Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, September 2, 2013

Explorations into 19th Century Angling Continues With Fly Books and Boxes

     This post revisits and explores some of the ways 19th century anglers stored their flies and leaders (or casts, as the English call them) when stream side. One popular choice was a "fly book", which in the earliest versions, was a small, bound book with pages specifically designed to secure snelled flies, like the one Mr. Akerman is holding.

Frontpiece from John Yonge Akerman's
"Spring-tide" 1850

Is that a Fly Book or a Fly Box
Under That Elbow?

     The pages of these fly books were natural parchment skin, fashioned into little envelopes or pockets for the flies to slip into. These pockets were created by folding the parchment back on to itself and then creasing the folds into flat, deep loops. The folds were then held in place by stitching along the outer edges of the page, often in blue thread.

       In an attempt to avoid crushing the flies and allow air to circulate, small discs of cork or thick leather were sometimes glued into the outermost corners of the pages as spacers. Besides the pockets, you will see strips of ribbon or parchment mounted through slots in single pages, to secure coiled bits of line or snelled flies.

Original 1820's Fly Book

Image Courtesy Mullock's Auctions

    The earliest surviving example of a fly book I've found was featured at a Mullock's Auction in the UK. They called it a wallet but I'll talk about that later. Attributed to the early English tackle maker Onesimus Utonson, it's literally a small book with marbled board covers and parchment pages. This extremely rare book was protected by a fitted leather slip-cover that was secured with long ribbon ties. A similar example turned up at an Angling Auctions sale (also across the pond) and was inscribed with a date from the 1820's. Very cool ! Unfortunately, none of the auction pictures revealed the design of the pages but from the description it appear that they are envelope style.

Leather Bound Fly Book
Showing Parchment Leaves and Corner Spacers

(note the sweet fly tying clamp)

Image Courtesy Mullock's Auctions

     It appears that in the mid-1800's, manufacturers began to shy away from the stiff covers and create more durable leather-bound versions. Even the early style ribbon ties would eventually give way to a sensible strap and buckle. Sometime during this inevitable evolution, the fly book became known as  the fly wallet in contemporary literature. Today it seems the terms fly book and fly wallet are interchangeable.

Another Early Fly Book
With the Owner's Notations

Gotta keep track of those killing patterns !
Image Source Unknown

     In order for me to craft a rational ( and affordable !) replica of a fly book, I had to get over the notion of using actual parchment skin for the pages (I can only wish). What I ended up using  ( warning for the purists, get ready to cringe ) was the modern material known as Tyvek. Tyvek is a non-woven polyethylene fabric that has many modern applications. After I lightly coated some pieces with thinned orange shellac, it looked and felt similar to real parchment. Luckily I found a ready source for this modern fabric in Tyvek shipping envelopes.

My Replica Fly Book
with Linen Tape Ties

Pictures by author

     Once I decided on a pattern for the cover, I cut out the pieces from scrap leather left over from earlier projects. Black calf on the outside, sandwiched with dark brown for the lining, gave it an nice look. From my experience with bookbinding and what I could gather from photographs of originals, the parchment pages of these little creations were sewn into signatures or groupings,  just like real books.

Note the Cork Spacers
and Stitched Edges of my
Faux Parchment

    I also discovered that on some original fly books, the parchment pages were  interspersed with felt or wool pages. These were probably intended to help dry the wet flies as they were returned to the book. My final design called for five, double-sided pocket pages, six blank pages and two wool pages.

My Tools of the Trade

    Many examples of fly books also include a place for the requisite tools of an angler. For me that would be tiny scissors, tweezers and an awl to open knots. On the other inside cover, I designed a expandable pocket for extra line etc.. As you can see, my book has already provided faithful service and will continue to do so. On to the next project.

Original 1860's Fly Box on the Right
Together with an Early Fly Book

Image Courtesy Angling Auctions

    The second half of this post is on "fly boxes", a form more familiar to today's fly fisherman than those antiquated book things. I was curious  how far back boxes go into the misty past of tackle history. Fly books served the angler well when he was fishing wets, as flattened flies aren't too much of a problem. Is it possible that boxes arrived to keep up with the increased interest in dry fly fishing and the need to keep the flies neat ? I'll leave that one to the experts. The earliest example of a fly box  I've discovered is from the 1860's according to the auction specialists who sold it.

My Fly Box Closed
Nice Ties Eh ?

    The idea of creating my own version of this early box seemed very doable thanks to its simple design and a good photo to work from. The original is described as made of leather covered cardboard. For mine, I chose painted cloth over book board as a slightly cheaper version. If you study the picture of the original, it's easy to see how one side of the box hinged into the other. Pretty darn cool !

Interior View

Notice how the cork panel on the right is smaller
to allow the box halves to seat inside each other

     One of the things I loved about this rare survivor, was the cork interior. A simple, classic and effective solution to fixing the hooks. I had trouble finding 1/4" thick natural cork sheets so I opted for modern crushed cork sheeting that still has a good look and function. I think it turned out great and my flies like it too.  I would recommend making this style fly box just for the fun and affordability of it. Fish on !!

                                                            Thanks for looking !


  1. These are excellently done! I'm impressed by your ability to find such an interesting array of wallets and books. Do you, by chance, know when people started using felt or wool pages so it into the book instead of the parchment? Or, for that matter, lamb wool?

    1. I'm glad you are enjoying my work. I think there was a transition from parchment to wool pages in the late 19th century, as you will see wallets with both. As to lambs wool, I'm not sure but there must be evidence for its early use. www.historicanglingenterprises.com offers a reproduction sheepskin fly book dated 1600's or earlier and Paul does his homework.