It’s easy to forget—or perhaps never fully realize in the first place—just what a treasure we hold in our hands in the form of a book.
In times not too far past, books were solely the possession of the wealthy. As recently as the publication dates of many of my favorite nineteenth century novels, books were serialized in magazine format so as to be affordable to the common people. In some cases, whole villages would go in to purchase one copy for the local pub, from which a designated reader would enthrall the listeners in weekly installments. Charles Dickens was certainly a pioneer of such journals, and it was a profitable medium by which to introduce writers and their words to the middle classes. His now legendary publication Household Words was where equally legendary works like Cranford and The Song of the Western Men first saw the light of day. (Though I have heard tales of what a tyrant he could be when it came to word count—apparently that is why Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South ends so abruptly, as he basically told her to ‘wrap it up’.)
The history of books as we know them and the effects of industrialization upon their original craftsmanship is a fascinating one, and at times as fraught with peril and heroism as the best legends. Not only did the monks of the early Middle Ages preserve the written words in their keeping from barbarian invasions—often in the face of unimaginable violence—they established the criteria of true artisan standards in the bindings of the books themselves. From clumsy wooden boards encasing animal skin parchments, they progressed the work of bookbinding to a high art, to include elaborate tooled leather covers (sometimes studded with jewels) and meticulously-penned pages characterized by gilded illuminations and flourishing script. These books were so valuable—as irreplaceable as the lifetime spent crafting them—that they were secured with chains and heavy gold clasps (themselves often engraved with exquisite designs) within the monastery library. (I have to wonder at which modern developments they would be more amazed: the mass-production standards of industrial binderies or the cavalier treatment of library books!)
The amazing thing is that not that much really changed in the binding of books from the monks’ early advances until the mechanization provided by the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of paper-making from the Far East in the tenth century opened new vistas of possibility and established the “signature”—or large sheets folded and cut to create smaller folios of standard page sizes—as the basic component of a book’s structure, a basic process that endures to this day. And under the stimulus of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400’s, the creation of text leapt from hand-written pages or wooden block impressions, to the endless variety and availability of movable type. Book-making became the property of printers or the life trade of binders. And the concept of a ‘home library’ was born.
Though it would still take several centuries to streamline the craft sufficiently to make books affordable beyond the confines of the wealthy, book-making preserved certain careful requisites over the years. The signatures were pierced along the spine edge and sewn together with fine linen thread, attached to cords in much the same way as the medieval bindings. In later interpretations, these were glued to a strip of tarlatan or English mull which was then glued to the boards while the cords were woven into the boards themselves for superior durability. This mull is the ‘webbing’ that is often visible in the cracked hinges of old books—a dignified, if ‘natty’ mark of good breeding on the part of the book itself. If you look inside the front and back covers of an old book, or a well-made new one, you can see the ghost of the mull beneath the endpapers. The spine itself was never glued to the binding—this is a modern contrivance. Instead, the book was built around a hollow back, through which the surfaces of the cords were visible. This is where we get the tradition of decorated panels between raised bands in spines—they are merely ‘faux cords’, built up to resemble the originals.
The replacement of the leather cords with cotton tape in the bindings, and the 1820’s innovation of starch-filled cloth coverings, both contributed to the leveling of the field—it’s interesting to consider how little such changes may have had to do with book-makers’ benevolence and how much with seemingly unrelated political and social events. At any rate, cotton and linen became an affordable choice for the middle classes, and the book industry grew with the demand.
The Industrial Revolution flung wide the doors and made books the possession of the masses. A triumph for literacy, but, unfortunately, a travesty for the art of the book itself. Literally thrown together by machines at a dizzying rate of speed, all the old loving, careful craftsmanship and most of the fine materials gave way to mass-production and popular prices.
There were some, even at that time, that thought the cost too high—the loss of an artisan skill and a market potentially flooded with twaddle. With astounding foresight and knowledge of the dangers of full mechanization of society, they championed a grassroots movement devoted, among other things, to the renewal of integrity in the book trade by way of small, private presses.
The man at the helm was one William Morris. And the movement was none other than Arts and Crafts…