History of Binding: Quite Abridged and Extra Brief

“Good books, it has been well observed, deserve good binding; did they but contain the power of speech, as well as all manner of tongues, how many tales of woe would they relate to us of the neglect and destruction they have suffered, merely for the want of a decent covering, which would have secured to them the friendship and esteem of the scholar, as well as universal admiration.” ~ Edward Walker[1]

 History of Binding: Quite Abridged and Extra Brief

In this paper I will be addressing the topic of bookbinding: what it is, how it is done, how it has developed, and will briefly attempt to see if there is anything we can learn culturally about this process; all of this will be, as the title states, in brief, or rather, to provide the reader with merely an overview of the subject with some historical background added for good measure. There is no intent to lead the reader to any sweeping claims, well maybe one in closing, but more to examine the role of books as physical objects and what they mean to us and our understanding of ourselves as humanity.

The first question that needs to be addressed in this essay is “What constitutes a book?” First and foremost, a book is an instrument of communication or conveying ideas, but within that definition it must be parceled out from other methods of communication. The Encyclopædia Britannica provides this as a concise definition for a book: “a written (or printed) message of considerable length, meant for public circulation and recorded on materials that are light yet durable enough to afford comparatively easy portability. [2]” What is commonly thought of as a book has a more precise name: codex. The codex is “the earliest type of manuscript in the form of a modern book. [3]” This essay will exclude discussion on the contemporary ebook.

How to Build a Book: Abridged and Incomplete
1.) The Leaf

There are various types of material which can be printed upon to form a book. The most common types of material have included papyrus, parchment (made from goat skin, sheepskin, or some other animal membrane) or vellum (made from calf), and paper, but there are various other types of material that can be used for making books including metal[4], plastic[5], stone[6], and, for the postmodernist out there, lasagna[7]. Edward Walker, a nineteenth century bookbinder from New York, wrote in his work The Art of Book-Binding, Its Rise and Progress; Including a Descriptive Account of the New York Book-Bindery that

“In ancient times, a great variety of materials were used in making books; plates of lead and copper, bricks, wooden planks, and the thin part of the bark of the lime, ash, and maple. From hence is derived the term liber, which signifies the inner bark of trees; and as these were rolled up to render them portable, they were called volumen, or volume- a name afterwards given to the like rolls of papyrus, parchment, and paper. [8]”

Many of the books remaining from antiquity up through the medieval period were written on parchment. Parchment is a material typically made of the skins of sheep, goat or other animal membrane, and “derives its name from Pergamus, where it is said to have been invented by Eumenes, about 197 B.C., in consequence of the scarcity of the papyrus. [9]” A similar item is vellum, which is made exactly the same as parchment, but derives from calfskin; calf in the latin is vitulum and such is the etymological origin of the word. Parchment is made through a laborious process involving skinning the animal, washing the material in a lime solution to loosen the fur, attaching the skin to a stretcher, and then using a knife to get the skin to the appropriate thinness before it can be used for writing.

As the scope of this paper is not to delve solely into paper-making, I would only like to mention how it is made. Early European paper was made from linen, cotton rags, or a mixture of the two [10]. Since the late 19th century wood pulp has been the staple of the paper industry. One of the most succinct descriptions of the science behind paper making can be found by Michael Seery in his paper entitled Saving Paper :

“The principal component of paper is cellulose, which is effectively a polymer of β-D-glucose. Hydrogen bonding between cellulose chains sticks them together to form fibrils, which further associate to form fibres, the basis of the structure of paper… . Raw cellulose fibres are extracted from plant sources and suspended in baths of water. Pulling an appropriately sized mesh through the suspension forms a mat of interwoven cellulose fibres as the water drains away. The remaining water is removed through drying and pressing, which bonds the fibres together into a sheet. [11]”

Chemical Structure of the basis of paper.

2.) Asssembly

When the printing of books still dealt with folding pages out of one large leaf the type of book that was made depended on the number of folds. The types of books that were bound included folios (folded once), quartos (folded twice), octavos, (folded three times), twelvemos (folded four times), and so on [12]. All of these folded sheets needed to be forced together and made permanent in their place. The individual sections of a grouped folded leaf is called a signature [13]. Once all of the signatures were gathered, they needed to be brought together for binding. This process took what was familiar to the people and capitalized it to meet the needs of the book process; the process they utilized to bind the signatures together is known as sewing.

