A Brief History of Bookbinding 4: Filthy lucre and the middle classes

The eighteenth century started out a lot like the seventeenth, in bookbinding terms. Books were beautiful, well-structured, and expensive. Rare.

But the eighteenth century also saw the growth of the merchant and middle classes in America and Western Europe. These people had money, and they wanted to have libraries. So binding styles changed, for the first time in fourteen centuries, due to economic pressures rather than the pursuit of quality.

The French started it, introducing the hollow back. This meant that the leather across the spine of the book was not attached to the backs of the signatures, but floated free of them. The book block was sewn on cords sawn into the signatures, or onto linen ribbons that lay flat across the spine.

English binders followed suit, since hollow backed books are faster to make and open more easily. Then they went one step further, creating the cover and spine separately from the book block and attaching the two by pasting the endpapers inside the covers. The ends of the tapes or cords (frayed flat) were trapped between the endpapers and the covers. It’s calledĀ casing in, and commercial binders still do it today.

Books with hollow backs (cased in or not) don’t open well unless there is a gap between the shoulder of the spine and the edge of the cover board. This gap – called the “French groove” in America* – persists in binding to this day. Go look on your shelves; you’ll see it on every modern hardback.

Other cost cutting measures followed, as economic pressure spurred innovation.

Hand-sewn headbands look nice, but they take time to make. Nineteenth century binders started making the headbands separately and sticking them onto the spines. Sometimes they’d sew them, sometimes they’d fold striped fabric (often shirt fabric**) over a piece of string.

Leather, while strong and durable, is expensive. In the 1700’s, binders began saving it for the spine and the fore corners, where the worst cover wear occurs, and using marbled paper for the rest of the boards. This is called half binding. Then they stopped doing the corners, creating the quarter binding style. Going one step further, Victorian commercial binders moved to cloth and paper bindings for all but their finest editions.

Some binders even considered giving up sewing. In 1836, the first patent was granted for a glued binding using caoutchouc (India rubber). Other patents used gutta-percha (a form of latex). Unfortunately, both adhesives become brittle with time, shedding leaves within a few years. The process was abandoned.

The upshot of all of these innovations was that, by the end of the nineteenth century, books were affordable by even the working classes. They weren’t pretty, they weren’t bound to last four hundred years, but they were beingĀ read.

* And the “American groove” everywhere else.
** I’ve seen photos of a modern equivalent from India, where someone used half a zipper track.

Originally posted on Making Light