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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


( Originally Published 1940 )

Bookbinding is the "art of arranging the pages of a book in proper order, and confining them there by means of thread, glue, paste, pasteboard and leather." So said Edward Hazen of Philadelphia, very succinctly, in his Panorama of Professions and Trades, or Every Man's Book, 1837.

In the hand-binding process the printed sheets are folded into sections and the sections assembled into a complete book. They are then clamped into a sewing frame and sewn together. The book is then fastened in a vise and the back is rounded with a hammer. The next step is the casing.

The case consists of two "boards," (wood in the old days, cardboard in modern books), covered with cloth or leather. In the case of limp binding a sturdy, flexible leather may be used without boards. The case is fitted around the book and secured by additional sewing, or, in a less sturdy book, by pasting the end sheets of the first and last sections to the board of the cover. Any one of a number of additional touches may be added, such as the pleasing addition of a head band, edge-gilding, or marbling.

This is a very cursory survey of the process. There are a great many special techniques which vary the approach. Flexible, hard, full, half, quarter, or check are the names by which certain of the many processes are known.

One of the most important aspects of the binder's work is the decoration of the cover. This is done with a variety of stamps, dies, and other tools, set in wooden handles. The dies are engraved with various styles of lettering or with elements of design. They are heated and applied to the leather. Sometimes if a whole title is to be stamped, or a design of any type too large for efficient hand application, a large die, called a block, is used with the aid of a press. Long straight lines, as in borders, are impressed with a filet, a small wheel. Wider wheels, called rolls, with engraved patterns, are used for endless bands of design. The use of gold leaf, in tooling, is very common. On more sumptuous bindings other types of elaborate ornament, such as inlays of vari-colored leathers, or metal-work are sometimes used.

The earliest known American bookbinder was John Sanders, who took the Freeman's Oath in Boston in 1636. We note that he precedes by two years the first printer to come to the colonies. None of his work has been preserved.

The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, popularly known as the Bay Psalm Book, was printed and probably bound by Samuel Green at Cambridge in 1651. It is really a second edi tion, as it were, of the Whole Booke of Psalmes, of 1640. The Bay Psalm Book is the earliest extant specimen of American bookbinding, and exists in a single copy, now in the possession of the New York City Public Library.

Some confusion ensues, in tracing early American binders, due to the fact that the art was fairly widely disseminated. Many persons known simply as printers or booksellers were also bookbinders and, as in the case of Green, above, it is often a matter of assumption that they bound the books they printed unless other binders are unmistakably identified with the work.

John Ratcliff was a bookseller and binder. He arrived in Boston about 1661, with the special commission of binding the Indian Bible. He has crept into history in the record of a peti tion to the Commissioners of the United Colonies, in 1664, protesting the meagre pay he was given for the large job.

Other bindings by Ratcliff were Increase Mather's Call From Heaven, in 1679; Sewall's Commonplace Book, in 1677; and The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Massachusetts, etc. about 1672. He was not a distinguished binder, in spite of the rather important items turned out by his hand. Authorities rank him as second rate and consider his work crude, even by the standards of contemporary Colonials.

Another bookseller-binder, Edmund Ranger, was Ratcliff's competitor. He was admitted to the status of Freeman in Boston in 1671. He practiced his craft actively until his death, in 1705. Increase Mather's Practical Truths is one of his best bindings. He may have been Ratcliff's nemesis, for many believe that Ratclifl's return to England was due to his inability to compete on any grounds with the younger Ranger's superior workmanship.

Isaiah Thomas was a practitioner of every aspect of the art of bookmaking, including authorship. He wrote a History of Printing, and operated the Columbian Press.

The Pennsylvania-Germans were not inactive in this field. An interesting specimen of the heavy style of metal-studded German binding is found in the Gesang .Buch, bound by Christopher Sauer, in Germantown, in 1762.

Robert Aitkin came to Philadelphia in 1769 as a bookseller. He had been formerly apprenticed to a bookbinder in Edinburgh. He returned to England for a brief time, coming back in 1771. He published a short-lived Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. In 1781 he printed the first English Bible in America. Isaiah Thomas, in his History, tells of an earlier "bootleg" Bible, printed in America under a London imprint. This cannot be verified.

The various journals of the Colonial period abound in the advertisements of bookbinders. Bradford's Gazette, of New York, affords several instances, including Bradford's own: "Printed and sold by William Bradford in New York where advertisements are taken in and where you may have old books, new Bound, either Plain or Gilt, and Money for Linen Rags." In the Gazette, sometime in 1734, one Joseph Johnson proclaims that, "he is now set up Book-binding for himself as formerly, and lives in Dukes Street (commonly called Bayard St.) near the Old-Slip Market; (New York) where all persons in Town or Country, may have their Books carefully and neatly new Bound either Plain or Gilt reasonable."

The man generally conceded by authorities to be the greatest American bookbinder comes at a somewhat later period; William Matthews, 1822-1896. He was born in Scotland and served his apprenticeship to a London binder. In 1843 he came to New York, where, for some years, he was a journeyman binder before setting up an establishment for himself. In 1854, he took over the bindery of D. Appleton and Company, publishers, where he remained until his retirement in 1 890.

With the rapid developments of machine printing and the consequent widening of book publishing and distribution, handbookbinding has been relegated solely to special editions, private hand-binderies, and amateur work. In this narrow sphere it still flourishes, while machines carry out most of the familiar processes in the mass production necessary to the modern publishing business.

The relative slowness of this development is interestingly demonstrated in the tone of an article written by W. G. Bowdoin, at the beginning of the present century, on American Bookbinders and Their Work. The article appeared in The Independent, issue of December 18, 1902. Bowdoin describes the fine work being done in several quarters, even in trade binderies, then adds: "Some binderies are kept so busy with commercial work that they neglect the field of special binding.

Commercial work is attractive to binders for the reason that it is speedily put through, and while the profit per volume is extremely small as compared with the returns from a specially bound book, yet the number that it is possible to execute more than makes good such a deficiency."

Private organizations have sometimes maintained "membership binderies" to serve the libraries of their members. Such activities have been naturally limited to the wealthy. A good example is found in the Rowfant Bindery, privately established by the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, in 1909. It imported several noted binders from England and France, some via New York, where they had been engaged by the Grolier Club. The bindery functioned until 1913, but ate up too much money to be maintained.

Fine bindings are still highly valued today. In some respects they may be said to have had a renaissance. We can see the effects in the immeasurably improved standards of commercial trade book binding as compared to such bindings ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Some highly gifted amateurs are doing handwork in many parts of the country. Specimens of their work may frequently be seen in libraries or art galleries.

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