Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Lawyer with Quill at his Desk

The portrait of an attorney, above, is by Jacob Maentel, a noted antebellum American folk artist. The details illustrate a crucial aspect of an early American lawyer's office: document production. First, we may note the two shelves of law books, including several folio volumes on their sides. These are most likely imported English or European law texts since American law books of the period, with very few exceptions, were issued in quarto or octavo and not the larger, more expensive folio format. The lawyer stands at his desk, as was not uncommon, but we also see the hgh stool which he--or his clerk--would have used if the document was long. Finally, the lawyer is using a sharpened quill pen. Steel nibbed pens did not become common until the second half of the nineteenth century. One might also note that in the United States Supreme Court today, quill pens are furnished to the lawyers, although these tend to be taken away as prized mementos rather than put to practical use.
The portrayal of the lawyer standing at his desk penning a document is typical of "occupational" portraits of the period, although in reality it was usually a clerk or professional scrivener who would have copied most documents.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Getting the Work Out

Well, I've taken a number of weeks off but school will soon be upon us and it's time to add posts to this blog. The next several posts will concern the ways in which nineteenth and early twentieth century lawyers handled document production. In the days when "typewriter" referred to the person working the machine and in which traditional law offices still produced hand written documents, the choice of ink was a major issue. Several companies marketed their own brands of ink specially for the legal profession. Among these, Sanford was a leader. They produced ink in various colors, including blue, black, and green and advertised that these inks would be permanent and not fade, a characteristic necessary for legal documents. Typical writing inks, based on an iron gall formulation, would over time actually lose their color. As a result, many documents would fade to the point that the writing appeared light brown, which was the color not of the original ink but the ferrous compound left after the ink had faded [i.e. rust]. Permanent inks would not deteriorate in this way. The illustration is of an early postcard sent by Sanford to law firms.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Humorous Advertisement for Legal Services

I have recently been revising my chapter on the ethics of legal advertising in the Kansas Bar Association's Handbook of Legal Ethics. Consistent with my personal inclination towards legal antiquarianism, I could not stop myself from doing some research into nineteenth century American lawyer's ads. Among those I found one, in particular, stood out: an advertisement placed by Calvin Fletcher and J.A. Breckridge in the Indianapolis Gazette, which ran from March 22 to May 17, 1822. In my opinion, this advertisement should win the all-time prize for truth in advertising. The text of this ad is to be found in Gayle Thornborough, ed., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. 1 [1817-1838] (Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Hist. Soc. 1972).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Beer to Fill Your Stein

In an earlier post I discussed the Mettlach lawyer stein. On a trip to my local liquor store yesterday, I found the perfect beer to fill that stein. It's called "Collaboration Not Litigation Ale" and it's produced by Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colorado. Not only is the ale quite good, but the label is one every lawyer should like. Indeed, I think that every law school class in ADR should have this as the official class brew. And, perhaps, in states like Kansas, which require mandatory ADR in certain cases, the parties ought to partake of this ale as a prelude to their negotiations.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

La Femme Avocat

The other day Mommy Blawg was kind enough to mention this site. In their honor I am posting selected postcards from a series printed at Nancy in France ca.1900-1902 entitled "La Femme Avocat." The entire series consists of fifteen cards. The text on the cards is decidedly feminist and in favor of women lawyers. The first card reads, in part [in my loose translation]:

Married, a mother, I have the honor, before I plead the case entrusted to me,
to give the court my deepest respect, assured of their good will and persuaded that it is
not necessary to be a see good law and justice triumph.

I wil gladly send scans of these cards to anyone who would like them. Just email me at

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Law Relating to Fleas

Thanks to an invitation to participate in a Golieb Seminar at NYU, I was able to spend a few afternoons browsing through used bookstores in NYC. I spent nearly a full day on the third floor of the Strand, well-known to most book fanatics, looking through their enormous stock of antiquarian works. Among these, I found one quite delightful text. It is a catalogue issued by Maggs Bros., the great London book seller, in 1931, titled: "Curiouser and Curiouser" [a line, of course, from Lewis Carroll's marvelous Alice]. The catalogue is a collection of unusual titles, including several on the law. No. 25 is a copy of Tractatus Procuratoris, editus sub nomine diaboli (Rome ca. 1491-1500). This esoteric work is a school book "in which the Devil (called Ascaron) pleads for justice at God's Tribunal aginst Man, who is defended by the Virgin Mary."

