Interfoliata: a look between the pages

More blogs by Jonathan Smalter

I promised in an earlier post that I would revisit the term ‘interfoliata,’ and being a man of my word, I offer you the following article.

As a bookseller, one of the regular joys of my job is the discovery of things within books. The diversity of random items I have encountered during my career is staggering. Here are some examples:

  • Book reviews
  • Author obituaries
  • Coupons
  • Photographs
  • Utility bills
  • Christmas cards
  • Empty gum wrappers
  • Newspapers or magazine articles related to the author, or to the same topic as the book
  • Pressed flowers and leaves
  • Receipts
  • Correspondence (sometimes between the previous owner and the author)
  • Review slips
  • All manner of things used as bookmarks

Once, early on in my career, I found six crisp $20 bills inside a book that was otherwise of little value, purchased for $1 at a library sale. Sadly, that bit of serendipity has not been repeated since then.

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The overarching term for those things found within books that were not present upon publication is ‘interfoliata,’ which means literally ‘between the leaves’ (‘leaf’ here refers to what is often referred to as a page — for clarification on the difference between these two terms, I recommend referencing Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, or the links to collectors’ terminology provided in my earlier post What is Ephemera?

By definition, an interfoliatum is not something attached to a page, but is ‘laid in’ (as distinct from ‘tipped in’ or ‘mounted’). Some interfoliata is of the sort that one would expect to find within a particular book (e.g., a review slip from the publisher, a book club pamphlet inserted in all copies upon publication, etc.), but that is not the sort of interfoliata that I want to discuss here. After all, this blog is about ephemera, and the most interesting interfoliata in that context are the items that tell a unique story. Imagine this scenario:

Your paternal grandmother has recently passed away, leaving a house full of belongings to sort out. Your grandfather has been gone for several years now, but your grandmother refused to go through any of his things, and now you are faced with sifting through all of it to decide what the family should keep, which things to sell, and what is destined for the trash bin. The family is understandably upset about the loss of a loved one, and several of you are sitting around a table in the kitchen talking, drinking coffee, sharing stories, and trying to figure out what to do next. Where do you start?

Getting up from the table to refill your mug, you notice a few books balanced precariously between a cookie jar and a utensil holder. One of them is a copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer which has clearly seen extensive use: the hinges are wobbly, the cover is stained with specks of long-ago sauces and tide marks from spills, there are dog-eared pages throughout, and you notice several gaps between pages from which notecards, newsprint, and Post-It notes protrude. Intrigued, you set your mug down, forgetting what you were doing with it in the first place, and bring the book back to the table. It opens readily to a page towards the middle, and within is a small plastic bag holding three notecards with a rusted staple through the corner. At the top, in your grandmother’s handwriting, are the words ‘Gran’s Apple Pie’.

You didn’t call your grandmother Gran (it was always ‘grandma’), so you ask the others sitting at the table, “Who was Gran?” Your father puts his hand out, indicating he would like to have a look. “Mom called her grandmother that, I think. I never knew her, she died before I was born. This must be a recipe that was passed down from her.” He looks closer at the ingredients, the instructions. “I guess I never knew it wasn’t her own recipe. She made this pie all the time, it was one of my favorites.”

For a moment, the family is silent, absorbing the impact of the words. Then your aunt reaches for the book and begins to leaf through it from the beginning. Your brother starts investigating the other books in the kitchen to see if they hold similar treasures. The next hour is spent in almost complete silence as each of you searches. You look up and ask, “I wonder if grandpa kept things like this in his books?” His study is at the other end of the house (you remember it was the one room you were not allowed to play in during visits as a child).

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Over the next two days, you discover: photographs of your grandfather and fellow U.S. Army officers tucked into a unit history recounting battles in which he fought; a high school yearbook with several letters between your grandmother and a high school sweetheart (not your grandfather); books that belonged to your father as a child, with crayon doodles on construction paper tucked inside the front covers; note cards inside novels with definitions of words copied from a dictionary, which match up to words underlined in pencil in the text; postcards written back and forth between your grandparents during the war. All of these precious things were tucked away, hiding in the pages of cookbooks, military personnel pamphlets, odd volumes from a complete set of the works of Dickens.

While each of these things by itself is interesting, together they tell a story. Even though your grandparents are gone, you have learned so much about who they were in the last 48 hours. You understand what they went through, what was important to them, and why they lived their lives the way they did.

