Marbled Leather: Use with Discretion

Last month, there was a lot of discussion on the Book Arts List about marbling leather with the same (or similar) technique as that used to marble paper. I’ve never witnessed the process myself, but I was lucky enough to come across this early 20th century French binding that has seemingly employed this technique with some success:


Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. For those of you unfamiliar with this publication, this is the book that the play was based on that the opera was based on that eventually inspired the Broadway musical ‘Rent’. Measures 12cm (width) x 19.5cm (height) x 3.2 (thick)

While I am impressed with the successful marbled leather, I have to say that as a whole this book is one of the ugliest juxtapositions of patterns I’ve ever scene. You disagree? Well then just sneak a peak at the endpapers:


So now for the full monty:


I rest my case, though I guess the designer/binder should get some credit for consistent inconsistency. Très charmant!


Trade Finishing

For the last six months or so, I’ve been working on trade finishing, where you apply paste wash, glair, a little bit of grease, gold leaf over the area to be tooled, and then proceed to tool the entire cover all at once. It has been slow going, especially in the post-tooling cleanup, but I have finally begun getting some results I can live with, and in the last month have even gone so far as to do it for a few actual projects.


Presentation Binding of Destiny and Power, for the author.

Historic trade bookbinding was what initially made me want to pursue a life in the book world, and it is still a source of inspiration today. I think what appeals to me most is what Hannah French describes as the ‘charming but completely unpretentious'[1] nature of these bindings, especially those bound before the 19th century. There is something about the combination of quirky compositions, crooked lettering, and wonky, overlapping lines with straight up GOLD that somehow makes a sophisticated, approachable, and very human book. It is the type of book that says, “Hey, I know I look good but you know you can use me without either of us feeling bad about it.”

Images of this book and a couple others are shown on my ‘Work’ page if you’re interested in seeing more. Also, it’s my birthday today!


[1]French, Hannah D., and Willman Spawn. Bookbinding in Early America: Seven Essays on Masters and Methods. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1986. p. 9.


Bookbinding: Little Ingenuity Required


Title page and frontispiece of volume three of  The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, 1807 edition

Pictured above is one of my favorite books I own. I only have the third volume, but fortunately it contains all three book-related vocations: The Paper-Maker (my copy is missing this plate, which is why I could afford it), The Printer, and The Bookbinder, whose plate is featured as the frontispiece to the book.


“The man is represented in the act of cutting the leaves of the book; on his right, on the floor are his glue-pot and paste-tub; behind him are his tools for gilding; and on his right is the press, for bringing the books into the least possible compass.” pp. 95-6

The little three-volume series was originally published in order to inform the early 19th century youths of England with that great nation’s various trades. Included in this volume are trades such as ‘The Brick-maker,’ ‘The Callico-printer,’ ‘The Wire-drawer,’ ‘The Glass-blower,’ ‘The Cork-cutter,’ and so on. Each chapter averages about 6 pages or so, but manages despite its brevity to provide a pretty thorough summary of each trade’s history, processes (0ne of which I’ll be highlighting in an upcoming post), and economic considerations.

Though I probably got the most out of the author’s descriptions of the different trades’ processes, I really enjoyed reading their opinions on the economics of each. For example, they consider cork cutting to be ‘ one of the blackest and dirtiest of all the trades, and not very profitable either for the master or the journeyman,’ (p. 146) while in watchmaking ‘all the branches of this profession require a considerable share of ingenuity, and a light hand to touch those delicate instruments which are requisite in their trade…Few trades, if any, require a quicker eye or a steadier hand.’ (pp. 155-6)

The author seems rather indifferent towards bookbinding however: ‘The business of the bookbinder, in general, requires no great ingenuity, nor any considerable strength of body.’ (pp. 94-5) But despite the lack of required mental or physical prowess, journeymen could still pull in about 30 shillings a week (which based off estimates I found roughly equates to $150/week today). The only problem is, many of the bookbinders I know today still seem to be making about 30 shillings a week without the inflation adjustment. Regardless, they can’t be fairing as bad as those dirty hand cork-cutters. Just look at them:


Please note the little hourglass resting on the table in front of him – The Man’s little reminder that he’d better keep up or else he may not get to keep his miserable occupation. Also, in case you’re wondering, those things hanging above the cork-cutter are little floaties to help teach kids how to swim.

