Book Binding and Rare Books

by Rachel Baker on January 16, 2009

unique book bindingI got an email yesterday from Abe Books showing me some of the most unusual book bindings on their site.  I had no choice but to go look.  I expected animal skins of some sort, but I did not expect metal or velvet or even silk or plastic. I made a screen grab to give you examples (click the picture at the left to make larger), but I really suggest you go look on your own.  I am simply amazed at the types of materials that have been used and how much these books cost.  I realize they are rare and special…but I had no idea!

When I get amazed I go researching.  I think more than anything the animal skin/hide was the most information I could find.  I thought I’d share a small aspect of what I found with you: 

Morocco: goatskin with a pinhead grain pattern. It is the best leather for bookbinding: soft, durable, vegetable tanned and dyed, easily processed. Elegant and strong, it emphasizes gold tooling. Morocco is very expensive leather, which is why it was used mostly for treasure bindings. De luxe 16th-century book covers were generally bound in red fine-grained morocco.

Sheepskin: leather from a sheep’s skin left in the undyed state. It is smooth and soft, yet little durable and therefore easily scratched and cracked. Second-rate leather, it was reserved for bindings of lower quality.

Calfskin and cowhide: very delicate, smooth leather without any noticeable grain pattern. The finest version of this kind of leather is light brown, and even and regular throughout, smooth and free from grain defects.

Pigskin: the hide of a domestic pig. Ivory-coloured like parchment, it was used extensively as bookbinding leather in northern Europe from the 16th century to the end of the 18th. Tough and indestructible leather, it has the characteristic grain pattern formed by the hair follicles which are arranged in triangular groups of three. Naturally coloured white, it has a tendency to take on a golden patina. Easily obtained, pigskin was the most favoured bookbinding leather in Germany, not least because it was eminently suitable for blind tooling.


Here’s a picture of what calfskin can look like.  The book is held in the British Library.  Its from France and was published in 1514.  I am amazed at how beautiful the painting of this cover is…hard to believe its made from Calfskin.

calfskin book

As I went looking for more and more information, I ran across some rare collections that were amazing. I realized two things:

1. You can learn a lot about the history of book binding just from looking at rare collections.
2. There are some pretty amazing advances in the way books looked in the last 150 years.

Check out this collection

This is from the Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester.  I love the format online for viewing this collection.  You start off with Pre-1830 with pictures and explanations of the books. The first book you see is a book from 1795 made of coarse cloth. The book is by Caleb Alexader and printed by Isaiah Thomas.  Then each box shows books from anywhere between 1795 through 1828 (which shows one of the first books of any to be bound in publishers’ cloth).  When you are finished learning about these books, you can scroll back up and hit each 10 year decade starting at 1830 through 1889, after that you get from 1890-1910 and two female designers whose work is worth your time to look at. On each page, you will find some brief historical piece of information to help you understand what books looked like, how the book jacket was put together and on some pages how the books were put together.  It was also interesting to see some of the advertising posters and how much these books cost during the time they were published.  Could you imagine buying a new book now for $2.00?!

Next Stop: Library of Congress

I love the Library of Congress and one day, I would like to actually visit in person.  I think I’d actually liked to be locked in overnight, truth be told.  I actually haven’t visited the Rare Book and Special Collections section before.  AMAZING!

In this area, you’ll find Children’s Literature. The Library of Congress has this neat setup called page turner – its sort of like amazon’s “look inside” feature.  I suggest taking a look at The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme, With Portable Morals Pictorially Pointed / By Walter Crane. Engraved and Printed in Colours By Edmund Evans. London; New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1887.  Very cool.

Here’s an interesting note:  Go to The Book of The Cat.  From what I can tell, there weren’t copyright pages as we know them today at the turn of the 20th century.  On the title page of The Book of The Cat, at the very bottom there’s just a “copyright, 1903 by Frederick A. Stokes Company.—Published in October 1903”.  That’s it, that’s all there is.

I, then, got curious about what other books they had.  I went to “Other Materials” and much to my surprise found another type of Aesop’s Tales.  At the top of the collection!  Only this on is from 1487, and its a Latin version translated into Italian.  Click here and continue clicking ‘next image’.  Its fascinating.  Here’s something I don’t understand (besides the language of course), there’s something like seven pages in the very beginning with no text and no images – they are just blank.  Anyone know why this would be?

I saw the same thing in Book of hours (Ms. Library of Congress. Rosenwald ms. 10), 1524. The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.  This book by the way has a beautiful cover and inside boards.

Okay, That’s enough of a journey down rare book and special collection lane.  One could get lost easily and forget to surface for several days. I visited many different sites yesterday looking at book covers and binding practices over the centuries.  I was completely fascinated.  I never understood the collecting thing, but I think if I had the money, I’d certainly find I more rare books than I ever thought on my bookshelves.

After spending time doing this research, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for book making and how covers will evolve.  What do you think?  Do you think books as we know them will be around for a few more centuries or do you think at some point in this decade we’ll all have to migrate to ebook readers?

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