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Skeuomorphism

[Noted in my Journal on 2012-06-14.]

The immensely useful and free encyclopaedia Wikipedia provides a clear definition of “skeuomorphism” (skeuos vessel or tool, morphe shape). A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Skeuomorphs may be deliberately employed to make the new item appear to be comfortably old and familiar, such as copper cladding on zinc coins, to make them look like old pennies, or computer printed postage with a circular town name and cancellation lines, meant to resemble the original circular stamps used by humans in post offices.

An alternative definition is “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”. This definition is narrower in scope and ties skeuomorphs to changes in materials.

Apple: skeuomorphic calendar application
 

The word is recently popular in English in 2012, I suspect because of the furore over Apple’s skeuomorphic designs for its ubiquitous computer software. See the little bit of torn paper just below the fake-leather strip across the head of the fake paper iCal calendar in the picture, just below and to the right of the fake-embossed word “Year”? Torn paper? On a computer screen?!?! What were they thinking!?!?

But relax! The practice goes back to the birth of civilisation. Ancient Greek architecture abounds in skeuomorphism.

I like the Corinthian column, the capital (top) of which carries an ornate carved and originally painted stone representation of the acanthus leaf once used to decorate the top of the original wooden columns that long before had preceded the stone versions.

Corinthian column
Egyptian columns

Egyptian columns, with their tops carved and painted to resemble plants abundant in the waters of the Nile — lilies or bundles of the lotus or the papyrus reed — were no doubt the inspiration for this later practice.

 

Wikipedia notes that blue jeans have authentic-looking brass rivet caps covering the functional steel rivet beneath; they further note that some digital cameras play a recorded audio clip of a conventional single-lens reflex camera mirror slap and shutter click. And so it goes.

maple syrup containers

Other examples:

I love these: they’re so silly! Tiny, non-functional handles on small glass maple syrup containers. The containers were once large earthenware jugs, which needed a handle. Not any more, but the handle still says “maple syrup”, even if the little bottle contains — yes, you need to get out your glasses and read the fine print — 99 per cent corn syrup.

The granite pylons at each end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (made from granite quarried near my home town 200 miles from Sydney) do not support anything, and are there only to frame the structure itself and make it look more like a traditional bridge.

 
Nash car

1952 Nash Rambler ranch wagon

Another skekuomorphic trick I like: fake woodgrain printing on modern items actually made of steel or plastic. My favourite is the “woody” or ranch wagon, with its fake wood-grain panelling, as in the photo of this 1952 Nash Rambler. Wood grain has never looked less convincing.

 

The world of book publishing has many examples of skeuomorphism. Books were once hand-made objects of great value; no longer. Let’s look at the deckle edge.

Swinburne book

This image, of the book «Songs Before Sunrise» by the English poet Swinburne, is a genuine deckle-edged book: the colophon says is was printed on hand-made paper in 1909.

So what is a deckle, why do deckle edges only occur with hand-made paper, and how is hand-made paper made?

Wikipedia again: “In manual papermaking, a deckle is a removable wooden frame or ‘fence’ placed into a mould to keep the paper slurry within bounds and to control the size of the sheet produced. After the mold is dipped into a vat of paper slurry, excess water is drained off and the deckle is removed and the mold shaken… to set the fibers of the paper. Some of the paper slurry passes under the deckle and forms an irregular, thin edge. Paper with a feathered or soft edge is described as having a ‘deckled’ edge, in contrast with a cut edge.”

 
16th century paper making

Here’s a sixteenth-century woodcut image of a papermaker dipping his mould into a vat of paper slurry.

 

Modern paper is machine-made, and has no deckle. But a fake deckle can be manufactured by machine. Modern publishers like their customers to believe that the books they produce in their millions, glued together and not sewn, printed on cheap wood-pulp paper from a factory somewhere in Asia, are somehow high quality items. The fake deckle edge, without actually saying anything untrue, does that nicely.


The notorious Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880. He dictated a letter of complaint and self-exoneration a year before he died. The so-called “Jerilderie Letter” can be viewed in its entirety at the State Library of Melbourne’s online site. This is a wonderful use of the Internet to bring cultural treasures to within easy reach of everybody, for nothing.

Ned Kelly's armour: the helmet, State Library of Victoria, Australia.

Ned Kelly’s armour: the helmet, State Library of Victoria, Australia.

The Library says “The Jerilderie Letter brings Ned Kelly’s distinctive voice to life, and offers readers a unique insight into the man behind the legend. One of only two original documents by Ned Kelly that are known to have survived, it was dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Byrne in February 1879 and is the only document providing a direct link to the Kelly gang and the events with which they were associated.” Here is an excerpt:

I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future. In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Mr Gould got his waggon bogged between Greta and my mother’s house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr. Gould had abandon his waggon for fear of loosing his horses in the spewy ground. he was stopping at my Mother’s awaiting finer or dryer weather Mr. McCormack and his wife. hawkers also were camped in Greta the mosquitoes were very bad which they generally are in a wet spring…

A linguist once told me that “spewy” ground — loose, watery, muddy ground — is a dialect usage particular to Eastern Victoria, South-eastern New South Wales and Ireland.