Book Repair Made EASY


I came across this sinister ad in a mid-20th century industrial bookbinding magazine* and shuddered as I began to envision countless miles of this stuff being produced and/or (god forbid) actually used before the company eventually went under. What really disturbed (but, given where and when the ad appeared, didn’t surprise) me about it was that this was a repair solution proposed by book people, for book people (in fact the magazine boasts that it is ‘the exclusive business paper of the industry’). At any rate, at least the product and company name both sound like they could have easily been transferred to other industries, such as band-aids or contraceptives (‘Transparent Protection Co.’? Come on!).  But regardless of what the tape moguls ended up doing after this venture failed, the moral of the story remains the same: abstain from tape!


*Mend-a-Tape. Bookbinding and Book Production Apr. 1952: 66. Print.



The Flesh-side of Gutenbergs: A Poetic Insight

A couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture on oversize medieval manuscripts given by an emerging personal hero of mine George Greenia of William and Mary. During the talk he made mention of the staggering number of skins required to produce a single work, which reminded me of this great poem by Billy Collins[1]:

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This scene is perhaps a little inaccurate, for example it is unlikely that they would have had the live, ‘pre-processed’ sheep stored in a pen directly connected to the print shop (as if all they had to do was get the parchment from the sheep before they could begin printing), but I feel that the poetic license here is justified in an eerily beautiful way.


[1]Collins, Billy. The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 2005. 35. Print.

‘Sticky’ Endband Cores


This remnant of an endband is still clinging to an 18th Century English imprint of William King’s An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes (title page is missing from my copy so I am not sure which edition this is). Frequently endbands were worked around cores consisting of bits rolled paper, plied thread, cord, and other scraps of materials easily reappropriated from around the bindery, so I thought it was pretty interesting to find and endband core made of a little tiny stick (or reed?). Spines at this time weren’t really intended to flex, and the little stick still more or less holds the exact shape of the spine.


I am not sure as to why the binder would have taken the time to harvest and prepare little sticks over the more common and presumably more handy alternatives. Maybe there was a particularly unruly apprentice with some mad ADHD who just needed something to something to something to do, or maybe it was a highly coveted excuse to get out of the shop.  Your guess is as good (or probably better) than mine.

The Library Society’s Most Legit Member

The Charleston Library Society has a huge collection of colonial American newspapers, among which is the South Carolina Gazette (1732-1802). Established in 1732 as a satellite of Ben Franklin’s operation in Philly, the S.C. Gazette was the first newspaper printed and published in South Carolina. The first operator, Thomas Whitmarsh, died suddenly in 1734, and the paper was picked up by Lewis Timothy.


4 years later, in late 1738, he too kicked the bucket. Extraordinarily, without missing a week (it was a weekly publication) the next issue is printed and distributed, with Lewis’s then 13 year-old son Peter’s name replacing his on the paper.


You are probably thinking at this point, ‘Wow, that’s crazy that a pubescent kid had enough experience to keep things rolling. Well, I guess people had to grow up earlier back then.’ And while that may have been true, Peter was not the boy in charge. This crazy little blurb was printed towards the end of the first publication (January 4, 1739) following Papa Timothy’s death:


Actually it wasn’t a boy at all, but his 8.999 months pregnant (with her seventh kid) mother Elizabeth Timothy. If the fact that she took over her husband’s business and turned out the next ‘entertaining and reasonably correct’ issue of the Gazette without missing a single week isn’t enough to maker her a certified BOSS, it turns out she also is credited with being the first female newspaper publisher and editor in America. And to top it all off, the one and only Ben Franklin approved of the way she did business (he thought it must have been her Dutch upbringing) [1].

However, we must not forget lil’ Peter. When he came of age, he did end up taking over the business, and later went on to be a founding father of the Charleston Library Society. But in my opinion the real benefit of Peter’s founding role is that his mother became a member. Apparently we have circulation records detailing the books she checked out (I have yet to see them), but I’m guessing her primary reason for checking books out was to perform quality checks on the printing and ensure that her son and his cohort were living up to her and Ben Franklin’s standards of excellence. Or maybe she just wanted a good romance novel to enhance her retirement like any normal person. In any case, given what she went through and accomplished, it’s going to be near impossible for anyone to supplant her as the Library Society’s Most Legit Member.


For further reading on Elizabeth Timothy, any search engine will turn out a number of great articles about her. You won’t regret checking them out!

[1] McMurtrie, Douglas C. A History of Printing in the United States; the Story of the Introduction of the Press and of Its History and Influence during the Pioneer Period in Each State of the Union. Vol. 2. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1936. Print. pp. 320.