No. 173 is a book by George Whither, The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo and his Assessours, in which William Shakespeare appears as a juror.

My favorite legal work contained in this catalogue, however, is No. 259, Otto P. Zaunschliffer's Dissertatio juridica de eo quod justum ext circa spiritus familiares foeminarum ( Marburg, 1688), a legal treatise on the rules relating to fleas. Among the topics considered are:

"Are fleas subject to the Civil Law?

Can a commoner's flea contract matrimony with a

Senator's flea?

May a flea be killed if it is pregnant when caught?

If I bequeath my clothes to you, am I expected to

include the fleas in my legacy?

Interestingly, I have a German translation of this work attributed to Goethe,published in Berlin by Alexander Duncker in 1839. It is, perhaps, one of the oddest legal works ever printed. I wonder if there are any modern legal books or articles on the flea?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Law Book Bindings of Human Skin

In my last post I spoke of David Murray's discussion of color coding law book bindings. A more sinister discussion of bindings for law books is to be found in Percy Fitzgerald's The Book Fancier. I have on my shelves the N.Y. edition published by Scribner & Welford in 1886. In that edition there is a discussion on pp.122-123 of two examples of the skin of executed criminals being used to bind law books. The first, according to Fitzgerald, a noted Edwardian book collector, essayist, and biographer, is a report of the criminal trial of one Corder for the murder of a young woman named Martin in a village near Bury St. Edmunds in England. This book is supposedly to be found in "a public library" in Bury. According to Fitzgerald a local surgeon removed skin from the executed murderer's body and tanned it so that it could be used for binding this volume. Fitzgerald notes that "human leather is darker and more mottled than vellum, of a rather coarse-textured surface, with holes in it like those in pigskin, but smaller and more sparse." The second example were "several volumes" from the Bristol Law Library, similarly bound in the flayed skins of executed criminals. I confess that I have not made any attempt to discover whether Fitzgerald's accounts of these grisly volumes are Edwardian "urban legends" or true, but I welcome any inofrmation readers might have.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Murray on Law Book Bindings

One of the subjects which David Murray discusses in his Legal Merriments is the history of the binding law books. He observes that the subject was not one which interested his contemporaries, a statement which would be true today as well. But, he pionts out that there have been learned disquistions published on the subject. Among the various opinions he cites is that of Sebastian Brant, best known for his Ship of Fools. Brant was a law professor at Basel and much interested in the organization of legal knowledge. He recommended that law book bindings be color coded, to reflect their contents. Thus, he argues that the Digestum Vetus be bound in white, for simplicty; the Infortiatum in black because it deals with succession and the property of the dead, the Digestum Novum in red because it deals with crimes; and theVolumen in green and red to signify that it deals with both recent laws and fiscal matters. [David Murray, Legal Merriments, pp. 266-267] It is interesting to speculate whether Brant's scheme of color coding bindings drew its inspiration from the medieval habit of illuminating law books with scenes which corresponded to the subjects discussed on the same and nearby pages, about which more in the next post.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

David Murray

There are few books which provide greater pleasure to the legal antiquarian than David Murray's Lawyers' Merriments. Murray was an Edwardian Glasgow lawyer and antiquarian with a penchant for the obscure and the amusing. He published a number of works on legal and Scottish history, among which his Lawyers' Merriments, published at Glasgow by Maclehose in 1912, is his best/ He includes chapters on such things as legal lyrics, lawyers' libraries, facetious precedents, comic textbooks, and the relationship between the Devil and the legal profession. Over the course of the next few weeks I shall provide extracts from this volume with commentary.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The North American Legal Association

New York lawyer, publisher, and entrepreneur, John Livingston, founded the North American Legal Association [also known as the American Legal Association] in the early 1850s. It was a loose organization of lawyers from throughout the United States created to provide those doing interstate business a list of reliable legal counsel. Livingston distributed circulars advertising the group to postmasters and county clerks and solicited them to recommend potential Association members. He also advertised the group in his law journal, Livingston's Monthly Law Journal. Within a few years he was able to list members throughout the United States. The Association was one of the first national proto-bar associations in the U.S. A certificate of membership in the Association is illustrated above.
For more information on Livingston and his various enterprises, see my article, "John Livingston & the Business of Law in Nineteenth Century America," American Journal of Legal History, v.44 (2000), pp. 347-368.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dressing Like a Lawyer

The portrait, above, is of an early nineteenth century American lawyer.

