The Book as Material Culture
the parts of books, process of bookmaking and book coverings
There are two eras of printing books with moveable metal type: the hand-press period from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, and the machine-press period from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century. Afterwards, faster and less-expensive processes for printing without metal type became de rigeur and began to make letter-press printing obsolete.
During the hand-press period only the stitched-together text block constituted "a book." A text block was sold to the buyer in sheets or with uncut folded gatherings packaged only in a plain paper, parchment or sometimes a simple leather wrapper. These were meant to be temporary but often became permanent. The owner's predilection and purse determined the book's protective cover: whether it would remain in its wrapper as sold, or whether it would wear an attractive, elaborate or simple binding (or covers sewn onto a text block). Book binding remained a separate trade from printing until the machine-press period in the early 1800s, when economics drove enterprises.
The book's format (size and orientation—portrait or oblong) determined the number of pages printed on a large sheet of paper and how that sheet was folded and cut to accommodate the number of pages printed on it.
Book sizes are named according to the way the large sheets of paper were folded and cut. A folio (2º) is a large sheet of paper folded once in half with vertical paper chain lines (created by the forms in which paper was made) making two leaves and four sides or pages; a quarto (4º) is folded twice into four leaves producing 8 pages (sides) with horizontal chain lines; an octavo (8º) is folded four times creating 8 leaves and 16 sides or pages with vertical chain lines; a duodecimo (12º) is folded six times creating 12 leaves and 24 pages, and so on.
Printing type are mirror images of single letters and diacritical marks, each mounted on a rectangular stalk. A font was a particular design of an entire alphabet in various sizes and particularities: italics, bold, etc. A number of examples of each letter of like size were stored in their own compartment on a wooden tray containing the whole alphabet in a specific size and style of a font.
A compositor laid out the type, word by word, line by line, page by page backwards in mirror image on a composing stick that held several lines of type. The vertical margins were kept even (or justified) by increasing or decreasing the spaces between the words with narrow pieces of blank type. The completed several lines of type in the composing stick were transferred to a galley tray that held a page of type. When enough galleys were composed to print one side of the large sheet of paper, they would be oriented in both direction and order for printing in a chase or iron frame surrounded with wooden spacing bars, so that each page when printed, folded and the edges cut, would be readable in an upright direction or orientation and follow in the correct order. A second chase was imposed with the first one and both their type locked. This pair of chases that printed the front (recto) and the back (verso) of each page were called a form.
Catchwords (the first word of the next page) on the extra line below the text at the very bottom of the page were important for ordering the pages and directions, not the page numbers. This was because the "headlines" (titles) and accompanying page numbers were usually added last.
Each side of the large sheet was then printed separately. By pressing paper onto inked type or an engraved plate, books were printed by two pressmen: a puller and a beater or inker. The beater would ink the type with a linseed-oil based ink made in the printer's shop. The puller would fit a sheet of paper into a carriage frame, fold it down onto the type carriage, run both under a platen or the pressure plate or press, then out again.
Once all the sheets were printed on both sides, they were then put in order and each sheet or fraction of a sheet folded into a gathering and sometimes quired (several folded partial sheets or gatherings and / or plates inserted inside another gathering).
The order for each gathering had been predetermined by a signature: a letter or letters centered in the catchword- or direction line at the bottom recto of the first leaf (sometimes on the first few leaves) of each gathering. Each gathering was then arranged alphabetically by the signature. When the book was long and the alphabet needed to be repeated, the letters were doubled: Aa or AA, Bb or BB, etc. The signature series most often begins at the start of the book's text, because the preliminary leaves or gatherings—the title page, dedication preface, table of contents, etc.—were usually printed last.
Then the gatherings were stitched together with a heavier paper stock as its wrapper. The book or text block was then ready for the owner's choice of binder and finish materials.
Book covers have been standardized only since the early 1800s. At that point cheaper, easier to decorate, cloth-covered book cases (covers that were no longer stitched to the text block but rather finished separately then married with glue to the text block) began to be produced by the publishers too. The book and its cover were sold en suite as a finished product from about 1850 and after.
The cover's core, until the early- to mid-sixteenth century, was wood; thereafter it was pressboard, or sheets of paper glued together. In America however (where our culture retained medieval traits until the early eighteenth century), wooden boards (fir, pine and beech) continued to be used as late as the end of the eighteenth century.
In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the more elaborate bindings were full leather, sometimes adorned with decorative metal and bejeweled studs. Tanned calf was the most common in the sixteenth century, vellum next, then pigskin; tanned sheep was still unusual.
In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the trade still covered book boards—by now mostly of pressboard—primarily in calfskin; sheep was introduced as the cheapest, vellum continued to be used on the Continent, and morocco (goatskin) was used for the finest bindings. Spines sometimes showed the horizontal raised bands from sewing the text block together, other times they were created flat by sawing slots into the stack of gatherings so the cords to which the gatherings were sewn would be recessed.
Included in the ‘expensive' category of bindings are full-leather coverings. Stamped book decoration has never gone out of style. Covers were stamped, sometimes blind, sometimes with gilt or color. Straps and clasps that were used to keep books closed in Europe only during the Renaissance, continued to be used by German-American binders in the eighteenth century for more precious volumes (usually religious).
Moderately expensive bindings introduced in the seventeenth century were half leather (leather-covered spines and corners) or quarter leather (leather spines only). In these instances, the majority of the board or core was covered in decorative, often colorful, paper, usually marbled, sometimes with a leather panel bearing the owner's name on the cover or a book's title and author on the spine.
Sturdy cloth coverings (known as binder's cloth) began to be used in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the machine-press period. Again, these were the book cases rather than book bindings because they were completely finished then glued onto the text block, rather than being sewn onto the block as was done in book binding. Engraving tools and techniques had long been conscripted from metal workers and used decoratively on books. They and specially-designed metal dies continued to be applied on book covers in binder's cloth.
Creativity and unusual techniques have been applied to the art of binding throughout its history. More expensive, specialty covers are referred to as bespoke bindings.
Dr. and Mrs. Selch bound a large number of books in their substantial library. Their use of handsome color combinations is often stunning, and they have applied leather in unusual ways.
- Barbara Lambert, Curator
Frederick R. Selch Collection of American Music History
References and for further reading (the first date is the edition consulted, the second is the most recent):
Bowers, Fredson, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Principles of Bibliographical Description. New Castle, DE.: Oak Knoll Press, 1994; 2005.
Carter, John and Nicholas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 5th ed. with corrections. London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974, 2004.
Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; 2009.
Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall and Donald Farren. Encyclopedia of the Book. 2d ed. New Castle, DE.: Oak Knoll Press, 1979; 2001.