The earliest form of sewing leaves together is known as stabbing which is “the holding together of a number of leaves or sections by passing thread through holes made in the side of the book near the back folds. [14]” As books grew in thickness, the use of stabbing leaves together became impractical. Coptic [15] sewing sought to fix the need for binding larger texts together by sewing using thread or a thin cord “to sew the sections to each other and… to attach the boards to the sections. [16]”

In the modern era of printing, the most common types of sewing were Center Sewing, which involved “sewing through the center of the signatures and chaining these stitches together;”… Side Sewing-”sewing vertically through the body of the book from front to back,” or some combination thereof [17]. Edward Walker provides a description of what happened after books were sown in his shop in New York City in the latter half of the nineteenth century:

“When the book [was] taken from the sewing press, an inch or two of each string [was] left hanging to it; these [were] afterwards either scraped so thin as to be but little conspicuous, or are employed for fastening the book to its case. The back of the book- that is, the assembled back edges of all the sheets- [was then] glued, to increase the bond by which they [would be] held together.[18]”

One of the most ubiquitous fasteners used in the assemblance process is glue. The popularity of this is due to the inexpensive nature of the binding material and time/cost involvement. Glue plays a very prominent role in the history of binding, but more on that later. The glue helps to hold the cover in place as well as keeping the signatures together. This process is known as Perfect Binding [19]&[20]. On the commercial end of book binding, Perfect Binding proved to be tremendously effective because publishers were able to put out books at a much quicker rate [21].

3.) Covering

We now have the basic assemblance of the book, but now it needs protection from the elements and usage. There are many ways that this can be done, but it generally involves applying a covering. A covering for a book can be made of paper, wood, leather, metal, vellum, and even precious metals such as gold. John Clyde Oswald expresses it this way:

“The folded leaf came into use in the fourth century. Soon it was found that a covering was needed for manuscript books of the new form, and the calfskin parchment known as vellum was selected as the most durable material available. Vellum served the purpose admirably excepting in one particular: It curled. This defect caused the introduction into the binding of wooden boards, secured with a leather hinge which covered the “backbone” of the book- the forerunner of the “half-binding.” In time the leather spread over the whole of the cover, other material- paper, vellum, etc. – eventually displaced the wood stiffening, and the book thereby attained the form and substance it has since preserved. [22]”

As time progressed into the Industrial Revolution, the processes of covering book was just as mechanized as every other process. The material became more inexpensive, the quality became less, but the ease of attainment and the mass dissemination was a valuable trade-off that enriched society at every level.

Origins of Binding

It is impossible to pin an exact date to the origin of bookbinding because, like so many human achievements [23], they take time to develop and each stage of innovation leads to the next. Philliatius, an Athenian, is credited with being the father of bookbinding for he “invented glue, or at least he was the first person to use it for printing together parts of papyrus manuscript books. [24]” So should we count that as the origin of bookbinding, or go back further with the Jewish holy scrolls, or perhaps the Sumerian Cuneiform tablets?

For the purposes here, we will stick to books as we know them today. “Books in their present form were invented, it is said, by Attalus, King of Pergamus, in 887. [25]” The codex “began to emerge at least as early as the second century A.D. [26]” As the Roman Empire faded into days gone by, the knowledge, including the making and writing of books, moved more and more under monastic guidance. It doesn’t appear that there were any major changes to book production until Johann Gutenberg [27] helped to establish the viability of movable type.

In the fifteenth century movable type is believed to have been created in Europe by Gutenberg making the printing of books much quicker and cheaper, though not as a product of Gutenberg’s zealous work. Due to an outstanding debt, Gutenberg was unable to continue his work and his entire operation was moved under the ownership of John Fust [28] (the owner of the loan) and the direction of Peter Schoeffer (Guttenberg’s principle workman) in 1455 [29]. The printed works of the fifteenth century have a special title to designate their significance in history: incunabula [30], or cradle books. Movable type printing was introduced to Paris “by Guillaume Fichet, librarian at the Sorbonne,” in 1468; it was introduced in Rome by John Philip de Lignamine in 1470. [31] It was not long before the entire western world was caught up in the frenzy of the printing press.

Albert Pfister was another early printer who was possibly a partner of Gutenberg’s and made a name for himself traveling as a moveable print shop. It is thought that he was an “engraver and possibly a xylographic printer before becoming a worker with type.[32]” What is significant about Pfister is that he “was the first printer to introduce woodcut illustrations in text matter. [33]” The quality of his productions were not of high mark, as a “boycott” was put out against him by the “skilled wood-engravers” who “saw in the new art of printing a menace to their own industry. [34]”

Günther Zainer of Reutlingen was the first printer to establish a printer in Augsburg, Germany; Augsburg became one of the best towns for printwork because their quality was highly regarded. [35] Zainer also has a place in history as “the first printer to engage in a controversy with engravers [36]” in which they opposed his admission to the privileges of a burgess [37], meaning his right of citizenry and to participate in the city governance.

