The Best Things Found Between the Pages of Old Books
Atlas Obscura readers shared hundreds of stories about their surprising discoveries.
What secrets hide among the pages of old books? There might be a lock of George Washington’s hair, the story of an forgotten luminary of American literature, or a centuries-old manuscript full of mystery. We asked Atlas Obscura readers to send us their stories about the most amazing items they found in books, and you sent us hundreds of responses—from the gross and macabre to the utterly charming and deeply surprising.
We heard about dried bubblegum, boogers, lint, tiny book scorpions, dead head lice, and other unsavory discoveries. Six different correspondents wrote to us with stories about finding strips of fried bacon. (Can someone please enlighten us as to why anyone would use bacon as a bookmark?) Many people use books as hiding places, and the most common find was money, from a few dollars to thousands. Second to money was reports of carefully pressed marijuana leaves (and one sheet of LSD).
People also leave things in books that they want to keep safe, or items that have a particular resonance with the volume itself. One reader found a original news clipping about the sinking of the Titanic in a book about the ship and its survivors. Another found a suicide note in a book about suicide. We heard stories of forgotten love letters, family photos, medical scans, and notes from famous figures—all tucked between pages and then forgotten.
Here are some of our favorites.
My favorite possession: Complete Works of Shakespeare, complete with beach photos…. Throughout this book the previous owner has taped old photos, seemingly unrelated to Shakespeare. Also, a newspaper clipping about a change in leadership at an insurance agency in Keyser, West Virginia. —May Helena Plumb, Austin, Texas
Not just money … really old money
An old family Bible contained an envelope with a note on the outside saying, “Grandfather’s revolutionary war pay.” Inside was a colonial currency bill and a signed receipt for its payment for service in the Connecticut 2nd Continental line. —W. Kevin Dougherty, Brackney, Pennsylvania
Unbelievable but true. I bought a second-hand book in Rathmines, Dublin, in 1982. There was an old-looking negative.... I was in a camera club, so I brought it in and developed it. It was a photo of me at three years old outside my first home, the number on the door visible. Showed it to my mother and she was amazed as she had never seen the photo....
I still have the book, Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. I often wondered if it had been my godmother’s book. She originally lived two doors up and was an avid reader. There’s no name or inscription on the book, but it’s an explanation and she always gave her old books to charity. Although it was 15 years after the photo was taken, Dublin was smaller then. Still a bit weird but nice. —Anna McManus, Ireland
I’ve found many things in old books, some interesting, some just okay.... I found a drawing of what looks like a woman smoking. It’s small and made with a pencil and ballpoint pen. On the back, in Portuguese, you can read “From Guida, To Rosário, From the notorious day.” No dates, nothing else is given.…
Another interesting thing was a photograph of a big dog lying down, looking kinda sad. On the back you can read, “Born on February 17th, 1971,” also in Portuguese, in the handwriting of a child.... And the last one was an unrequited love poem, handwritten, by a woman. I think she meant to give it to her lover, but could never get the courage to do so. —Thiago Amaral, São Paulo, Brazil
Food for thought
I used to work in a bookstore, so I have perhaps found more surprises inside of books than the average bear. Sometimes these surprises were pleasant notes, sometimes they were boogers (okay, most of the time it was boogers), but one time I found an entire apple tart inside of a book about computer programming. —Grace, California
A 1967 Red Sox World Series Ticket, unused in mint condition. —Robert Bolduc, Boston, Massachusetts
I work in an antique bookstore, so I have found many, many pressed flowers, bizarre receipts, photographs, notes, etc., tucked into books. But I think my favorite is a letter that I found tucked into a French book about Byron published in 1929. The letter, from “Savvy,” is on the Associated Press letterhead, dated March 14, and is so full of longing. —Moira Horowitz, Baltimore, Maryland
A pretty large lock of brown hair, still tied in a decaying bow, fell out of the pages of a turn-of-the-century photo album onto me in an antique store. GROSS. —Jody Amable, San Jose, California
While I didn’t find it myself, a finger was found in a book in the library where I worked in Italy. This is the same library where Sharon Tate worked before moving to the United States and becoming an actress. —Amy Robbins-Tjaden
A circular from 1890 about how the local sheriff (of my hometown) shouldn’t be blamed for the escape of a murderer from the jail. —Edwin Douglass, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I love old books. Deeply, passionately. I work in a bookstore so I spend my days with books. My favorite find was a letter. I don’t remember in which book, possibly a Hungarian classic novel. It was a short letter, never sent. A teenager wrote it to their parents. From a summer camp. Nice story, isn’t it? Absolutely not.
