The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 8
Dec 1987


Hannah D. French. Bookbinding in Early America: Seven Essays on Masters and Methods. Worcester, American Philosophical Society, 1986. 230 pp. ill.

Reviewed by Margit J. Smith

The serious student of the history of American bookbinding will welcome the publication of this book--it contains a wealth of information and is illustrated profusely throughout. For the layman it will provide hours of fascinating reading about the beginnings of a highly specialized craft in America. It throws light on one aspect of American history and economy which is oftentimes overlooked because of its relatively small scale. Since bookbinding is inextricably linked with publishing and the importance of publishing cannot be minimized, bookbinding really takes a more prominent place than at first imagined.

Hannah French has revised and enlarged her previous study of this subject and presents much new information about the binders and their work. She has done the most thorough research, but has confined her study here to the first few of a much larger number of bookbinders who left England and Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries to take up their trade in the new world. Only few examples of their work remain and compared to their European contemporaries they are quite plain and unspectacular. Outside the 13 original colonies, collections with the most important examples of Early American bindings are the Huntington Library in San Mario, California and the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As far as possible, Hannah French traces the binders' personal lives and we find information which has been gleaned from church and parish records, trade directories, association membership lists, notices and advertisements in newspapers and other primary and secondary sources. All bindings ascribed to the various binders are described in great detail and many are carefully illustrated. In addition, the appropriate chapters have extensive appendices which list and identify various tools used for the bindings illustrated. Of great help are the many rubbings of spines, full covers and decorative details which accompany the text. Since identification of the bindings was extremely difficult, the tool catalogs, illustrations of rolls, handstamps, binding labels, and rubbings of spine labels proved indispensable, and will help greatly in further study of this subject.

After Chapter One, which is a short overview of Scottish binding in Colonial America, concentrating on the style of binding and decoration which was brought over from Scotland, the book discusses four of the more important binders and their work. They are Andrew Barclay, five of whose books can be definitely identified as having been bound by him, since they still carry his trade cards; Henry Bilson Legge, who was the binder of a Bible printed in Philadelphia in 1796-98; Caleb Buglass, one of the binders of the proposed Book of Common Prayer, also printed in Philadelphia in 1768. John Roulstone, the only native American included in the discussion, worked much of his time for Harvard University. Books bound by him and described in detail are James Freeman's Sermons, a pocket Aldine edition of Sannazaro, printed in 1570, Brady and Tate's Psalms and Hymns, and the recently discovered Essay on the Principle of Population by Malthus.

Following the discussion of Roulstone is an essay about full gilt and extra gilt bindings and precise descriptions of what was included in each of these terms, and of the comparative prices. Information is taken from price lists, bills, etc. The essay's main concern is tracing the use of gold from 1660 onwards. This is a very welcome change of pace and in the first few pages we learn such diverse facts as "Benjamin Franklin supplied leaf gold to Boston and New York binders, as well as to those in Philadelphia," and "The initials F B on the only known copy of the ... Bay Psalm Book ... may be the earliest use of gold on a colonial binding...,' which clearly shows the importance of the binder s patron. At first, gold tooling was confined to the front cover, but soon after 1750 it began to be used profusely on the backs as well. By then gilt bindings had come into fashion in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The year 1807 saw the arrival of the first gold beater, a Mr. Uffington, from England. By 1819 many structural improvements in bookbinding had developed and binders who were naturally proud of the quality of their work frequently signed their bindings in gold. Just a few years later, however, the Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes and "this work of the human hand was to be superseded by the machine, except in very special circumstances."

The final essay deals with Thomas Jefferson's last bookbinder, one Frederick August Mayo, who was born in Nossen, Saxony, was christened Friedrich Gotthilf Mejo, and changed his name to Mayo when he came to America. Most of the information about him comes from correspondence during the years 1818 to 1825 between Jefferson and Mayo, and from the 1829 auction catalog of the President's books. (This is the only completely new essay in the book and was not included in Hannah French's original study.)