Anthony Koberger established the House of Koberger [38] in Nuremberg circa 1471, and went onto become one of the most successful printers of his time. “The total number of his known separate productions [is] 236. [39]” It was at the House of Koberger where Anthony would produce his most successful venture, the Nuremberg Chronicle [40] printed in 1493.

Archibald Leighton is considered the first book binder to utilize cloth in his binding [41]. This new technique, though much cheaper, took away from the aesthetical value that added the perception of weight and importance to a bound book. To add more value to these works decoration was added to camouflage the threads [42]. This process also aided in the eventual mass dissemination of knowledge by making books more affordable to the masses.

Once the Industrial Revolution set the modern world in full steam it did not take long for the world of bookbinding to catch up to speed. Edward Walker explains it this way:

“The craft and art of binding books underwent major changes in England and in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Large numbers of books were no longer bound by hand individually to order as they had been in preceding centuries; instead they were cased in uniform lots. In the 1820s traditional leather covers began to give way to cloth covers, which were plain and drab in the 1820s and 1830s, but often highly decorated by the middle of the century. As the reading public grew larger and more diversified, more and more covering materials and styles were invented and used, and binding factories began to displace the small shop as the size of publishers’ editions increased to meet the heavy demand for information and entertainment. [43]”

What really set the process in motion though was developments in transportation; it became quick, easy, and accessible to move large quantities of products over vast areas.

Cultural significance

Individuals and Cultures tend to spend their time and money on the things that they value, this axiom extends to every facet of society- including the book. The book is a mainstay of civilizations past and present, and different epochs express their fascinations and curiosities with the book differently.

The binding of a book says a lot about the nature of the intent of a book. Some books are lavishly ornate for ritual significance and symbolism, such as “a superbly illuminated Prayer-book, the binding of which was of pure ivory, studded with gems [44]” that was probably used by a bishop during the middle ages. Or another instance involving an “Anglo-Saxon bishop, named Wilfred, [who] had the books of the four evangelists copied out in letters of gold upon purple parchment; and such value did he set upon the work when it was completed, that he kept it in a case of gold adorned with precious stones. [45]” These two particular bindings speak to the richness and the sacred nature of the text, conveying the overwhelming majesty of the God they worshiped.

On the other hand, cloth bindings and paperbacks helped to aid in the dissemination of knowledge because books could be more cheaply produced and more easily affordable by the lay person. These minor changes, in addition to the production capabilities acquired as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution helped to get books into the hands of the people. Books produced in this manner were meant to be used, but not necessarily preserved.

Other books are designed to be showcased as oddities such as miniature books [46] which are unique in that they are generally under three inches. These tiny books are not limited in their content though as many classics are available in this format.
What we can glean from book bindings is that it is, in it’s own right, an art form as well as a craft that takes years to master. Book coverings range from the ornate to the mundane, but their primary purpose is to support the material within.


The book has changed in many ways over the millennia of it’s existence; we have seen changes in writing material, changes in binding, changes in covering, but the book, as a physical object, has remained structurally the same as the most effective medium for conveying and expressing ideas over wide audiences. Though the structure, vessel, and medium of a book may change, the nature of the book as a physical object will always retain it’s purpose as an instrument of communication or conveying ideas.

But, so as not to leave the reader with doubt to whether I answered the question in the introduction, Does the binding of a book as a physical object mean anything to us and our understanding of ourselves as humanity? The answer is unequivocally Yes! The book, as a physical object, represents the marriage of human thought, craft, expression, and art with what Plato called the Good, Hegel called Zeitgeist, the religious refer to as God, but all represent some overwhelming force that calls us to interact with it and with each other. The binding of a book is the first encounter that a reader will experience with the physical object and as such can affect how the reader will experience the ideas contained within.


1. Walker, Edward. The Art of Book-Binding : Its Rise and Progress : Including a Descriptive Account of the New York Book-Bindery. The Oak Knoll Series on the History of the Book., edited by Paul S. Koda. New Castle, Del: Oak Knoll Books, 1984.
2. “Book.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014.
3. “Codex.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web.: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014.
4. Middleton, Bernard C. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. New York: Hafner Pub. Co., 1963.
5. Seery, Michael. “Saving Paper.” Education in Chemistry 50, no. 2 (2013): 22.
6. Perry, Kenneth Frederick. The Binding of Books. Rev. ed. Bloomington, Ill.: McKnight & McKnight Pub. Co., 1967.
7. Oswald, John Clyde. A History of Printing: It’s Development through Five Hundred Years. New York: Appleton and Company, 1928.
8. Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (the Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2004.

