Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell

Part I

Chapter I


The reasons for binding the leaves of a book are to keep them together in their proper order, and to protect them. That bindings can be made, that will adequately protect books, can be seen from the large number of fifteenth and sixteenth century bindings now existing on books still in excellent condition. That bindings are made, that fail to protect books, may be seen by visiting any large library, when it will be found that many bindings have their boards loose and the leather crumbling to dust. Nearly all librarians complain, that they have to be continually rebinding books, and this not after four hundred, but after only five or ten years.

It is no exaggeration to say that ninety per cent. of the books bound in leather during the last thirty years will need rebinding during the next thirty. The immense expense involved must be a very serious drag on the usefulness of libraries; and as rebinding is always to some extent damaging to the leaves of a book, it is not only on account of the expense that the necessity for it is to be regretted.

The reasons that have led to the production in modern times of bindings that fail to last for a reasonable time, are twofold. The materials are badly selected or prepared, and the method of binding is faulty. Another factor in the decay of bindings, both old and new, is the bad conditions under which they are often kept.

The object of this text-book is to describe the best methods of bookbinding, and of keeping books when bound, taking into account the present-day conditions. No attempt has been made to describe all possible methods, but only such as appear to have answered best on old books. The methods described are for binding that can be done by hand with the aid of simple appliances. Large editions of books are now bound, or rather cased, at an almost incredible speed by the aid of machinery, but all work that needs personal care and thought on each book, is still done, and probably always will be done, by hand. Elaborate machinery can only be economically employed when very large numbers of books have to be turned out exactly alike.

The ordinary cloth “binding” of the trade, is better described as casing. The methods being different, it is convenient to distinguish between casing and binding. In binding, the slips are firmly attached to the boards before covering; in casing, the boards are covered separately, and afterwards glued on to the book. Very great efforts have been made in the decoration of cloth covers, and it is a pity that the methods of construction have not been equally considered. If cloth cases are to be looked upon as a temporary binding, then it seems a pity to waste so much trouble on their decoration; and if they are to be looked upon as permanent binding, it is a pity the construction is not better.

For books of only temporary interest, the usual cloth cases answer well enough; but for books expected to have permanent value, some change is desirable.

Valuable books should either be issued in bindings that are obviously temporary, or else in bindings that are strong enough to be considered permanent. The usual cloth case fails as a temporary binding, because the methods employed result in serious damage to the sections of the book, often unfitting them for rebinding, and it fails as a permanent binding on account of the absence of sound construction.

In a temporary publisher’s binding, nothing should be done to the sections of a book that would injure them. Plates should be guarded, the sewing should be on tapes, without splitting the head and tail, or “sawing in” the backs, of the sections; the backs should be glued up square without backing. The case may be attached, as is now usual. For a permanent publisher’s binding, something like that recommended for libraries (page 173) is suggested, with either leather or cloth on the back.

At the end of the book four specifications are given (page 307). The first is suggested for binding books of special interest or value, where no restriction as to price is made. A binding under this specification may be decorated to any extent that the nature of the book justifies. The second is for good binding, for books of reference and other heavy books that may have a great deal of wear. All the features of the first that make for the strength of the binding are retained, while those less essential, that only add to the appearance, are omitted. Although the binding under this specification would be much cheaper than that carried out under the first, it would still be too expensive for the majority of books in most libraries; and as it would seem to be impossible to further modify this form of binding, without materially reducing its strength, for cheaper work, a somewhat different system is recommended. The third specification is recommended for the binding of the general run of small books in most libraries. The fourth is a modification of this for pamphlets and other books of little value, that need to be kept together tidily for occasional reference.

Thanks, in a great measure, to the work of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson, there is in England the germ of a sound tradition for the best binding. The Report of the Committee appointed by the Society of Arts to investigate the cause of the decay of modern leather bindings, should tend to establish a sound tradition for cheaper work. The third specification at the end of this book is practically the same as that given in their Report, and was arrived at by selection, after many libraries had been examined, and many forms of binding compared.

Up to the end of the eighteenth century the traditional methods of binding books had altered very little during three hundred years. Books were generally sewn round five cords, the ends of all of these laced into the boards, and the leather attached directly to the back. At the end of the eighteenth century it became customary to pare down leather until it was as thin as paper, and soon afterwards the use of hollow backs and false bands became general, and these two things together mark the beginning of the modern degradation of binding, so far as its utility as a protection is concerned.

