The Bonniwell Bible — taking a closer look

How do you make a historian happy? How about blue skies, sunny and warm fall weather, a visit to the Clark House, and a full day spent studying and inventorying the Bonniwell Family Bible and accompanying family papers and photographs?

And you can’t beat this for a pleasant and evocative work area:

What’s up?

My work was focused on several goals:
• create a more detailed and complete inventory of the various loose papers and photographs that accompanied the Bible when it was donated to the Jonathan Clark House Museum in July
• protect all of the loose documents, papers, photos and small scraps of written or printed text in appropriate archival storage media. (Some of the fragments are very small and easy to overlook, tucked in the creases where the Bible’s pages are bound together.)
• begin to inventory all of the inscriptions and doodles that were written in the Bonniwell Bible between the late-1600s through the early 1900s.

I began by processing all of the loose papers and photographs that were not interleaved in the Bible when we received the book and accompanying items at the Clark House last July. I then began a page-by-page examination of the Bible itself, documenting obvious major and minor losses and otherwise damaged pages, and began to photograph all of the many handwritten inscriptions and doodles found in the book.

So in addition to all the necessary inventory work, with luck, we might figure out where little fragments like this came from:

Bonniwell Family Bible fragment, “Moon” text, sides A and B, size approx. 1 inch x 1 inch.

This little scrap of text is printed on paper that seems to match the Bonniwell Bible itself. The Roman type might match some of this Bible’s commentary or concordances, but that remains to be confirmed.

On Thursday I was able to examine every page of the Old Testament before the end of the day. I still have to page through the (canonical) Psalms, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, the “bonus” Metrical Psalms, and the many pages of helps and concordances. I also took a quick peek at some of the larger paper documents that are still folded and temporarily “archived” among the pages of these still-to-be-inventoried sections of the Bible.

Any surprises?

Oh, yes. Lots. For example:

Bonniwell Family Bible, inscription below I Cor. Chaps. 8-9 recording birth of Irving L. Bonniwell, 4 Dec. 1864.

Previously, we knew that Alfred T. and Sarah (Turck) Bonniwell’s fourth child (of five), was a son, Irving Lincoln Bonniwell, born in Wisconsin about 1865. Because of this inscription, we now know that Irving “Son of Alfred T. Bonniwell,” was born in Mequon, on December 4, 1864. I can tell you—after only a partial examination of the Bible—there are many more inscriptions like this. They will fill in dozens of gaps in our knowledge of the genealogy and history of the extended Bonniwell family.

Dating the Bonniwell Bible

One of the big questions about our Bible is when was it printed? Back in July, I wrote:

It was printed in London circa 1580–1620, by Christopher Barker or possibly his associates, or his successor, Robert Barker. We know this because Barker’s “printer’s device”—a sort of “corporate logo” of the Elizabethan Era—is found on several pages of the book

Since then, I have noted that a different—and more informative—version of Barker’s printer’s device appears on the title page of the Two right profitable and fruitfull concordances that follow the end of the New Testament:

Bonniwell Family Bible, Christopher Barker’s device “cum privlegio” on title page of the Two right profitable and fruitfull concordances.

The subscript — Imprinted at London By Christopher Barker, / Printer to the Queenes Maiestie. / Cum privilegio Regia Maiestatis. — seems to indicate that this Bible was printed by Christopher Barker himself, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. We know that Barker printed his first Geneva Bible of this type, with royal privilege, about 1580 and Elizabeth I died March 24, 1603. This suggests our Bible was printed circa 1580-1603, but this remains to be confirmed.

We already knew that our Bible was missing its title page and preface. It also appears that all the other illustrations, maps and tables that appear in some of Barker’s other Geneva Bibles are missing from the Bonniwell Bible. But I have not yet found anything that suggests that these items were torn or cut out of our Bible in its present (old) binding. This makes me think that our Bible may have been re-bound at some point in the past, after these items had been removed, perhaps by a previous owner.

And we still need to determine the original size of the book. Is it a “small folio” or a full size quarto? I’m still investigating. But my current thoughts are that this book may not only have been re-bound without its illustrations, but may have been trimmed around the margins in the process, possibly turning what was an original folio-sized Bible into a more convenient and portable quarto-sized book.

Thanks to all

Thanks to Clark House co-curator Nina J. Look for making the day possible, obtaining the necessary archival supplies, and collaborating with me during the inventory process. Thanks also to co-curator Fred Derr for some lively discussions about the history of the Clark property & some newly acquired household artifacts, and for providing the tasty sandwiches for what I suspect will be my last picnic lunch in the sun for 2022. Also, one more tip of the hat to to cousin George Bonniwell for locating the Bible in Spring, 2022. And most importantly, thanks again to Kendalyne Gentile for her years of careful stewardship and her recent generous donation of the Bonniwell Family Bible and papers to the Jonathan Clark House Museum.

I’ll be back in Mequon soon to continue work on the Bonniwell Bible and papers. There will be many more interesting finds—and related blog posts—coming soon.


Photos by Reed Perkins, 2022. Shareable under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

UPDATED: 14 Nov. 2022 to correct a date typo and an omission in the “Thanks” section at the end.
UPDATED: 14 Nov. 2022 to correct a few other typos and expand the paragraph discussing the issues of the Bible’s original size and contents.

4 thoughts on “The Bonniwell Bible — taking a closer look

    • WOW!, indeed.

      The exact date range is still tentative, but it’s clear that this well-worn family Bible has seen a lot of history.

      And for a bit of perspective, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in North America (Jamestown, Virginia Colony), would not be established until 1607. And the Puritan Pilgrims would not arrive at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, until 1620.


  1. Pingback: Tasting history | Clark House Historian

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