Judging a book by its cover

on Thursday, 13 December 2018. Posted in Archives, History Centre

If you are anything like me you may be giving quite a few books as gifts this Christmas, and you might have spent a long time considering their content and choosing the right book for the right person. But have you ever looked at the structure of the book and thought about how it has been made? Although the process is mechanised today, the traditional skill of bookbinding is still practised and over the last few months some of the staff here at the History Centre have been giving it a go after work, guided by our Archives Conservator, Sophie. It’s been a lot of fun and certainly makes you appreciate the work, skill and time that it takes to create books by hand.

Much more interest and scholarship has been directed towards the decoration of books rather than their components or the processes used to create them. However, it is often the ‘forwarding’ of the binding (making it fit for the finishing or more decorative elements) that makes a book really pleasing to use.

Books can be bound in many different styles and vary according to age, value and the use to which the book will be put. Bookbinding first begins in the 4th century AD with a change from rolls to flat sheets, which, although easier to transport and store, required some kind of protection. The first bindings were simple folded sheets sewn together and wrapped in leather.

The development of the printing press created a surge in binding activity and prosperity for the bookbinder. In contrast to previous manuscript versions which were often richly ornamented with costly materials such as enamels and carved ivory, the printed book was often covered with plain leather, calf or deerskin, or occasionally parchment. Covers could also be wooden boards, sometimes backed with leather, which was drawn partly of wholly over the wooden covers, the latter usually fitted with clasps.

Ref D1/1/2 showing manicules (pointing fingers used to draw attention to sections of the text)

The above example is an early 14th cent. -16th cent. wooden covered Liber Evidentiarum B (the 'B' indicates that it belongs to the bishop, as opposed to a similar volume, 'C', belonging to the chapter). It contains copies of royal and other charters (including Magna Carta [1225] and the Forest charter, compositions, ordinances, etc., and was mostly written in the early 14th century, but with 15th and 16th century additions. We think the wooden cover is original but it has been rebound many times (you can see holes for previous binding, and where there used to be a clasp).

Ref 730/97/1 This churchwarden’s account book for Steeple Ashton (1542-1668) is a nice example of a tooled leather binding.

A faster form of decoration - blind stamping (creating an image, design or lettering formed by creating a depression) - became prevalent as the numbers of books increased in the sixteenth century. This was superseded by the more visually appealing gold tooling technique (decorating the cover and spine with gold leaf, impressed into the cover with a heated finishing tool). Around 1750 the construction process also changed, when many books began to be sewn on cords let into the backs of sections. This, in contrast to the usual practice of sewing on raised cords, gave a smooth back. The spines were often lined with many layers of paper, which gave a good surface for tooling work but could mean that they were difficult to open.

The demand for books and bindings increased following the industrial revolution, although the quality of hand-binding was poorer; the construction of the binding deteriorated and attempt was often made to conceal the poor quality with lavish gold ornament on covers and spines. With the industrial revolution also came mass production, and machinery for cutting, blocking, case-making and pressing. Later in the 19th century, techniques for machine decoration were also developed.

The arts and crafts movement countered this industrialisation and inspired individuals such as lawyer, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson to study the craft, and to experiment with binding construction and decoration. His designs continued the methods of gold and blind tooling, and often incorporated flowers, leaves or branches in a geometric design. The scope for originality and creativity also prospered following World War One, and artists, designers, and amateurs all made worthy contributions to the craft.

Endpapers are often highly decorative!

Our local studies and archive collections includes examples of different binding constructions. However, the tools and equipment of the trade can also be explored through looking at wills and inventories...

The 1793 will of John Spalding states:

“I leave to my son in law Ed. Sweet all my book binding tools, leather, board, books forwarded are not reckoned all my other goods, chattels, stock in trade, printing materials &cc… And further it is my will and desire that my body be interred in as plain a manner as possible and also that my family do not put themselves into mourning.”

Bookbinding was also undertaken by women (including reputedly Queen Elizabeth I with a New Year’s gift of her own translation of a French meditational poem to her stepmother, Katherine Parr in 1544). In 1810 Andrew Gilmore wrote in his will:

“I do give and bequeath unto my loving wife Mary Gilmore all my household goods… and all my working tools used in my business of Bookbinder… and also I do hereby wish that my son Andrew James Gilmore do be aiding and assisting my said dear wife carrying on my present business…”

The inventory of bookbinder John Courtney Senior, 1683 lists:
Tools
Old books for waste paper
Old table board
Standing press
9 reams of paper
Books (including 25 bibles and 26 Books of Common Prayer)

It is interesting that this inventory includes ‘old books for waste paper’. We have various examples in the archives of books where the covers are re-used from earlier manuscripts.

The covers of this sixteenth century account for the Heytesbury Hospital Estates are covered with part of chapters six to eight of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History dated to the 12th century. Ref 567/40

This Court book for the manor of Hawkchurch, Dorset is covered with a 14th century document (seemingly an extract of an index to canon law). Ref 2667/13/441

A 15th century treatise on natural history was used for this 17th century weekly account book. Ref 2667/12/102
Another manuscript cover, this time a late 14th to early 15th liturgical fragment on parchment, to a 17th century set of notes written on the Ley family. Ref 366/1

We all know the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ but doing so can reveal hidden histories and sometimes they just have to be admired!

Naomi Sackett, Community History Advisor

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