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The Bookbinder in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg An Account of His Life & Times, & of His Craft

The Bookbinder in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg
An Account of His Life & Times, & of His Craft
Title: The Bookbinder in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg An Account of His Life & Times, & of His Craft
Release Date: 2018-07-30
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Bookbinder in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg

in Eighteenth-Century

An Account of his Life & Times, & of his Craft

Williamsburg Craft Series

Published by Colonial Williamsburg

Decorative border

The Bookbinder in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg

Illustrated capital I

In October 1770 the inventory of the personalestate of Lord Botetourt, His Majesty’sGovernor General of Virginia, contained acatalogue of books in the library at thePalace, made after his death by his executors.The shelves held over three hundred volumes. Today thislibrary has been recreated by Colonial Williamsburg usingthe inventory list and other information on books in printat that time. The actual library of Lord Botetourt wassent back to England—and was lost at sea.

Much about the Governor can be deduced from thebooks he owned—plus a few he had borrowed and neglectedto return. His interests ranged over the whole field ofhuman knowledge, with particular emphasis on history,literature, law, and politics. However, it is not with thesubstance but with the form of these volumes in the renewedlibrary that we are concerned. For us the important fact2is that, with a few exceptions, they are eighteenth-centurybooks in eighteenth-century bindings.

The visitor who pauses only for a moment to look at themwill see that most of them share certain outward characteristics:

Bound book.

They are bound in leather, withbrown calfskin predominant;

Their spines are crossed by a numberof horizontal ridges;

The title (abbreviated) usually appearsin gold leaf on a small panelof colored leather glued to thespine, and sometimes the author’sname, too;

The spine may also bear a moderateamount of decorative gold tooling;and

The sides of the volumes, wherevisible, are likely to display “blind” tooling, whichmeans ornamental indentations in the surface of theleather, made without gold leaf.

These are the five most noticeable characteristics of booksbound in the eighteenth century in England or in England’sNorth American colonies. Standards of workmanship wereon the whole higher in the mother country, but binders onboth sides of the Atlantic used the same basic methods ofbookmaking.

The techniques of bookbinding, in fact, had not changedmuch for a very long time. Men like William Parks, JohnStretch, and Thomas Brend bound books in eighteenth-centuryWilliamsburg in essentially the same way as hadtheir predecessors in medieval monasteries a thousand yearsbefore.

Incidentally, among bookbinding craftsmen one does notmention “machine binding”; to the true binder there is notrue binding except by hand. The machines of a modern3bindery do not “bind” a book according to the craft tradition,but “case” it. Therefore, the words “bind,” “bookbinding,”“bound books,” and so on whenever used in thispamphlet always refer to the traditional hand operation,never to the machine process or product. And “bookbinder”herein is always the hand craftsman, never the machineoperator.


Man learned to write long before he learned to makepaper. Smooth stones, clay tiles, and wax tablets, amongother surfaces, were early precursors of scratch-pads andtypewriter bond. Later, but before the modern form ofa paged book developed, written records were most oftenkept on long rolls of papyrus, parchment, or vellum—thelatter two being much alike.

The lines of writing sometimes ran the entire length ofthese rolls, sometimes they ran crossways, and sometimesthey paralleled the long edge but were divided into columns.The third arrangement is still used in Jewish scrolls of thelaw, which are kept on rollers, one at each end.

Such a long strip could, however, be folded accordion-likeinstead of being rolled up. If the folds were made betweenthe columns of writing, each column became a page and thewhole began to resemble the book we are familiar with today.

At first these rudimentary books were protected bywooden boards pasted to the first and last pages. As anext step holes were stabbed through every page near theleft-hand fold, and a cord or thong laced through the holesheld the “accordion” together along one side.

By the fifth century a method had come into general useof sewing individually folded sheets together one by one,not to each other but to a series of flexible “hinges.” Thesewere usually narrow strips of leather—four, five, or sometimessix depending on the height of the book—laid acrossthe folded edges of the pages. Linen thread sewed throughthe folds and around each cross-strip in turn held the pages4firmly in place. Wooden boards affixed to the thongs aswell as pasted to the first and last pages protected the whole,sometimes with the help of metal clasps and even locks.

These methods of preserving written material have now largely been supersededby the printed and bound or machine-cased book: (A) Diptych or hinged tablet ofwood, ivory, or the like, often carved, whose inner surfaces of wax carried writingimpressed by the stylus. (B) Scroll with columnar writing on a pair of rollers.(C) Japanese “orihon,” accordion-folded and bound along one side. (D) Codex orearly form of book, an illuminated manuscript protected between thin boards; ourword “book” comes from the German for beech (Buch), a wood often used for thispurpose.

To guard the leather crossbands and linen thread fromexposure and wear, it then became customary to cover thespine of the book with a wide, vertical strip of leather.Later, for better appearance and greater protection, theleather covering was extended partway onto the boards(the so-called “half-binding” of the medieval period) andthen all the way.

Thus was developed and perfected the bound book: acollection of folded sheets sewn together flexibly and protectedbetween covers. Its physical structure was largelythe creation of monastic craftsmen of the early MiddleAges, just as its literary content throughout that periodwas most often religious scripture or comment.



Speaking only of quality of materials and workmanship,a book may be bound just as well in a simple cover as in anornate one. Fine binding does not require adornment. Itdoes require the services of a man of high skill and matchingintegrity, whose handiwork will inevitably display the quietbeauties of intrinsic quality.