In his 2000 novel «The True History of the Kelly Gang», Australian author Peter Carey rewrites history in a facsimile of Kelly’s voice, borrowed from that letter. To write an entire historical novel in a semi-literate dialect is a remarkable achievement. Professor Paul Eggert mentions the production of that novel in a paper published in «College Literature» (Imprint: 2007, Volume 34, Number 3, July, Pages 120-139). Paul Eggert is professor of English at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. He edited two titles in the Cambridge Works of D. H. Lawrence and is general editor of the Academy Editions of Australian Literature.

Like «Robbery Under Arms», Carey’s novel is a first-person narrative. It is purportedly written by Ned, in semi-literate prose, for the benefit of the daughter (whom, in real life, he did not have). Unsophisticated readers are liable to believe that Carey’s novel is a real autobiography, printed from a manuscript actually written by Ned Kelly. The first edition bears many factitious markers of historical authenticity: imitation quarter-bound leather with the spine untitled as if it were an individually bound manuscript; sections individually guillotined rather than as a whole quire, creating something like a rough, deckled-edge finish; and speckled endpapers and textured paper-stock gesturing at the handmade.”

One edition of Carey’s later novel «Parrott and Olivier in America» is in fact advertised on Amazon as “Parrot and Olivier in America [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]”

The word “hardcover” once implied that the book’s folded sections (usually 16 or 32 pages) had been sewn through the fold (by hand, or Smyth-sewn by machine) and a hard case attached to the book block. Now nearly all books are perfect-bound: the block of pages is trimmed by guillotine and the wrap-around paper covers glued on. It is faster and more economical. “Hardcover” now means that the book is perfect-bound, and that the usual glued-on paper covers have been replaced by glued-on stiff cardboard covers.

Unfortunately the deckle edge does two other things that saw it quickly consigned to the dustbin of history.

First, the rough side edges of the pages make it impossible to fan through, letting the cut edges of the pages flick out rapidly from under the right thumb. One must laboriously turn the pages one at a time to find a particular page, an unsanitary habit. John Sutherland, in the «Literary Review», reviews «How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain» By Leah Price (Princeton University Press 350pp £19.95) (http://literaryreview.co.uk/sutherland_06_12.php), and claims:

The public library, introduced in Manchester with much municipal self-congratulation in the early 1850s, was ‘free’, unlike ‘leviathan’ circulating libraries such as Mudie’s and W H Smith’s that catered to the middle classes. The lower classes lick their index fingers to turn the page… [The author is being ironic here.] I can recall, as late as the early 1950s, borrowing books from Colchester Public Library (a currently withered institution, alas) with the characteristic brown stain at the top of the recto. A little nature reserve for bacilli. I added my thoughtless saliva increment.

This practice provides the clue to a murder in Calvino’s novel «The Name of the Rose».

The other problem is intractable: the rough, furry deckle edges gather dirt and dust, and are impossible to clean. This is a particular problem for the head (top) of the book: the top is where dust gathers when the book is stored naked on a bookshelf. The answer used by publishers for hundreds of years is to protect the dust-prone head of the book by cutting the paper smooth with a guillotine and gilding it. The smooth gilded top closes tight and prevents dust entering between the pages of the book, and can be wiped clean. Below, the head of the Swinburne book mentioned above, and the tail: the head cut and gilded, the tail not cut and not needing gilding, as it is the (bottom) edge the book sits on when on the library shelf.

top of Swinburne book
tail of Swinburne book
 

Of course you could protect your deckle-edged volume by giving the book its own wrapper to rest in, safe from dust and light: The Tuxedo Wrapper; see below. But perhaps that is going too far.

Tuxedo Wrapper
 

So when you have bought your Peter Carey original hardback volume of «The True History of the Kelly Gang», with its artful quasi-deckle edges, what do you think of the paper and the binding? Authentic-looking? No worries!

Peter Carey spent his working life as an advertising executive. His 1985 novel was titled «Illywhacker» — apparently an “illywhacker” is a teller of tall tales and a confidence trickster; though I have never heard the word used in speech. The Dictionary Wordreference.com labels the word as Australian, and “dated”. His 2003 novel was titled «My Life as a Fake», and dealt with the ghostly after-life of the hoax poet “Ern Malley”, who didn’t exist. Historical novelists are different to historical historians — they do the same research, or more likely borrow the historians’ research, then they make things up.

Carey’s quasi-deckle edges tell us, with their limping, foredoomed straining for authenticity, that the story inside the book, the “true” history of the Kelly gang, is perhaps not quite as “true” as the novelist’s art might make it seem.

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