Ask the Hagley Historian! The Library's Oldest Item

Monday, June 15, 2020

Question: What is the oldest item in the library? 

Answer: Hagley Library’s oldest item is a small booklet called a Feuerwerkbuch, roughly translated as “fireworks book.” It is an instruction manual for making black powder, copied in the Upper Rhine region of Germany on December 27, 1450. There were numerous Feuerwerkbuecher made around the 15th century. The idea behind them is that powder makers, usually master gunners, took a basic recipe for black powder and adapted it for local conditions. For example, sources for basic ingredients changed depending on your geographic location. So master gunners explained how to obtain the ingredients, prepare them, and mix them to their proper proportions. Hagley’s Feuerwerkbuch is specific to Germany’s Upper Rhine area and is even copied in a version of early German called “Rheinfraenkisch,” which would have been the vernacular language of the region. 

We know the exact date the copyist completed Hagley’s Feuerwerkbuch from an inscription, in Latin, on the booklet’s last page. It translates, in part: “This book has been finished by me, L.F…. In the fiftieth year of our Lord 1400 on the day of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist.” Unfortunately we do not know who “L.F.” was or any circumstances about the booklet’s creation. 

Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) purchased this Feuerwerkbuch from the estate of Oscar Guttmann in 1910. Guttmann was a well-known British collector of books, manuscripts, and other items pertaining to explosives, dating from the Medieval era through the early 20th century. We do not know how Guttmann acquired the booklet. It came to Hagley after Pierre S. du Pont’s death and is part of our Guttmann collections on black powder, pyrotechnics, and explosives. 

Hagley’s Feuerwerkbuch

First page of Hagley’s Feuerwerkbuch

Inscription on the last page with the booklet’s date of completion.


Lucas Clawson is the Hagley Historian at Hagley Museum and Library.​