But in the hands of men who possess the spark of creativeartistry, bookbinding can be more than pure craft work.Although the binder’s decorative tools are forever prefixed,each to reproduce its own set and simple pattern, they areinfinitely flexible in the ways they can be combined. It isnot the tool that makes a binding beautiful or ugly, butthe hand that holds the tool—and even more the mind andeye that guide the hand. The history of bookbinding isstudded with the names of men who were true artists inleather. For them the most rewarding commission a customercould give was a simple order to dress some work oflasting worth in a binding of appropriate beauty.

In the Middle Ages all books were rare and valuable.Each volume was entirely lettered by hand and its pageswere customarily “illuminated” with elaborately drawninitial letters and gilded marginal decorations. The bindingof such a book was likely to be as painstakingly ornate aswere its pages, and a few bindings were quite valuable inthemselves. Before full leather covers became standard,the boards of some manuscript volumes—especially for achurch altar or a royal library—might even be encased inbeaten gold or silver and encrusted with enamel and semipreciousstones.

The invention of printing from type, as everyone knows,had extremely far-reaching consequences on the spread ofpublic education and enlightenment. It had also someeffects that were not so desirable. In the didactic phraseof the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Printing brought smallbooks, cheap books, ugly books.”


Now it cannot be denied that most books today aresmaller than the great manuscript tomes of the monasticscholars. They are cheaper, too. But it would be wrongto say that all books bound since Johann Gutenberg’s dayhave been ugly. To be sure, introduction of the printingpress increased the flow of work to the bindery. But if thebinder could no longer lavish time and care on every volume,he could still devote high artistry to an occasional book,steady craftsmanship to all.

Innumerable examples from the hands of many binderssince the fifteenth century attest that the cover of a printedbook can be as beautiful as that of a manuscript book.The names of Nicholas Eve, Clovis Eve, “Le Gascon”(otherwise unknown), and Geoffrey Tory of sixteenth-centuryFrance, and Padeloup and Le Monnier in theeighteenth century, deserve mention. In England bindingsare not as easily identified with their binders, but the namesof Thomas Berthelet, royal binder to Henry VIII, andabove all Samuel Mearne, binder to Charles II, stand out.Roger Payne was England’s most distinguished binder inthe eighteenth century.

Before the fifteenth century, European binders usuallyhad worked ornamentation into leather “in blind,” that is,without gold leaf. The technique of applying gold seemsto have been perfected by Islamic leatherworkers of MediterraneanAfrica, and brought from Morocco to Europe viaSpain and Italy. Sixteenth-century French binders carriedthis kind of adornment to a peak of intricate tooling andlavish gilding. Their English counterparts, while theyimitated the French, tended to favor simpler designs andless gold leaf. In the late seventeenth century and continuingthrough the eighteenth, straight lines rather thancurves became characteristic of English work.

For example, the broken lines of the “cottage” stylecredited to Samuel Mearne resembled an outlined roof andwalls. Later the “Cambridge” style became popular inEngland. It consisted of a vertical panel of thin lines7(fillets) on the sides of the book, with flower or leaf ornaments(fleurons) at the corners and perhaps in the center,and a narrow lace border around the boards. The exampleillustrated indicates that colonial binders continued tofavor the Cambridge design until well into the eighteenthcentury.

Left, “cottage” style decoration on a 1674 Bible, bound in the shop of SamuelMearne of London. Right, “Cambridge” style binding on a copy of Muscipulaprinted in 1728 by William Parks in Annapolis and bound by him.

Around 1760 a Dutch binder developed a method oftreating leather with acid to give it a marbled appearance,and other binders lost no time in prying the secret awayfrom him. First among binders in England to learn thetechnique was an émigré German, John Baumgarten, whomade the most of his advantage. As Thomas Jeffersonwrote to Robert Skipwith in 1771, books “bound by Bumgardenin fine Marbled bindings” cost 50 per cent morethan in plain bindings.

In addition to national styles and local designs thatdeveloped at various times and places, certain bindersperfected individual patterns of their own. In some cases8these were so unique as to be almost certain evidence thata book so decorated was bound by the man in question.But not always. As in the case of Samuel Mearne, workidentified with the master might actually have been doneunder his instruction by a journeyman in his shop.

Among the very large number of eighteenth-centurybindings that survive, the great difficulty is to identify withany certainty the binder of a particular volume. In manyinstances—perhaps most—it is impossible to be absolutelysure on this point. Except in France, binders of the eighteenthcentury, or any period, who signed or labeled theirwork were relatively rare.

One English craftsman who did identify his productswas Roger Payne of London. An eccentric and a heavydrinker, Payne was nevertheless a careful worker and acreative artist in the bindery. His books are beautifullyadorned with patterns built up with small tools that hedesigned and cut himself. In many of the books he bound,Payne included a detailed account of his work. Thefollowing statement, copied in part from a Bible now ownedby Princeton University, is a good example:

Letter’d in ye most exact manner, exceeding rich smallTool Gilt Back of a new pattern studded in Compartments.The outside finished in the Richest & mostelegant Taste Richer, & more exact than any Bookthat I ever Bound. The insides finished in a newdesign exceeding elegant. Bound in the very bestmanner sew’d with silk on strong and neat Bands.The Back lined with Russia Leather under the Bluemorrocco. Cover very strong & neat Boards....


Although some colonial binders labeled their products,none of the several Williamsburg bookbinders of colonialdays followed Roger Payne’s admirable precedent. Examplesof the work of some of them, however, have beenidentified beyond doubt through direct or circumstantial9evidence—the latter often derived by processes resemblingpolice detection.

Clues to the identity of a binder may be found in variousfacets of printing and binding: shop

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