Binders who had worked for Thomas Jefferson before Mayo were John March, Joseph Milligan and Thomas Brend, but by 1817 Jefferson had become dissatisfied with the work of American binders and was ready to make a change. Jefferson probably became aware of Mayo's work through the latter's frequent advertisements and his use of elaborate binding tickets which varied from postage stamp size to several inches. In 25 years of bookbinding he used at least twelve different tickets. On November 30, 1818, Jefferson sent to Mayo a trial order with exact binding instructions. Although serious money and health problems beset Mayo during his years as binder for Jefferson, he continued to work, but the return of books to Jefferson was often delayed; he also experienced some problems in getting paid on time for his work. Even so, Jefferson continued to patronize him and in seven years Mayo bound a remarkable number of books for him, many of which were destined for the University of Virginia. Jefferson's taste was one for restrained elegance and Mayo's work seems to have pleased him well. Most of the bindings were done in calfskin, decorated with gold and blind tooling, of sturdy construction (in one letter Jefferson refers to the "solid pressing which I value") and easy to open; Mayo's European training had stood him in good stead. After Jefferson's death in 1826, Mayo continued to bind and began using a wider variety of tools, materials and styles than before. That Mayo was also turning out edition bindings in his good-sized establishment is shown by a reference to the binding of the Revised Laws of the State of Virginia..., of which 30,000 copies were delivered to the Capitol for 85 cents each.

Although Hanna French's book goes into great detail describing many of the bindings, doing so in this review would be pointless, since the reader may not have the book in hand and constant references to patterns, dates and other details would be quite confusing and pointless. As mentioned before, the appendices, tool catalogs and rubbings add great value to the descriptions.

I have only a few points of criticism to make. The illustrations should be identified with a short line of text, stating the binder, the title, and the date, which would save having to read through the text until one finds reference to a particular illustration. Also, from a bookbinder's point of view some discussion of the materials, papers, leathers, tapes, etc. would have been most interesting and enlightening. The other point concerns the lack of a bibliography, although there are many footnotes. This may be a more glaring omission to one who looks at a publication, as in my case, with the eyes of both a bookbinder and a librarian. In all, this volume can only be highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in the history of bookbinding.

Early American Bookbindings from the Collection of Michael Papantonio. 2nd ad. Worcester, American Antiquarian Society, 1985.

Reviewed by Margit J. Smith

This exhibition catalog (which was originally published in 1972) exposes us to a much wider aspect of bookbinding, since it includes work by many binders. It contains a never-before-published statement by Michael Papantonio, in which he poignantly describes how he cane to collect books. Sadly, this reminiscence is incomplete, since he dies in 1975 before it could be finished.

The American Antiquarian Society, of which Michael Papantonio was an elected member, was the recipient of his great collection of early American bookbindings, and this has become the core of the Society's incomparable collection. The present publication is the catalog of an exhibition which travelled in 1972-73 to Cornell, the University of Virginia, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the American Antiquarian Society, and Princeton.

The majority of binders mentioned in Hannah French's above-reviewed book are included with one or more illustrations each, as well as the work of many other well-known figures, such as: John Ratcliffe, whose elegant binding of New-Englands Memoriall, including Thomas Deane's name so prominently tooled on the front cover, opens the catalog; Robert Aitken's fanciful cover of Blair's Lecture, showing flowers, grapes, birds, and columns; George Champley' s binding of The Minstrel by James Beattie, with a medallion containing a globe, books, hourglass, quill pen and an inscription, identifying it as a prize book given by the "Institution de Mme. O'Kill": and numerous others. Especially charming is the final entry, a binding by Pawson and Nicholson of Flowers from Cathay, an album, which is of white calf with inlays of colored morocco, gilt board edges and turn-ins. It combines a design of flowers and berries with the initial F, includes several flower borders, the spine being decorated with a sinuous flower arrangement. Many of these bindings surprise with their sure feeling for balance of design and proportion.

The entries are arranged in chronological order; the bibliographic information, provenance and references for each of the bindings illustrated are most helpful, as is the bibliography. There are, in addition, an Index of Binders, Index of Previous Owners, Index of Main Entries and a List of Early American Bookbindings in the Papantonio Collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

The overall design and production of both books is extremely pleasing and although their price is quite high, they are very good value for the money.

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