The Society of Arts Committee report that the bookbinders must share with the leather manufacturers and librarians the blame for the premature decay of modern bindings, because —

“1. Books are sewn on too few, and too thin cords, and the slips are pared down unduly (for the sake of neatness), and are not in all cases firmly laced into the boards. This renders the attachment of the boards to the book almost entirely dependent on the strength of the leather.

“2. The use of hollow backs throws all the strain of opening and shutting on the joints, and renders the back liable to come right off if the book is much used.

“3. The leather of the back is apt to become torn through the use of insufficiently strong headbands, which are unable to stand the strain of the book being taken from the shelf.

“4. It is a common practice to use far too thin leather; especially to use large thick skins very much pared down for small books.

“5. The leather is often made very wet and stretched a great deal in covering, with the result that on drying it is further strained, almost to breaking point, by contraction, leaving a very small margin of strength to meet the accidents of use.”

The history of the general introduction of hollow backs is probably somewhat as follows: Leather was doubtless first chosen for covering the backs of books because of its toughness and flexibility; because, while protecting the back, it would bend when the book was opened and allow the back to “throw up” (see Fig. 1, A). When gold tooling became common, and the backs of books were elaborately decorated, it was found that the creasing of the leather injured the brightness or the gold and caused it to crack. To avoid this the binders lined up the back until it was as stiff as a block of wood. The back would then not “throw up” as the book was opened, the leather would not be creased, and the gold would remain uninjured (see Fig. 1, B). This was all very well for the gold, but a book so treated does not open fully, and indeed, if the paper is stiff, can hardly be got to open at all. To overcome both difficulties the hollow back was introduced, and as projecting bands would have been in the way, the sewing cord was sunk in saw cuts made across the back of the book.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

The use of hollow backs was a very ingenious way out of the difficulty, as with them the backs could be made to “throw up,” and at the same time the leather was not disturbed (see Fig. 1, C). The method of “sawing in” bands was known for a long time before the general use of hollow backs. It has been used to avoid the raised bands on books covered with embroidered material.

If a book is sewn on tapes, and the back lined with leather, there is no serious objection to a carefully-made hollow back without bands. The vellum binders use hollow backs made in this way for great account books that stand an immense amount of wear. They make the “hollow” very stiff, so that it acts as a spring to throw the back up.

But although, if carefully done, satisfactory bindings may be made with hollow backs, their use has resulted in the production of worthless bindings with little strength, and yet with the appearance of better work.

The public having been accustomed to raised bands on the backs of books, and the real bands being sunk in the back, the binders put false ones over the “hollow.” To save money or trouble, the bands being out of sight, the book would be sewn on only three or sometimes only two cords, the usual five false ones still showing at the back. Often only two out of the three bands would be laced into the board, and sometimes the slips would not be laced in at all. Again, false headbands worked by the yard by machinery would be stuck on at the head and tail, and a “hollow” made with brown paper. Then leather so thin as to have but little strength, but used because it is easy to work and needs no paring, would be stuck on. The back would often be full gilt and lettered, and the sides sprinkled or marbled, thus further damaging the leather.

In every large library hundreds of books bound somewhat on these lines may be seen. When they are received from the binder they have the appearance of being well bound, they look smart on the shelf, but in a few years, whether they are used or not, the leather will have perished and the boards become detached, and they will have to be rebound.

As long as librarians expect the appearance of a guinea binding for two or three shillings, such shams will be produced. The librarian generally gets his money’s worth, for it would be impossible for the binder to do better work at the price usually paid without materially altering the appearance of the binding. The polished calf and imitation crushed morocco must go, and in its place a rougher, thicker leather must be employed. The full-gilt backs must go, the coloured lettering panel must go, the hollow backs must go, but in the place of these we may have the books sewn on tapes with the ends securely fastened into split boards, and the thick leather attached directly to the backs of the sections. (See specification III. page 307.)

Such a binding would look well and not be more expensive than the usual library binding. It should allow the book to open flat, and if the materials are well selected, be very durable, and specially strong in the joints, the weak place in most bindings. The lettering on the back may be damaged in time if the book is much used, but if so it can easily be renewed at a fraction of the cost of rebinding, and without injury to the book.