Context is Important

Collecting interfoliata is a bit different than collecting other ephemera, mainly because the relationship between the book and the item within it establishes a context. This can provide information about why, when, and where it was saved. Often the relationship between the book and its interfoliata is as interesting as the actual content of the ephemera (and sometimes more so). This is because, unlike individual examples of a book or a newspaper article, the relationship between such things can provide us with information we did not have. A book I recently cataloged contained a series of letters between the author and previous owner, which made it clear that the author presented the book as a gift. The owner had provided a number of the illustrations that were used in the book, as well as background information related to them.

This context is important enough that the storage of these particular pieces of ephemera poses a unique problem. Instead of displaying ephemera or storing it separately, a way must be found to properly preserve it, while avoiding damage to the ephemera and to the book. How one goes about this hinges on a number of factors, of course: the nature of the interfoliata; it’s size and shape relative to that of the book; how the book will be displayed or stored; etc. The critical part, though, is ensuring that these things remain together to preserve that context. After all, a notecard labeled ‘Gran’s Apple Pie’, found somewhere that provides no clues about who ‘Gran’ was, holds little to no meaning for anyone. Found in grandma’s cookbook, though…

Another difference between collecting interfoliata and other avenues of collecting is that it depends far more on luck, coincidence, serendipity… whatever one chooses to call it, there is a factor of uncertainty that makes it nearly impossible to approach collecting with the sort of intentionality as collecting, say, modern first editions. Bookstores do not have an Interfoliata section. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of examples of interfoliata for sale online do not use the word ‘interfoliata’ in the description; they instead describe the specific type of item that is included. As such, it is unusually difficult to shop for interfoliata, and nearly impossible to shop for it in such a way that the context is anything but random.


Sometimes, even if the context provided is not enough to tell the whole story, the presence of interfoliata is sufficiently intriguing that it leads to other discoveries. Often I have found that research I started based on a laid in letter or some other clue has led me to details about the work, the author, or some historical event that I would not otherwise have located. Ultimately, what we are seeking to do when we collect things is to preserve information. More specifically, stories. Some of the best stories are the ones that lead to unexpected conclusions, and ephemera is great at providing those twists and turns.

In the brief narrative above, a family was able to learn a great deal about their loved ones, and it all began when one of them found a recipe card in a book. In most cases, interfoliata being laid into books to begin with is an effort to preserve something, to provide context or add information, or to overlay one’s personal experience with an experience that is detailed within the work. It is an act of participation. The other side of that participation is the discovery that takes place as a result. It is similar to a writer’s interaction with the reader: it will happen some time in the future, after the act is already done, and the particulars of the situation will always be different, so what the writer has left to be found will be interpreted through the lens of the reader’s own experiences. In the same way, interfoliata is a way of saying, “This is something that I thought or felt, once, and this is when and why I thought about it.” Sometimes that feeling or thought is something we can immediately relive when we find the item; other times it is a signpost for a moment of time in history.

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Final Thoughts

There are a few important points we can take away from this discussion:

  • Above all, resist the urge to discard things found in books! Even items that at first blush seem tangential may tell an important story, so do not toss it out just because you do not know the story yet. Look for possible connections to the text, learn what you can about the previous owner, and try to establish reasons why these interfoliata were things they considered worth saving. Even items unrelated to the book’s subject provide additional context about the time period (e.g., contemporary ads).
  • Do no harm. If something inserted into a book has become partially adhered to a page or is clearly causing oxidation, discoloration, ink transfer, or other damage to the pages, take care to avoid making the problem worse, and do what you can to stop the deterioration in its tracks. Archival materials, your local bookseller, fellow collectors, and others working in the field of historical preservation are your friends here, so ask for advice if you need it.
  • Where there is smoke, there is fire. In other words, those who tucked papers and other things into one book are most likely in the habit of doing it. So, if you find yourself browsing at an estate sale, and an envelope or photograph falls out of a book, the hunt is on! Often interfoliata located in multiple volumes from the same collection will provide a stronger context than those found in just one, and connecting those dots can be very satisfying.
  • If you yourself are in the habit of inserting magazine clippings and other interfoliata into books, keep doing it your way. One of the most interesting elements of researching interfoliata is gleaning what sort of person added these items over the course of owning the books, so make sure you do not let any idea of how it should be done impinge on how you do it.

Until next time, happy hunting!

Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association, and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair.

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