Bookbinding through the Ages

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The art of bookbinding began in Egypt with the earliest known bound books dating from the fourth century (Greenfield 81). Early books consisted of papyrus or vellum pages bound with wood boards covered in animal skins. Currents books are primarily made from paper textblocks bound into pulpboard, or binders board, covered with book cloth or buckram. Although the techniques and materials have changed considerably over the past two millennia, the practice of binding loose pages between protective covers into a bound book continues to flourish.

Summary of Literature

Although research on the subject began as late as the middle of the twentieth century, bookbinding and the history of bookbinding are topics about which numerous books have been written. The majority of sources concentrate on the exterior decoration of the bindings rather than the internal structure, but a recent handful of books discuss the history of bookbinding by describing various bookbinding structures. Twelve Centuries of Bookbinding: 400-1600 by Paul Needham is an excellent source written in 1979 that describes with illustrations different types of bookbinding beginning with Coptic bookbinding from the fifth century through bookbindings from different parts of the world in the late sixteenth century. Needham discusses the structure and history of approximately one hundred historical books. Victorian Publishers' Book-bindings in Paper by Ruari McLean, which was first published in 1983, is a book that presents Victorian bookbindings during the nineteenth century through text and illustrations. McLean focuses on the Victorian techniques that primarily used paper bindings as opposed to leather and cloth. Written by Jane Greenfield in 1998, ABC of Bookbinding: A Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians includes both a glossary of bookbinding terms and a timeline of historical bookbindings. The bookbinding timeline includes the structure and materials used for each binding technique beginning with Coptic binding in the forth century through stationary binding in the twentieth century.

Written by Kojiro Ikegami and translated into English by Barbara B. Stephen, the 1986 Japanese Bookbinding: Instructions from a Master Craftsman covers almost every major Japanese bookbinding technique from the past 1500 years. Japanese Bookbinding is the most extensive book about Japanese bookbinding written to date. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique by Bernard C. Middleton from 1963 discusses various bookbinding techniques with a focus on English bookbinding. Middleton also includes information about historical structures such as Coptic sewing and papyrus pages. Written by Howard M. Nixon in 1978, Five Centuries of English Bookbinding also focuses English bookbinding techniques beginning in the late fifteenth century. Nixon includes textual information and illustrations to describe binding types and specific books. Written in 1986, Bookbinding in Early America: Seven Essays on Masters and Methods by Hannah D. French discusses bookbinding techniques unique to master binders in the United States of America beginning with Scottish-American bookbinding during the Colonial Period through Frederick August Mayo, who bound books for Thomas Jefferson.

Book Structure

Figure 1

Bookbinding, regardless of the specific binding structure, requires certain basic pieces to construct the internal textblock and the external cover. The basic parts of any bound book are the textblock, the sewing, the front and back covers, and the spine, as illustrated in Figure 1. The main purpose of bookbinding is to protect the textblock, or pages, which contains the primary textual content of the book (Richmond 44). Early textblocks were printed on vellum or papyrus, and modern textblocks are printed on paper. The sewing of a book is used to attach individual pages together to form the textblock as well as to sometimes attach the textblock to the covers. Different types of thread including linen, cotton, synthetic, and silk are used for sewing depending on the type of binding (Greenfield 69). The spine of a book covers and protects the sewing on the textblock. Spines are lined with paper or cloth and are covered with leather, tawed skin, and cloth depending on the binding structure (Greenfield 65). The front and back covers of a book are constructed of boards and a covering. Early boards were typically made from papyrus cartonnage and wood; modern boards are now constructed from various types of composite paper pulp, more frequently known as binders board (Greenfield 10).

