Tuesday, January 6, 2009

At Peffer and Snagsby's

Mr Snagsby is a law-stationer:

In the shade of Cook's Court, at most times a shady place, Mr Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper — foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers; in red tape, and green ferret; in pocket-books, almanacks, diaries, and law lists; in string boxes, rulers, inkstands — glass and leaden, penknives, scissors, bodkins, and other small office-cutlery; in short, in articles too numerous to mention; ever since he was out of his time and went into partnership with Peffer.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
What a wonderful sentence, a catalogue of the materials of "legal process," put together with eleven ins and one out. Some of what's in Peffer and Snagsby's is still familiar to the present-day stationery addict. The Oxford English Dictionary can help with the less familiar:

It's easy to think of parchment as crinkly, old paper, the kind of stuff kids make with tea — or with a candle, if they're daring and unsupervised. But parchment isn't paper. The OED: "A piece of animal skin, esp. from a sheep or goat, dressed and prepared as a surface for writing; a scroll or roll of this material; a manuscript or document written on this."

I somehow think of foolscap as cheap paper, the sort of stuff I was given in elementary school (the paper with huge splinters in it that Bill Cosby once joked about). But foolscap is simply "A long folio writing- or printing-paper, varying in size." The fool's cap or dunce cap was once used as a watermark.

Brief is brief-paper, used for writing you-know-whats. The OED quotes a 1923 Dictionary of Stationery: "A legal pattern of ruled or watermarked foolscap comprising 36 or 42 feint lines and a marginal line."

Brown paper: "A coarse stout kind of paper made of unbleached materials; chiefly used for wrapping." (See also Rodgers and Hammerstein, "My Favorite Things.")

The OED has no entry for whitey-brown, but it does include whity-brown: "Of a brown colour inclining to white; whitish brown; pale brown: most commonly of paper. As n. (properly two words) a whitish brown; ellipt. = whity-brown paper."

A pen, in Dickens's time, is what we would now call a nib, or a nib and its holder. Or as the OED puts it, "the complete contrivance of pen-holder and nib," also known as a dip pen (not to be mistaken for the later fountain pen).

Pounce: What a swell noun. The OED: "A fine powder, made from pulverized sandarac or cuttle shell, used to prevent ink from spreading (esp. when writing on unsized paper) or to prepare the surface of parchment to receive writing."

Wafer: "A small disk of flour mixed with gum and non-poisonous colouring matter, or of gelatine or the like similarly coloured, which when moistened is used for sealing letters, attaching papers, or receiving the impression of a seal." My guess is wafers took the place of sealing wax with less important documents.

Red tape: "Tape of a red colour such as is commonly used in securing legal and official documents." That's where the metaphor comes from.

Green ferret: "A stout tape most commonly made of cotton, but also of silk; then known as Italian ferret. green-ferret, fig. of officialism (cf. red-tape)." It's easy to understand why green ferret lost out to red tape as metaphor.

Pocket-book: As I thought, a pocket-notebook.

The OED includes law-list in a list of compound-words made with law-, without a definition. But Webster's Third New International has one: "A publication compiling the names and addresses of those engaged in the practice of law and information of interest to the legal profession often including the courts, court calendars, lawyers engaged in specialized fields (as admiralty or patent law), public officers, stenographers, handwriting experts, private investigators, or abstracts of law." Law lists (still known as such) can now be found online.

String box: As I thought, a case "containing string."

But what is a bodkin? "A short pointed weapon; a dagger, poniard, stiletto, lancet," or "A small pointed instrument, of bone, ivory, or steel, used for piercing holes in cloth, etc."? Dickens includes bodkins as examples of "office-cutlery," so I suppose the first definition applies. One would need a bodkin to cut through all that green ferret! (Or to one's quietus make.)

The rather unsatisfactory notes to the Penguin edition of Bleak House gloss "out of his time": "Had served his time as an apprentice and junior." The notes — which also touch lightly on paper, pounce, red tape, and green ferret — are prefaced by a warning: "New readers are advised that the Notes make details of the plot explicit." In other words, the notes — I mean, the Notes — give away elements of the story. Thanks a lot, Notes. I'm reading the Notes very selectively, which is to say, almost not at all.

[I stand corrected on bodkin: check the comments.]

comments: 7

JuliaR said...

When I was doing my LL.M. at the LSE, I went on many of the rightly celebrated London Walks one of which was the Legal Walk, through the various Inns and by the bell of "Send not to know for whom the bells tolls". Should you find yourself in London, you will really enjoy that Walk. Wigs and robes, oh my!

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the link, Julia. I've been browsing this wonderful site.

j said...

a memory from childhood- the fascinating lists in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web

Cindy said...

Bodkins are used like needles - they have a large slot near the tip where the tape or ferret is threaded, and a rounded handle on the other end. The sharp tip is pushed through the document, and the tape pulled through the resulting hole.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Cindy. A Google image search helped me understand what’s involved. Your explanation seems to be more helpful than that of the OED.

shucksmahoney said...

Thank you so much for this! Stumbled on your very useful and illuminating post after reading the history of paperclips, on Slate, which quotes the same passage.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome. If you like the Slate piece, you’d like Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, which seems at many points to be the source.