The Roots of Publishers Bindings
Before publishers began issuing editions
bound and decorated by machine, most books were bound and
decorated by craftsmen -- by hand. When machine-bound were
introduced to the market, elements of hand binding were
incorporated to suit the tastes and aesthetic expectations
of the book-buying public. For example, impressions stamped
onto the covers of publishers' bindings were reminiscent
of hand-tooled marks designed by craftsmen.
Tools are a necessity to any craftsman,
and bookbinders are no exception. Any 19th-century bindery
would contain a variety of brass and iron implements used
to make and decorate bindings. These hand-held tools take
on a new importance as bookbinding scholars use the resulting
to determine the time and place a binding was made, and
in many cases, the identity of the binder.
Most of a binder's hand tools were used
for finishing the leather or cloth that bound a volume.
To finish a binding, the craftsman first prepared the
material for tooling. Binders working in leather often
polished the hide, using a heated polishing iron to smooth
out irregularities. Whether working in leather or cloth,
binders finally tooled the design and title into the
material by making impressions with heated finishing
tools. After making a blind impression, the binder sometimes
pressed gold leaf into the indentation with the same
Finishing tools primarily could be divided into two categories: rolls and stamps. Rolls consisted of wheels with continuous designs engraved on the circumference, used to create long lines. Fillets–which
made plain, straight lines–were the most common rolls.
A binder would own several line fillets of different
gauges, as well as fillets containing anywhere from one
to four parallel lines.
Decorative rolls made lines of ornamentation, such as flowers, leaves, and scallops. Mitered wheels had gaps cut into the edge for easier cornering. Decorative rolls usually were not mitered because the gap would limit the length of the line that could be cut to the circumference of the wheel.
Fillets, on the other hand, could be turned past the miter and reset into the groove to continue the line. The bronze or brass wheel would turn on an iron axle and carriage. The carriage could be single (with one leg) or double (with two legs), also called a fork. Because of the pressure required to form a line with a roll, the implement would be set into a long, thick wooden handle that rested on the binder's shoulder.
Hand stamps had slender shanks with enlarged ends into which devices–such
as pictorial designs, dots, lines, and letters–were engraved.
The shank would be mounted on a wooden handle that fit
in the binder's hand. Commonly, binders used stamps of
single letters in combination to form words. Ornamental
stamps called corner tools were made in pairs to decorate
opposite corners. Center tools imprinted decorations into
the middle of a panel.
Pallets and gouges were line tools similar to stamps. Binders used pallets of various lengths and thicknesses to make short lines, such as on the width of a book's spine. Pallets could be plain or decorative lines. Some binders also had pallets engraved with words they used often, such as “Bible,” to make stamping titles onto book spines easier.
Concentric circles made by a set of gouges
Gouges were curved line tools, generally made in sets with the respective tools representing segments of concentric circles. Gouges could be used alone to make small curved lines as well as in combination to make circles, complex curves, and serpentines.
Binders usually would build up various
designs using a combination of hand tools. This
practice offered an opportunity for creativity and diversity
arrangement of decorative devices. For example, a binder
might use a double-line fillet to make a rectangle, then
add ornate decoration with two corner tools and a center
tool, and fill in the space between the center and corners
with other small tools such as dots, circles, stars,
and florets. By the mid-19th century, binders engraved
motifs they previously had built up of several small,
simple hand tools into one large, complex stamp. These
stamps were set into mechanical presses, allowing the
to easily duplicate the design on several books. Although
binders continued using hand tools to some extent, mechanical
presses became more common.
Finishing tools of the early 19th century were hand-engraved, which made even tools of the same basic design slightly unique. Therefore, historians of bookbinding can use the imprints these tools left to identify the work of individual craftsmen through one unusual tool or the repetitive use of a combination of tools. Historians also are able to trace the development of a style of binding, the passage of tools from one binder to another, and the appearance of a new tool in a binder's equipment. Once binders began using mechanical presses to mass-produce book covers, finishing became more of a trade than a craft, and the individuality that marked users of earlier tools disappeared.
Conroy, Tom. Bookbinders' Finishing Tool Makers, 1780-1965 . New Castle , DE : Oak Knoll Press, 2002.
Diehl, Edith. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique . New York : Dover, 1980.
French, Hannah D. Bookbinding in Early America : Seven Essays on Masters and Methods, with catalogues of bookbinding tools prepared by Willman Spawn. Worcester : American Antiquarian Society, 1986.
Spawn, Willman and Carol M. “Francis Skinner, Bookbinder of Newport : A Craftsman Identified by His Tools.” Winterthur Portfolio 2 (1965): 47-61.
Image source: Diehl, Edith. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique . New York : Dover, 1980.