Coptic Binding

Figure 2

Coptic binding, named after the Copts who were the native Christian people in Egypt, is the earliest known binding, which dates to as early as the fourth century and continued to be used through the eleventh century (Greenfield 81; Middleton 9). The earliest examples of Coptic bindings have been found in Egypt in various disparate locations including ancient monasteries and in the desert (Greenfield 81). The best known and most well-preserved example of a Coptic binding is found on a book dating from the fifth century entitled Acts of the Apostles, which is written in the Middle-Egyptian dialect and presumably the first book in a two-volume set (Needham 7-9). Coptic bookbindings begin with textblocks made from papyrus or vellum sewn together with thread or thin cords (Greenfield 81; Middleton 9). As illustrated in Figure 2, the sewing pattern used in Coptic bindings is the chain stitch, which is still partially used in modern sewing patterns (Greenfield 81). Coptic sewing did not use any sort of sewing support such as cords or tape (Alstrom 3). In some surviving examples of Coptic bindings, the sewing was also used to attach the textblock to the front and back boards as well as to sew the sections of the textblock together (Middleton 9).

An excellent example of Coptic sewing is found in the Stonyhurst Gospel, which is a British work dating from the late seventh century (Middleton 10). Sometimes, although not usually, decorative endsheets were attached to the textblock before leather, vellum, or cloth spine linings were adhered to the spine of the textblock (Greenfield 81). The boards used in the covers of Coptic bindings were made from papyrus cartonnage or wood (Greenfield 81). Often the wood was left plain and uncovered, but sometimes the boards were covered with brown or reddish goatskin (Needham 7; Greenfield 81). The boards of Coptic bindings are then typically attached to the textblock either with the same sewing as used to attach the sections of the textblock together (Greenfield 81). Sometimes, however, the covers are attached with leather thongs or with Z lacing (Greenfield 81). The covers of Coptic bindings also normally have leather fastenings attached with pins or thongs that keep the covers closed and further protect the pages in the textblock (Greenfield 81).

Medieval Binding

Figure 3

Figure 4

Medieval binding is a European bookbinding used popularly in Europe beginning during seventh century through the fourteenth century (Greenfield 93). Medieval bindings begin with textblocks made from vellum, or parchment, which is primarily made from the skins of calves, lambs, and kids and less frequently from the skins of adult cattle, sheep, and goats (Greenfield 93; Middleton 2). The edges of the textblock are usually left plain and undecorated (Greenfield 93). The typical sewing patterns found in medieval bookbindings are linked sewing and packed sewing (Greenfield 93). Linked sewing forms a chevron pattern by the thread picking up the previous stitch, as illustrated in Figure 3 (Greenfield 42). Packed sewing is a sewing pattern in which the thread winds around the current sewing station before entering the subsequent sewing station, as illustrated in Figure 4 (Greenfield 48). Raised-thong sewing also appeared as a sewing technique near the end of the medieval binding period during the twelfth-century (Middleton 15). The spines of medieval bindings are then lined with vellum or leather with the spine lining extending inside the boards, similarly to modern binding techniques (Greenfield 93).

Covered with tawed skin or leather, the boards used in medieval bindings are primarily made of wood and attached to the textblock with extending tabs at the head and tail (Greenfield 93). Unlike most modern binding structures, the boards used in medieval bindings were aligned flush with the textblock (Greenfield 93). The covers of medieval bindings also typically have fastenings made from leather straps that were attached to the cover with pins and bosses (Greenfield 93). Although most books bound during this time period were plain and unadorned, a bookbinding technique commonly known as "medieval treasure binding" also appeared between the seventh and fourteenth centuries (Needham 21). Medieval treasure bindings were constructed with more expensive and elaborate materials such as ivory and precious metals with the covers sometimes adorned with jewels (Needham 21). An important example of a book bound with a medieval treasure binding is a book of Gospels written in Latin at the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland that dates from the late ninth century (Needham 24). Books bound with medieval bindings were often large and heavy.

