pauw, C. (1774). Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois. G.J. Decker.

Perry, W. Scott. (1898). Egypt, the land of the temple builders. Boston: Prang Educational Co

Prada, L. (2017, April 11). Who was John Gardner Wilkinson? National Trust.

Riggs, C. (2017). Egypt : lost civilizations. London, UK: Reaktion Books.

Russell, T. M. (2001). The Napoleonic survey of Egypt : description de l’Égypte : the monuments and customs of Egypt : selected engravings and texts. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Thompson, S. E. (2020). Ancient Egypt : facts and fictions. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Wilkinson, J. G. 1797-1875. (1837). Manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians : including their private life, government, laws, arts, manufactures, religion, and early history : derived from a comparison of the paintings, sculptures and monuments still existing, with the accounts of ancient authors . London,John Murray,1841.

—  (1853). A popular account of the ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper & brothers.

Wilkinson, J. Gardner, & Birch, S. (1878). The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians. New ed., rev. and cor. / New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.

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