Judging Books by Their Covers

bookbindings_leather
Fig 1. Back cover. Leather binding, tooled in blind over wood boards, c. 1450 (BT769 .A56)

When it comes to studying the history of the book, the study of bookbinding presents a unique set of challenges to scholars. While today we might be tempted think of a book as an all-in-one package, whether we buy it in a bookstore or download it to an e-reader, historically the process of creating a book from conception, to publishing, to binding has been anything but neat and tidy. Prior to the mechanization of printing in the early nineteenth century, books were often bound years, even decades, after publication. Some books were bound by binders associated with publishing companies, some were “bespoke” by wealthy patrons according to their personal specifications, and others were shipped as unfolded, uncut sheets to be bound in distant countries. Since a book can be bound and rebound any number of times in its life, associating a bookbinding with a particular place, time, and bindery is at best a game of educated guesswork. Even so, bindings have a lot to tell us about the history of the book, and the FSU Special Collections & Archives rare books collections contain many notable examples of bookbinding materials and techniques.

Materials

bookbindings_fabric
Fig 2. 18th century embroidered binding with metal clasp (BR1705 .A2 V526 1547)

The most common coverings for books through the nineteenth century were those made out of animal skins, either leather or vellum.¹ One of the oldest leather bindings in our collection is on a fifteenth century Italian manuscript (fig. 1), believed to be in its original binding. Although much of the leather has worn with time, a pattern of knot-work stamps worked in blind around a filleted central panel is still visible. A manuscript like this would have taken considerable time and labor to produce, and its binding reflects its preciousness.

Leather was the material of choice for monastic and university libraries, but books owned by private (i.e. wealthy) collectors were often covered in embroidered fabrics or velvet. It is difficult to determine just how widespread the use of fabric bindings was because so many of them were not made to withstand the test of the time as well as their leather counterparts.² The embroidered binding in fig. 2 is believed to date from the eighteenth century, and it covers a 1547 Italian printed book on the lives of the Saints (Vite de Santi Padri). It is precisely these types of devotional works that were often given special coverings by their owners.

bookbindings_paper
Fig 3. Paper covering on an 18th century almanac (PQ1177 .A6 1767)

On the other end of the spectrum, increased book production after the Renaissance led to a shortage of binding materials, and cheaper methods of binding came into use to meet growing demands. By the eighteenth century, simple paper wrappings had become a common cover for inexpensive pamphlets and small-format books, such as the almanac in fig. 3.³ This copy of the 1767 Almanach des Muses, a serial of French poetry published annually from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, is comprised of seven quires with untrimmed edges sewn together and wrapped in decorated paper, which is glued to the first and last pages of the volume. The use of blue paper was often characteristic of French paper bindings.³  Unlike modern day book jackets, these paper coverings bear no relation to the text within. Since these bindings were not designed for longevity, they often do not survive intact or are removed when the books are rebound and the pages are trimmed.

The FSU Special Collections & Archives rare book collections run the gamut from medieval manuscripts bound in tooled leather with gilt edges to untrimmed almanacs wrapped in publishers’ scraps. Their value, form, and function may vary, but they all contribute to the same history. Prior to the mechanization of book production in the early 1800s, each book was constructed by hand, and, as such, each can be thought of as a miniature work of art, just waiting to be discovered.

Katherine Hoarn is a graduate assistant in Special Collections & Archives. She is working on her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Florida State University.

Notes

1. D. Pearson, English bookbinding styles 1450-1800, London, 2005, p. 20-21

2. P. Needham, Twelve centuries of bookbindings 400-1600, New York, 1979, p. 107.

3. M. Lock, Bookbinding materials and techniques 1700-1920, Toronto, 2003, p. 48.

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