Four-Hole Oriental Binding

Figure 5

Of the various Oriental bookbinding techniques, four-hole Oriental binding was the most commonly used binding structure throughout Asia beginning as early as the fourteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth century (Greenfield 91). Four-hole Oriental binding originated in China but was also widely popular in other Asian countries like Japan (Greenfield 91). The textblock of a four-hole Oriental binding is constructed from thin flexible paper (Greenfield 91). The textblock is then sewn together with an inner binding so that the textblock remains intact even if the covers are removed (Ikegami 30). Unlike Western bindings that historically have boards made of wood, four-hole Oriental bindings as well as other Asian bookbinding techniques use covers constructed from reinforced paper (Greenfield 91). The paper covers also have decorative cloth corner pieces that fold around the textblock at the head and tail (Greenfield 91; Ikegami 30). In additional to the inner binding that holds the textblock together, four-hole Oriental bindings also have an outer sewing pattern that attaches the covers to the textblock. Four holes that pierce the covers, decorative cloth corner pieces, and textblock are created along the spine of the book, and then the thread is side sewn through the entire book, as illustrated in Figure 5 (Ikegami 30; Greenfield 91). Books bound with Oriental bindings traditionally open on the left side because Asian writing is written and read from right to left.

Figure 6

Sixteenth-Century Binding

After the large and heavy books of the medieval binding period, printers started creating smaller and lighter books beginning around 1500 that were easier and faster to bind (Greenfield 99). Many of the books printed during this period were religious texts (Alstrom 6). The textblocks of sixteenth-century bindings are primarily made out of linen or cotton paper with sheets of vellum or paper strengtheners sewn onto the first and last signatures (Greenfield 99). Although such endsheets were previously sparingly used, books bound with sixteenth-century bindings were the first to commonly attach decorative endsheets to the front and back of the textblock (Greenfield 99). Colored edges appeared on textblocks during the sixteenth century, but plain edges were still frequently used during this period (Greenfield 99). The sewing techniques primarily used for sixteenth-century binding was still raised sewing on two to five sewing supports including both thongs and cords that were inset into the boards, as illustrated in Figure 6 (Greenfield 99). Cords made from hemp and linen, however, largely replaced leather and tawed skin thongs during the later half of the sixteenth-century, which resulted in more durable books (Greenfield 99; Middleton 16). The spines of sixteenth-century bindings are then lined with paper or vellum (Greenfield 99). The boards are primarily constructed from paper leaves pasted together, pasteboard, or from pressed paper pulp, pulpboard, but were still often made of wood (Greenfield 99). Whereas the boards used in southern Europe during this time period are primarily made from beech wood, the boards used in northern are constructed from oak or thicker beech wood (Alstrom 7, 8). Similar to modern bindings, sixteenth-century bindings used boards that extended beyond the textblock to create the square of the cover (Greenfield 99). The boards were then covered with sheep, calf, or goat skin that ranged in color from dark brown to tan to near black (Greenfield 99). Sixteenth-century bindings finally used ribbon ties or simply excluded any type of fastenings (Greenfield 99). An example of a book bound with a sixteenth-century binding is the Norman Panel-Stamped Binding dating from 1519 that has a brown calf skin cover over pasteboard, which is considered one of the finest examples of French bookbinding from the sixteenth-century (Needham 130).

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Bindings

Figure 7

Seventeenth-century binding and eighteenth-century binding are extremely similar to sixteenth-century binding (Greenfield 103, 107). The textblocks continued to be constructed with paper made from linen and cotton (Middleton 4). The first paper-making machine, which greatly increased both the speed at which paper was manufactured and the supply of paper available, was invented at the end of the eighteenth century (Richmond 37). Beginning in the seventeenth-century, more endsheets than not were decorated (Greenfield 103). The boards used in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century bindings were no longer made with wood but were predominantly constructed from pasteboard or pulpboard (Greenfield 103, 107). The main difference between sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century, and eighteenth-century binding structures is found in the sewing supports. Whereas sixteenth-century sewing used raised sewing on hemp and linen cords, seventeenth-century binding developed the innovation of recessed thongs and cords, as illustrated in Figure 7 (Greenfield 99, 103; Middleton 17). In recessed sewing, the supports rest in grooves cut into the spine of the textblock so that the thread passes over the thongs or cords instead of under and around (Greenfield 56). Recessed sewing, which was considerably cheaper and faster to make, produced books with flat, smooth spines that opened more easily and more flatly (Middleton 17, 19).

