December 28

On this day in 1879 the eminent English printer and bibliophile William Blades received from a bookbinder of Northampton a “fat little worm” which had been discovered in his shop in the binding of a very old book. Blades wrote about the creature with the enthusiasm of an entomologist:

“He bore his journey extremely well, being very lively when turned out. I placed him in a box in warmth and quiet, with some small fragments of paper from a Boethius, printed Caxton, and a leaf of a seventeenth century book. He ate a small piece of the leaf, but either from too much fresh air, from unaccustomed liberty, or from change of food, he gradually weakened, and died in about three weeks. I was sorry to lose him, as I wished to verify his name in his perfect state. Mr. Waterhouse, of the Entomological Department of the British Museum, very kindly examined him before death, and was of the opinion he was OEcophora pseudospretella.

“In July, 1885, Dr. Garnett of the British Museum, gave me two worms which had been found in an old Hebrew Commentary just received from Athens. They had doubt-ess had a good shaking on the journey, and one was moribund when I took charge, and joined his defunct kindred in a few days. The other seemed hearty and lived with me for nearly eighteen months. I treated him as well as I knew how; placed him in a small box with the choice of three sorts of old paper to eat, and very seldom disturbed him. He evidently resented his confinement, ate very little, moved very little, and changed in appearance very little, even when dead. This Greek worm, filled with Hebrew lore, differed in many respects from any other I have seen. He was longer, thinner, and more delicate looking than any of his English congeners. He was transparent, like thin ivory, and had a dark line through his body, which I took to be the intestinal canal. He resigned his life with extreme procrastination, and died ‘deeply lamented’ by his keeper, who had long looked forward to his final development.

“The difficulty of breeding these worms is probably due to their formation. When in a state of nature they can by expansion and contraction of the body working upon the sides of their holes, push their horny jaws against the opposing mass of paper. But when freed from the restraint, which indeed to them is life, they cannot eat although surrounded with food, for they have no legs to keep them steady, and their natural leverage is wanting.

“I remember well my first visit to the Bodleian Library, in the year 1858, Dr. Bandinel being then the librarian. He was very kind, and afforded me every facility for examining the fine collection of ‘Caxtons,’ which was the object of my journey. In looking over a parcel of Black-letter fragments, which had been in a drawer a long time, I came across a small grub, which, without a thought, I threw on the floor and trod underfoot. Soon after I found another, a fat, glossy fellow, so long . . . . . . , which I carefully preserved in a little paper box, intending to observe his habits and development. Seeing Dr. Bandinel near, I asked him to look at my curiosity. Hardly, however, had I turned the wiggling little victim out upon the leathercovered table, when down came the doctor’s great thumbnail upon him, and an inch-long smear proved the tomb of all my hopes, while the great bibliographer, wiping his thumb on his coat sleeve, passed on with the remark, ‘Oh, yes!, they have black heads sometimes.’ That was something to know—another fact for the entomologist; for my little gentleman had a hard, shiny, white head, and I never heard of a black-headed bookworm before or since. Perhaps the great abundance of black-letter books in the Bodleian may account for the variety. At any rate he was an Anobium.”

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