It happened during communism, when teenagers were forced to visit summer camps to learn the rules of dictatorship.... The children had to write letters to home. About how fantastic is the camp, how generous and perfect is the political system. Every letter was checked; they had to say and write what they were told. And this was another kind of letter. The writer says she wants to go home, because the whole camp is like Hell.... I loved this letter because it was a piece of our past. Not just a simple letter, the truth about that great FAIL. —Lili Palatinus, Budapest, Hungary
I was about eight years old and had a small goldfish bowl with one goldfish in it on top of a small bookcase in my room. One day he just disappeared and we couldn’t figure out where he went, until the day I was reading one of those books and found a petrified goldfish between the pages. —Rebecca MacLeod
In September 2005, I visited Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and bought a used trade paperback copy of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Inside I found a credit card receipt for the book, which had been purchased on July 10, 2004, at LAX airport. I also found a boarding pass for an American Airlines flight on July 21, 2004, from New York’s JFK airport to LAX, issued to the same person whose name was on the book receipt. But none of that was the really interesting part.
Also in the book were a Russian 50 ruble note (worth about 87 cents today) and small scrap of paper bearing the words “I LIKE HAM!” printed in black Sharpie. The other side of the paper bore a faint repeating pattern of a yellow Chihuahua dog. Was it the dog who liked ham? Did the owner of the book buy ham in Russia and get 50 rubles in change? And, most important, did he like the book? —Michael Rene Zuzel, Talent, Oregon
In an old copy of The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, I found an old Post-it note that read, “With thoughts such as these, he slowly watched the water turn to wine.” It was about halfway through, and I found it when I was up late reading. Creepy! —Casey Abribat, New York, New York
A World War II hidden radio —Ron G. Woering
I was looking up something in the narrative of the voyage of HMS Adventure, a forerunner of Darwin’s Beagle, in the special collections room of my university library when something fell out. It turned out to be a folded “stampless cover” (a folded letter) written and signed by Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, simply confirming his position on such-and-such a date and sent to his employer, a shipping company. (This was, of course, long before the telegraph or other rapid means of communication!) —Art Shapiro, Davis, California
Two vintage photographs of rather creepy-looking circus clowns. One with a child at his feet. The photographs were in an old, well-used volume of short stories that I bought at a huge outdoor book sale at a large church in Columbus, Georgia. Neither photo, obviously ancient, was dated, but the picture of the “coy” clown with his finger to his mouth had the name “Pirrus,” or “Pirris,” scrawled on the back in pencil. — J.L. Strickland, Valley, Alabama
Important research notes
A slip of paper in an old Tom Clancy book listing every page where a swear word could be found. —John May, Dallas, Texas
Found in an old hardcover book about the siege of Fort Sumter, on the discount rack outside of Second Story Books in Dupont Circle. A faded tan piece of construction paper, torn along the bottom edge, as if hastily ripped out of a notebook. Yet the text is carefully typed and dripping with the hope and excitement you’d expect from the title at the top: “MY TRIP AROUND THE WORLD.” It spans from 1970 to 1982, and has our unknown adventurer deep-sea fishing, hunting tigers, sailing distant seas, touring Europe and Asia, and ultimately arriving in San Francisco, where the plan is to, “Sell boat buy land and start cattle ranch.” —Bruce Falconer, Washington, D.C.
Notes from the rich and famous
A letter written in hand by King Edward VII on Buckingham Palace stationery. —Don Love, Toronto, Canada
Extra-appropriate four-leaf clover
Found a four-leaf clover pressed in a book of Robert Pinsky’s poems. The book is called The Figured Wheel. —Gleb Boundin, Brooklyn, New York
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