Nestled between the Laramie Mountains to the east and the Snowy Range mountains to the west, Laramie is a gateway for visitors and residents alike to explore the beauty of Wyoming’s nature. Yet at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, there is another type of beauty waiting to be explored; the beauty of rare books from the past.
The Common Book of Prayer and the Administrations of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, According to the use of the Church of England, Together with the Psalter, or Psalms of David, Pointed as they are to be Sung or Said in Churches (Common Book Prayer for short) is one of the many rare books housed in the Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center. For most Anglican Churches in the British Commonwealth the Common Book of Prayers has been the standard liturgical text since 1662. The copy housed in the library was published in 1678 by printers Christopher Barker and John Bill of London and was acquired in 2014.
The age of this copy and its remarkable condition are indeed rare, however, it is the workmanship of the bookbinder that qualifies this book as a treasure. Early books were printed and remained unbound or in their original boards until the purchaser of the book sent it to a bookbinder for binding. Known for his beautiful leather tooling and fore-edge painting this bookbinder, whose name has been lost to time and is known as Queen’s Binder B, and their craftsmanship has transformed the book from a mere series of text into a beautiful work of art. The cover is bound in black Moroccan leather with intricate floral tooling stamped in gilt and painted silver.
All the fore-edges are gilded, painted with colored flowers, and gauffered, indenting the gilded edges with a heated tool. Visitors to the American Heritage Center Main Reading Room (4th floor) can view this beautiful book by appointment.
Other books at the University did not arrive in such pristine shape. Found in the University of Wyoming Botany Department’s library in 2014, The British Herbal: an History of Plants and Tree, Natives of Britain, cultivated for Use or raised for Beauty (British Herbal) was sent for conservation work before it was transferred to the American Heritage Center Toppan Library. The spine binding was taped with pressure tape that caused a black residue to form on the split suede, the front cover or board was detached, and some of the pages were pulling away from the binding.
Written in 1757 by John Hill, the British Herbal was not well received at the time. A partial explanation may be attributed to Hill himself. An apothecary, botanist, writer and part-time actor, Hill, who often referred to himself as Sir John Hill, was not well regarded with his contemporaries of the time. Hill was often referred to as “only a little paltry dunghill.” It appears that Hill not only took such criticism well but relished in the fame that it brought him and his books.
While Hill and his books may not have been appreciated during his day, visitors to the American Heritage Center can experience the beauty of the British Herbal. The split suede cover protects the large volume describing the types of plants and their characteristic. Along with the detailed copper engraving of plants, the British Herbal also has beautiful copper engravings on the title pages.
John Hill’s British Herbal and the path it took show why it is such valued treasure. Whether you are visiting Laramie, or you call Laramie home, please remember the beautiful rare book treasures that are waiting for you to experience at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Access to rare book holdings is via the Reference Services unit. Please contact us 307-766-3756, email@example.com, for assistance.
 Book of Common Prayer, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Book-of-Common-Prayer
 p. 495. Stearn, William T. and John Hill, “Hill’s The British Herbal (1756-1757), Taxon, Vol. 16, No. 6 (Dec., 1967), pp. 494-498.
Blog contribution by Steve Yeager, former employee, Reference Services