Supplemental Reading

1. Bates , Marcia J. and Mary N. Maack, eds. Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Third ed. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2009.
2. Hendrickson, Lois G. “Seeing into Books: Lessons from Rare Book School.” Public Services Quarterly 8, no. 4 (01/01, 2012): 369-372, http://proxycu.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lls&AN=83493305&site=ehost-live2.730416.
3. Hoe, Robert. A Lecture on Bookbinding as a Fine Art. Reprint ed. New York: Garland, 1990.
4. Lhotka, Edward R. ABC of Leather Bookbinding : An Illustrated Manual on Traditional Bookbinding. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000.
5. Roberts, Matt T. and Don Etherington, eds. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1982.
6. Rosner, Daniela K. and Alex S. Taylor. “Antiquarian Answers: Book Restoration as a Resource for Design.”Publications from ACM and Affiliated Organizations (2011): 2665.
7. Ruecker, Stan and Kirsten C. Uszkalo. “BINDING THE ELECTRONIC BOOK: Design Features for Bibliophiles.”Visible Language 41, no. 1 (2007): 50-69, http://search.proquest.com/docview/232913884?accountid=9940.
8. Silverman, Randy. “Can’t Judge a Book without its Binding.” Libraries & the Cultural Record 42, no. 3 (2007): 291-307,330, http://search.proquest.com/docview/222547675?accountid=9940.

 Foot Notes

[1] Walker, Edward. The Art of Book-Binding : Its Rise and Progress : Including a Descriptive Account of the New York Book-Bindery. The Oak Knoll Series on the History of the Book., edited by Paul S. Koda. New Castle, Del: Oak Knoll Books, 1984. P.48
[2] “Book.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014.
[3] “Codex.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web.: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014.
[4] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1371290/70-metal-books-Jordan-cave-change-view-Biblical-history.html
[5] http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2006/07/plastic_books/
[6] http://www.wired.com/2013/02/stone-paper-notebook/
[7] http://inhabitat.com/you-can-put-this-edible-cookbook-by-korefe-right-into-your-lasagna/
[8] Walker, Edward. P.53
[9] Walker, Edward. P.55
[10] Middleton, Bernard C. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. New York: Hafner Pub. Co., 1963. P.3
[11] Seery, Michael. “Saving Paper.” Education in Chemistry 50, no. 2 (2013): P.22.
[12] Middleton, Bernard C. P.6
[13] Perry, Kenneth Frederick. The Binding of Books. Rev. ed. Bloomington, Ill.: McKnight & McKnight Pub. Co., 1967.P.14
[14] Middleton, Bernard C. P.9
[15] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coptic
[16] Middleton, Bernard C. P.9
[17] Perry, Kenneth Frederick P.14
[18] Walker, Edward. P.69
[19] Perry, Kenneth Frederick P.15
[20] Or as a professor I had once called it “Perfectly Awful.”
[21] Kenneth Perry provides one figure for paperback books at 200 per minute with the aid of “Perfect Binders.” Perry, Kenneth Frederick P. 71-72
[22] Oswald, John Clyde. A History of Printing: It’s Development through Five Hundred Years. New York: Appleton and Company, 1928.P. 348
[23] Unlike Rome which was built on May 3, 325: Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (the Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2004.
[24] Oswald, John Clyde P.348. Also see: Walker, Edward P.63
[25] Walker, Edward P.50
[26] Middleton, Bernard C. P.5
[27] http://www.gutenberg-bible.com/history.html
[28] or Faust
[29] Oswald, John Clyde. P.23
[30] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/284960/incunabula
[31] Oswald, John Clyde P.10
[32] Oswald, John Clyde P.36
[33] Oswald, John Clyde P.36
[34] Oswald, John Clyde P.38
[35] Oswald, John Clyde.P.49-50
[36] Oswald, John Clyde P.50
[37] Oswald, John Clyde 314-315
[38] http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/inside/about/printer.htm
[39] Oswald, John Clyde P.60
[40] http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/index.htm
[41] Middleton, Bernard C. P.133
[42] Middleton, Bernard C. P.133
[43] Walker, Edward P.9
[44] Walker, Edward P. 57
[45] Walker, Edward P.56
[46] http://www.mbs.org/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s