The term by which Ruskin and his parents referred to store‐bought stationerʼs notebooks with reddish‐brown, flexible leather covers (described specifically as roan in Sotheby & Co., Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Remaining Library of John Ruskin , 20–21), each approximately 15 centimeters tall by 10 centimeters wide. Ruskin and his father exchange the term in referring, for example, to MS III (letter of 10 March 1829, in Ruskin Family Letters, 192), and presumably extended the term to all the (presently known and extant) notebooks resembling it: that is, MS I, MS IIIA, MS IV, Juvenilia MS A, Juvenilia MS B, and Juvenilia MS C.
Judging by references to the Red Books in family letters, Ruskin composed in these notebooks mainly at home, although their contents suggest that he may occasionally have carried some of them on family travels through England, Wales, and North Britain. Certainly, he used the Red Books to reflect on travel, as in his small anthologies of topographical verse, such as “Poetry Discriptive”, Juvenilia MS C served the family as his imitation of a travel guidebook, containing the Travel Itinerary and Tour Notes  (see Tours of 1826–27).
The term Red Book was perhaps a family jest. According to the OED, the term applies to “official books, usually distinguished by having a red binding, of political, administrative, or economic significance,” a usage current since the fifteenth century (“red book, n.1”, OED Online, accessed 30 December 2015), although, for the Ruskins, the term may have referred merely to the color. In later years, John James Ruskin may also have intended these notebooks when using the term Little Book for manuscripts containing juvenilia composed by Ruskin up to age ten—a description that matches the Red Books accurately enough, since it was starting at about that age, in 1829–30, when Ruskin put aside the Red Books for larger, ledger‐like, half‐calf notebooks, some of which he dedicated solely to rough draft, and others solely to fair copy (although for a few years after 1829, Ruskin did continue to exploit the Red Books for left‐over blank spaces in which to rough‐draft poetry and prose). (See letters of 1 February 1850 [MSL 002/003/096] and 2 February 1850 [MSL 002/003/097], in Letters from John James Ruskin to John Ruskin, 1829–1862, both letters also quoted in Dearden, “Production and Distribution of John Ruskinʼs Poems 1850”, 156–57. It is possible, however, that John Jamesʼs usage of Little Book refers, not to a Red Book, but to MS V, a small half‐calf notebook that Ruskin entitlted “Miscellaneous Poetry”.)
The term Red Book stuck throughout Ruskinʼs life. As late as 1891, W. G. Collingwood employed the term in “Preliminary Note on the Original MSS. of the Poems”, his descriptive bibliography compiled for Poems (1891). Describing MS I as a “ruled note‐book, bound in red leather,” roughly 6 by 4 inches, Collingwood goes on to use the term Red Book as a shorthand to designate MS III and MS IV as conforming with this description (Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263).
On 8 September 1870, Ruskin remembered the term when docketing MS IV as “Red book No. 1,” MS III as “Red book No. 2,” and MS I as “Red book No. 3.” What prodded his selection and arrangement of these three of the seven Red Books is unrecorded, but there are clues to his motives. On 9 August, he had visited Herne Hill, where he “put all in order”, confiding to his diary that he “worked once more in that old house, going through the room where I lay in the morning looking at my first watercolour painting”, and one wonders whether he found his juvenilia there, or whether the old associations prompted him to unearth the Red Books on return to Denmark Hill. The diary entry for 8 September remarks only on the bad weather, but, on the following Sunday (11 September), Ruskin looks back on a depressing week (“for many a year” not one “so miserable”), during which he “put much into order” and “read old poems of 1848”: “I have gained something in these twenty‐two years”, he pronounced (Ruskin, Diaries 700, 702).
Ruskinʼs reasons are also obscure for having chosen these particular Red Books to number, and for numbering them in this order. Curiously, he numbered them in reverse chronological order. “No. 1,” MS IV, is plainly dated 1828 in Ruskinʼs own boyhood hand; “No. 2,” MS III, contains dates in his and his his motherʼs hands ranging from 1826 to 1829; and “No. 3”, MS I, is dated 1826–27 in his motherʼs hand (see MS I: Date, MS III: Date, and MS IV: Date). Perhaps he gave first place to MS IV because its chief work is the botanical poem, “on the universe”, “Eudosia”, for which had two possible reasons in 1870 to assign priority: his preference at this time to emphasize his boyhood talents for natural history; and obscure symbolic connections with Rose La Touche (1848–75).
In 1869, Ruskin had mined MS III for the boyhood poem “Glenfarg” and “Glen of Glenfarg” (“Papa how pretty those icicles are”, which he reprinted in The Queen of the Air as an illustration of his “birthright” of “art‐gift” that came to him “by Athenaʼs will, from the air of English country villages, and Scottish hills” (Ruskin, Works, 19:396–97, and see 283). In September 1869, Rose sent him a cryptic message, by returning her copy of the book, enclosing only a weed and a rose leaf between its pages. An accidental face‐to‐face meeting between Rose and Ruskin in January 1870 only deepened the enigma and tension of their relations, and Ruskin began compiling notes for a book that would become his own contribution to the “language of the flowers”, Proserpina. Their conflicted and rebarbative exchange continued throughout the year; however, a letter from Rose gave Ruskin hope, and in September 1870, when he annotated the Red Books, he sought counsel to prepare a statement defining his legal, moral, and sexual status regarding his marriage—a document that would later precipitate disastrous commentary from his former wife, nee Effie Chalmers Gray (1828–97), now Effie Millais (Hilton, John Ruskin: The Later Years, 171–73, 179). Perhaps, at this crisis, Ruskin found some sort of consolation in “Eudosia”, which, as he would later summarize the poem in Praeterita, “ascends from the rose to the oak” in its first book (, 35:60). As the for the mysterious “poems of 1848,” perhaps they related to Ruskinʼs marriage to Effie in that year, which also happened to be the year of Roseʼs birth.
Another possible explanation for Ruskinʼs treating MS IV as “Red book No. 1” resides in his father having used a blank space in that notebook to compile his List of Published Poems, 1830–46. John James made the list in preparation for his affectionate task of collecting and printing the Poems (1850), ending the list by proudly remembering the great men to whom his son had been “compared”—Goethe, Coleridge, Isaac Taylor, Edmound Burke, and Juvenal.
Whatever the secret of his ordering of the Red Books in 1870, Ruskinʼs own numbering may have misled him in 1885 when writing Praeterita. He misstated how many “volumes” he had completed of his “Harry and Lucy” (see “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1: Composition & Publication; and see Hanson, “Dark Waters of Praeterita”, 66).