A number of years ago when former Chief Justice Rehnquist decided to add adornments to his judicial gown, I received a telephone call from a reporter asking about the history of legal and judicial dress. I was able to give her a reasonable answer based on a file which I keep. Here are a few sources on the subject:

--W.N. Hargreaves-Mawdsley, A History of Legal Dress in Europe Until the Eighteenth Century (Oxford:OUP, 1963)

--J.H. Baker, "History of the Gowns of the English Bar," Costume, no.9 (1975), pp.15-21

--Charles M. Yablon, "Judicial Drag: An Essay on Wigs, Robes, and Legal Change," Wisconsin Law Review (1995), pp.1129-1153

--Susan L'Engle, "Addressing the Law: Costume as Signifier in Medieval Legal Miniatures," in

D. Koslin & J. Snyder, Encountering Medieval Textiles and Dress. Objects, texts, Images

(N.Y.: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 137-172
For those wishing to pursue this subject further a good starting point is:
--Valerie Cumming, Understanding Fashion History (London: Batsford, 2004)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Legal Draught

The stein pictured above is one of a number of "book steins" created by the Mettlach Company of Leipzig, Germany in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The series of steins consists of eleven "profession" steins and one memorial stein commissioned by Cornell University. Stein # 2001A in the Mettlach Catalogue is known as the "Lawyer Stein" since it is decorated with legal symbols and reproductions of law book spines. According to Steven Steigerwalt & John Lamb, authors of one of the leading articles on the Mettlach book steins, which I recommend highly,[]:

"The inlay depicts a scale hung from a sheathed sword. A king’s crown on one scale pan is balanced against a peasant’s hat on the other. The decoration symbolizes the principle that justice (symbolized by the sword) is evenly dispensed or administered regardless of social status (symbolized by the crown and peasant hat balancing the scale). The inlay bears the latin saying “FIAT JUSTITIA PER: MUN” which translates as “Let there be justice throughout the world.”
The titles of the eleven books depicted on the stein body are predominately Latin. They are: Lib. Pand. volumes 1 and 2; Corpus Institutionum Justiniani by Diling dated 1574; Peinl. Ger. Ordnung (German Penal Regulations) by K. Karoli dated 1532; De Pace Publica, dated 1586; Corpus Juris Civilis: Practica Lanfranci, dated 1528; C. J. C. by Gotofred from Geneva dated 1624; Volumen Legum Parvum by Venetiis, dated 1597; Practice Juris and Viatoriu Utriusque Juris. These books detail the civil and penal statutes which prescribe the code of conduct on which justice is based, the principles of law and the means that are used in the administration of the law."

The Mettlach "Lawyer Stein" is not rare. It frequently is found for sale on Ebay and other online auction sites for $500-$750, depending on condition. It is also not a unique idea. Cornell University [which commissioned one of the "book series" steins, as noted, also produced legal-themed steins for its annual law school "smokers" at the turn of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Welcome to my new Blog, the Legal Antiquarian. This Blog will be devoted to the history of the material culture of the law, i.e. to the various aspects of legal history having to do with the daily life of lawyers and judges, as well as to the sources, manuscript, printed, and otherwise preserved which can be used to help understand how law and the legal profession functioned in the past Among the subjects I will cover will be the daily lives of lawyers, their practices, their offices, the books they owned and read, etc. I will also post quotes on this Blog from little-known sources about the law, such as postcards, trade cards, and other ephemera. I'll also try to alert readers to new books, articles and online sources on these aspects of legal history.

The pictures on the bottom of this page will change, as the mood suits me. For the most part what I will post will be items about the law and legal profession from my collection. Currently, there are two illustrations at the bottom. The first is a trade card, i.e. an advertising card, from the ast quarter of the nineteenth century. It was printed in color by the chromolithographic process. The illustration of a court in which the participants are all animals is partof a long tradition, going back to the Middle Ages.

The second illustration is of a postcard dating from between 1908-1912. It is obviously of a law congress of some sort, perhaps, the Comparative Law Conference held at St. Louis, in which a contingent of women lawyers proudly march.