Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books
A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology

 Previous item  Up One Level Next item


See notes on the electronic edition

The old saw that you can't judge a book by its cover is not precisely true. Actually, it cannot be applied to the earliest known form of the book, the Codex. Many surviving Codices possess bindings which are almost an integral part of the text. Their fundamental designs and the frequent sumptuous embellishment of the covers with gold and silver mounts encrusted with jewels or semiprecious gems or enamels offer compelling insight into the contents of the books they protect. These magnificent survivors of many centuries of use and adoration are among the great bibliophilic treasures of those fortunate libraries and museums who possess them. It is a matter of great regret that in many instances the bindings have been stripped, stolen, or otherwise removed from the texts they encased, for such bindings frequently offer valid evidence of their places of execution. What would we not give to know what kind of binding originally was placed on the noble Book of Kells, since it might well have provided the missing clues to the earliest history and provenance of this great manuscript of the Gospels.

In many instances certain book covers artistically admired for their craftsmanship in the use of ivory, silver, and, at a later date, leather remain as single objects, and we can only speculate about the texts they encased. We owe a great debt to the Egyptian Christians, the Copts, who most probably were the first to use leather as covers for their scriptural texts. Once introduced it became the most common material used for bookbinding throughout Europe; it was not supplanted essentially until the nineteenth century when cloth bindings became common. Velvet had, of course, been used much earlier for embroidered bindings.

Early on binding developed as a craft, and it became a highly skilled craft, one which has endured to this day. Over the years as books proliferated the need for bookbinding increased; the invention of printing provided a new impetus to the craft and probably revolutionized it. The earliest printed books were issued by their printers in unbound sheets; those who purchased them arranged to have them bound according to their individual requirements. That is one of the reasons why the study and investigation of fifteenth-century bindings can reveal such interesting details about the early history of these original covers. We know, for example, that a number of copies of Johann Gutenberg's famous Bible of 1455 were bound not at Mainz, where this Bible was printed, but at Erfurt; and we also know that one of the binders in that community was named Johannes Fogel, since one of the blind stamps used to embellish the leather stretched over the original wooden boards contained his own name. Other bindings of a slightly later period carry on their leather covers a stamp which is a recognizable portrait of an early printer, Johann de Westphalia; another group reveals the arms of the city of Cologne, providing valid evidence of the place of binding. Indeed, the study of the basic designs of early bindings and the blind stamps used to decorate them has become the object of intensive bibliographic research. The late Ernst Kyriss devoted many years of productive scholarship to documenting the sources of innumerable early German bindings carrying blind stamps. For the early years of the sixteenth century, Konrad Haebler performed a similar service by categorizing and classifying the numerous rolls used on German bindings of that period. The bindings of other countries have also received careful attention, but much more work remains to be done.

It is not surprising to find early German books in contemporary Italian bindings, and early Italian printed books in German or French bindings, indicating that the book trade was quite mobile. Stylistically, it is often possible to identify early and also later bindings by their country and even their city of origin. It is also true that rich and affluent bibliophiles such as Matthias Corvinus (King of Hungary), the King of Naples, and later Jean Grolier of Lyons and Paris, one of the greatest of all bibliophiles, took great pains to have their libraries appropriately and sumptuously bound. Books from these and other great collections are easily recognized and highly prized by their present-day owners. England and, especially, France have produced countless royal bindings of extraordinary interest and variety.

The art of fine bookbinding is well represented in France, where it continues to flourish. One must not lose sight of the lacquered bindings from Islam (a separate chapter in themselves), the embroidered covers executed by English needleworkers in the seventeenth century, or the beautiful silk bindings found on Chinese and Japanese books of all periods. There is infinite variety to be found in the study of this historic craft.

There is also much to be said about early binding in this country and much more to be written. Although in its earliest period it was frankly derivative and with certain exceptions can hardly be regarded as distinguished, there were attempts at refinement.

There has been a tremendous interest in the history of bookbinding in this country in recent years, stimulated in part by the late Dorothy Miner's monumental exhibition of bindings, principally from American collections, which was handsomely mounted at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1957. Over seven hundred exceptional bindings, covering more than fourteen centuries, were on display. It was a delight for all those who shared in it or saw it, and its impact is still being felt today. Another stimulant to this heightening of interest is the emphasis that has been placed recently on the preservation and restoration of all aspects of the book, including papyrus, vellum, and paper. Modern scientific approaches have introduced a new vocabulary, much of which is not readily comprehended by those whose interests are most intimately concerned with the books of all ages.

The purpose of a foreword is to inform the reader, if he cares to peruse it, about the contents of the text it introduces. The text of the present book is not a history of bookbinding—although there is a great deal of history about the craft contained herein, and it also discusses the materials used, the notable binders whose names illuminate it, and other useful information. It is rather an up-to-date dictionary.

The succinct definitions and explanations, as well as the biographical vignettes, contained in this dictionary will be a boon to those who seek this kind of information. Those concerned, whether they are practicing binders, technicians, rare book librarians, collectors, or simply laymen, will find this a welcome source of answers to their questions. Not the least of these is the one frequently asked of me during my long service in the Library of Congress as Chief of the Rare Book Division. How can I best treat the leather bindings in my personal library ? But this is only one of the thousands of questions to which this dictionary provides the ready answers. The text speaks accurately and helpfully to all those who will seek it out and profit from the immense amount of information it presents in a lucid and comprehensible form.

Honorary Consultant in Early Printed Books
Library of Congress

[Search all CoOL documents]