While the majority of books in most libraries must be bound at a small cost, at most not exceeding a few shillings a volume, there is a large demand for good plain bindings, and a limited, but growing, demand for more or less decorated bindings for special books.

Any decoration but the simplest should be restricted to books bound as well as the binder can do them. The presence of decoration should be evidence that the binder, after doing his best with the “forwarding,” has had time in which to try to make his work a beautiful, as well as a serviceable, production.

Many books, although well bound, are better left plain, or with only a little decoration. But occasionally there are books that the binder can decorate as lavishly as he is able. As an instance of bindings that cannot be over-decorated, those books which are used in important ceremonies, such as Altar Books, may be mentioned. Such books may be decorated with gold and colour until they seem to be covered in a golden material. They will be but spots of gorgeousness in a great church or cathedral, and they cannot be said to be over-decorated as long as the decoration is good.

So, occasionally some one may have a book to which he is for some reason greatly attached, and wishing to enshrine it, give the binder a free hand to do his best with it. The binder may wish to make a delicate pattern with nicely-balanced spots of ornament, leaving the leather for the most part bare, or he may wish to cover the outside with some close gold-tooled pattern, giving a richness of texture hardly to be got by other means. If he decides on the latter, many people will say that the cover is over-decorated. But as a book cover can never be seen absolutely alone, it should not be judged as an isolated thing covered with ornament without relief, but as a spot of brightness and interest among its surroundings. If a room and everything in it is covered with elaborate pattern, then anything with a plain surface would be welcome as a relief; but in a room which is reasonably free from ornament, a spot of rich decoration should be welcome.

It is not contended that the only, or necessarily the best, method of decorating book covers is by elaborate all-over gold-tooled pattern; but it is contended that this is a legitimate method of decoration for exceptional books, and that by its use it is possible to get a beautiful effect well worth the trouble and expense involved.

Good leather has a beautiful surface, and may sometimes be got of a fine colour. The binder may often wish to show this surface and colour, and to restrict his decoration to small portions of the cover, and this quite rightly, he aiming at, and getting, a totally different effect than that got by all-over patterns. Both methods are right if well done, and both methods can equally be vulgarised if badly done.

A much debated question is, how far the decoration of a binding should be influenced by the contents of the book? A certain appropriateness there should be, but as a general thing, if the binder aims at making the cover beautiful, that is the best he can do. The hints given for designing are not intended to stop the development of the student’s own ideas, but only to encourage their development on right lines.

There should be a certain similarity of treatment between the general get-up of a book and its binding. It is a great pity that printers and binders have drifted so far apart; they are, or should be, working for one end, the production of a book, and some unity of aim should be evident in the work of the two.

The binding of manuscripts and early printed books should be strong and simple. It should be as strong and durable as the original old bindings, and, like them, last with reasonable care for four hundred years or more. To this end the old bindings, with their stout sewing cord, wooden boards, and clasps, may be taken as models.

The question is constantly asked, especially by women, if a living can be made by setting up as bookbinders. Cheap binding can most economically be done in large workshops, but probably the best bindings can be done more satisfactorily by binders working alone, or in very small workshops.

If any one intends to set up as a bookbinder, doing all the work without help, it is necessary to charge very high prices to get any adequate return after the working expenses have been paid. In order to get high prices, the standard of work must be very high; and in order to attain a high enough standard of work, a very thorough training is necessary. It is desirable that any one hoping to make money at the craft should have at least a year’s training in a workshop where good work is done, and after that, some time will be spent before quite satisfactory work can be turned out rapidly enough to pay, supposing that orders can be obtained or the books bound can be sold.

There are some successful binders who have had less than a year’s training, but they are exceptional. Those who have not been accustomed to manual work have usually, in addition to the necessary skill, to acquire the habit of continuous work. Bookbinding seems to offer an opening for well-educated youths who are willing to serve an apprenticeship in a good shop, and who have some small amount of capital at their command.

In addition to the production of decorated bindings, there is much to be done by specialising in certain kinds of work requiring special knowledge. Repairing and binding early printed books and manuscripts, or the restoration of Parish Registers and Accounts, may be suggested.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06