Case Binding

Figure 8

Nineteenth-century binding is the first bookbinding structure to use the technique of case binding in which the textblock and cover are prepared separately (Greenfield 109). The textblocks of nineteenth-century bindings were made of inexpensive and therefore poor-quality paper whose acidity led to the brittle book crisis of the 1980s (Greenfield 109). Although no longer on raised cords, the sewing structure of nineteenth-century bindings still used supports in the form of linen tapes (Greenfield 109). Many books bound during the nineteenth century were also machine sewn, the technology of machine sewing having been fully developed by 1882 (Greenfield 109). The edges of the textblocks of nineteenth-century bindings, particularly on smaller gift books, were often brightly colored with colors including blue, green, yellow, purple, brown, red, and black (Greenfield 109; Middleton 88-89). However, the purple edges often quickly faded to brown because of the ingredients in the dye (Middleton 89). Like modern bindings, the spines of nineteenth-century bindings were rounded and lined first with cloth extending past the spine onto the boards and then with paper (Greenfield 109). The boards were constructed from paperboard or pulpboard with abundantly decorated covers (Greenfield 109). Although cloth was widely used for nineteenth-century covers, paper became an increasingly popular material during the Victorian era of the last three-fourths of the century (Greenfield 109; McLean 9). Elaborate cover designs to decorate the paper covers also emerged during the Victorian period (McLean 13). Owen Jones, who designed the cover for the 1846 Moore's Irish Melodies as illustrated in Figure 8, was the most notable cover designer of the nineteenth century (McLean 13).

Case binding is a modern bookbinding technique dating from the 1820s that continues to be popularly used in the twenty-first century (Young 5). Case binding is a hollow back binding, which means the cover materials are independent from the spine materials (Young 5). Hollow back binding allows a book to open flat without damage to the textblock because the back arches out and away from the spine permitting the signatures and sewing of the textblock to move more freely (Greenfield 14; Young 5). Case binding also produces more books in a shorter period of time because the technique generally requires less labor and fewer resources (Middleton 74). In the 1890s, the Sheridan case-maker mechanized the production of case bindings, which further increased the speed at which books could be bound (Middleton 76). The development of the case binding was an extremely important innovation for bookbinding because the demand for books greatly outnumbered the production by binderies at the end of the nineteenth century (Middleton 75).

Figure 9

Books bound with case bindings are created by first independently constructing the textblock and cover and then attaching, or "casing in," the cover to the textblock, as illustrated in Figure 9. The textblock of case bindings is first sewn together, sometimes with linen tapes. After discovering the embrittlement and deterioration of the poor-quality paper used in almost all books bound in the nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth century, modern publishers began printing books on acid-free paper. Endsheets are either sewn onto the textblock with the same thread as the textblock or are attached with Japanese tissue and some sort of adhesive such as paste or PVA glue. The spine is then lined with a cloth "super" followed by a paper lining. After the textblock is prepared, the case, or cover, is constructed. The case consists of two pieces of pulpboard, or more frequently known as binders board, cut slightly larger than the textblock to create a square and a stiffened spine lining usually made from paper or cloth (Greenfield 109). The boards and spine lining are then attached to a piece of cloth or buckram with PVA glue. Finally, the textblock is cased in to the cover by gluing the extending spine lining, sewing tapes, and endsheets to the case with PVA glue (Greenfield 109). Case binding is a protective bookbinding technique that also provides functionality in opening the book. Most modern hardback books are bound with case bindings.


Bookbinding as a craft began during the fourth century with Coptic binding in Egypt (Greenfield 81). Whereas early books were constructed from papyrus or vellum textblocks with wood boards and animal skin covers, modern books are made with paper textblocks with pulpboard boards and cloth or buckram covers. Even though the materials and techniques used for binding pages between protective covers have evolved since the early part of the first millennium, the art of bookbinding continues to thrive in the twenty-first century.


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