Storing a secret: Rare sewing kit hides a collection of German literary classics. [Credit: Les Todd]
Storing a secret: Rare sewing kit hides a collection of German literary classics. [Credit: Les Todd]

Devil's Own: Secret Library

September 24, 2012

"It would give me great joy if, through the labor of my hands, I could prove to you my sincere interest in this momentous day.” These words, written in 1821 by a German man named F.N.W. Kutscher, accompany an extraordinary wedding gift, presented to a bride addressed as Mademoiselle Lilli Kemmeter. At first glance, it appears to be an ordinary sewing kit, with brass handles, a floral pattern decorating the outside, and nearly 100 spools of silk thread in every color imaginable. But hidden beneath the sewing equipment, accessible by removing a false bottom, is a secret library—a sixty-volume collection of German classics printed in hardcover books the size of a modern smartphone.

Did Kutscher make the hidden library to help conceal the newlywed’s reading habits from a disapproving husband? Was it merely convenient storage for a treasured collection of volumes? The mystery adds to the intrigue of the kit, purchased by Duke Libraries this past April. The books alone make it a rare find, but librarians say their context offers an intimate look into the life of an upper-middle-class European woman in the nineteenth century—one that may be valuable for scholars of the period, or anyone who loves a good yarn.