Skip to main content
Grolier Club Exhibitions

Bookbindings Before 1800

Bookbindings are the most public-facing components of books. Like the facade of a building, a book’s covers announce its identity in the world, while also offering the text a practical form of protection. The books here range from volumes bound in luxury embroidered and hand-decorated bindings to important, early examples of cheap bookbindings. These examples illustrate how coverings for texts were customized for or by specific owners, as well as how they slowly, and increasingly, began to be bound uniformly in advance for readers who sought ready and cheap alternatives to custom bindings.

Gothic binding model.

Winecke Meeuws. Gothic binding model. The Hague, 2004. Commissioned by RBS in 2004.

This model, created by Dutch book conservator Winecke Meeuws, illustrates the binding of a typical book produced in Europe between the mid-12th and early 15th centuries. The book is bound in calfskin burnished with an agate stone and blind tooled. Meeuws’s model leaves part of the binding exposed, free of leather, to reveal the underlying sewing structure. Actual medieval bindings are rare and extremely valuable, and they cannot be routinely handled in classroom settings.

Cutaway model showing Armenian and Greek binding structures.

Gary Frost. Cutaway model showing Armenian and Greek binding structures. Made using stamping tools and metal fittings produced by Shanna Leino, 2001.

Book conservator Gary Frost created this binding model, whose upper half demonstrates features of 17th-century Armenian bindings while the lower half exhibits features of 13th-century Greek bindings. Although centuries separate the two binding styles, they both feature unsupported sewing, sewn-on wooden boards, and blind tooling. Greek bindings are characterized by projecting endbands, boards cut to the same size as the text blocks, and grooves cut into the edges of the boards. One of the distinguishing features of Armenian bindings are the thin, vertical filets tooled on the spine leather.

English panel-stamped board,

English panel-stamped board, ca. 1500.

This binding specimen is the upper board of an English panel-stamped binding probably made just before the reign of Henry VIII. The wooden board, retaining one original brass clasp, is covered in calfskin. The blind-stamped design features two large Tudor roses surrounded by borders of intertwining foliage and flowers made by a panel stamp. Salvaged during the early 20th century, it was later attached to a new binding, probably as an act of preservation.

Pub. Terentii Aphri comoediae VI. . . .

Pub. Terentii Aphri comoediae VI. . . . Lyon: Sebastian Gryphius, 1534.

Gift of Mary Ann O’Brian Malkin.

At first glance, this 16th-century calf binding (probably French) looks impressive, but as RBS faculty member David Whitesell points out in his teaching notes, it is relatively shoddy work. The tooling is uneven in depth, the design was not laid out symmetrically, and, on the lower cover, a curved tool in the lower left-hand corner of the panel was stamped in the wrong area. The binder unsuccessfully attempted to cover up the mistake by removing the gold leaf.

Breviarium s[ecundu]m chorum Pataviensis Ecclesie nuper impressum cum quotationibus in margine.

Breviarium s[ecundu]m chorum Pataviensis Ecclesie nuper impressum cum quotationibus in margine. [Venice]: [Peter Liechtenstein for] Leonardi Alantse bibliopole Vienne[n]sis, [1508].

Gift of George Arnstein.

This small, 16th-century octavo breviary, containing the liturgical service of the Roman Catholic Church, has multiple points of interest; it is used in eight different RBS courses. Printed throughout in red and black, it includes metalcut decorated initials. The binding features blind-tooled decoration as well as an abbreviated title stamped on the top half of the upper cover. The book retains almost all its original brass furniture: bosses, corner pieces, and clasps.

Sicuti antiquarum lectionum commentarios concinnarat olim vindex Ceselius. . . .

Lodovicus Caelius Rhodiginus. Sicuti antiquarum lectionum commentarios concinnarat olim vindex Ceselius. . . . Venice: In Aedibus Aldi, et Andreae Soceri, 1516.

Gift of Jeremy Norman.

This book is half bound in blind-stamped, alum-tawed pigskin. The partially exposed wooden boards bear remnants of clasps visible on their fore-edges. Pigskin was prepared in a different manner from other bookbinding leathers. It was usually tawed (softened and bleached using aluminum salts) rather than tanned (treated with an infusion of tannin-rich bark or similar agents). Pigskin was used for bookbinding primarily in German-speaking lands in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance and also in regions bordering on Germany, including Austria, Switzerland, and northern Italy.

Orationes. . . .

Marc-Antoine Muret. Orationes. . . . Venice: Apud Aldum, 1576.

This later Aldine edition of a volume of the speeches by the French humanist Marc-Antoine Muret is bound in a limp parchment binding that was inexpensive and that could withstand regular handling. The endband cores have been laced in and through the parchment at head and tail, adding additional stability to the binding. The parchment is manuscript waste, now illegible, although some of the letterforms appear to correspond to those of late-medieval Italian scribes.

Les Bergeries de Julliette. Vol. 2.

Ollenix du Mont sacré [Nicolas de Montreux]. Les Bergeries de Julliette. Vol. 2. [Lyon: Jean Veyrat, 1592.]

Gift of Louis H. Silverstein.

This is an early example of a French laced-case binding that once had a full cover of parchment—an inexpensive form that emerged during the last quarter of the 16th century in response to economic pressures and a rise in prices. According to Nicholas Pickwoad, there was an increasing shift away from books bound in boards toward limp parchment bindings, which were faster and cheaper to make. Its cover lining is made from sheets of printed waste from an Italian book of canon law. Also visible is a parchment guard made from fragments of a medieval French devotional manuscript.

The Holy Bible: Containing the Olde Testament and the New. The Holy Bible: Containing the Olde Testament and the New.

The Holy Bible: Containing the Olde Testament and the New. London: Printed by Robert Barker, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1635.

Gift of Elizabeth M. Riley.

This embroidered binding was made for a Bible in 17th-century England. It was given to Katherine Underwood as a gift from her mother. Made of cream silk satin (now faded), it features a swan taking flight embroidered in silk and silver threads, as well as a pineapple, stitched in yellow and green silk, amid flowers sewn in teal and rose silken thread. The binding’s ties are torn but remain largely intact. The binding is adorned with sequins that have tarnished with age, but that would have flashed in candlelight, along with the metallic threads.

Yuzhu taishang ganying pian (御註太上感應篇). Compiled by the Shunzhi Emperor Fulin.

Yuzhu taishang ganying pian (御註太上感應篇). Compiled by the Shunzhi Emperor Fulin. Beijing: Neifu, 1655. Original wrapped-back binding (包背裝).

Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.

This wrapped-back binding, or baobeizhuang, was created in 1655 for a work compiled by the Shunzhi Emperor Fulin. The binding has not been altered since the book was bound for this early Qing palace edition. The binder piled the folded sheets together to form a text block, with the folded edges serving as the book’s fore-edge. Piercing the free edges with holes and threading them with strips of paper twisted to form “spills,” the binder then covered the spine with a thin coating of paste and attached a cover made from a single piece of durable paper.

The Gentleman’s Calling. Written by the Author of the Whole Duty of Man.

The Gentleman’s Calling. Written by the Author of the Whole Duty of Man. London: Printed by R. Norton for Robert Pawlet, 1679. Bound with The Ladies Calling. [Oxford]: At the Theater in Oxford, 1677.

The strikingly decorated cover of this 17th-century book, owned by a woman named Sarah Crocker, is bound in black goatskin. It features drawer-handle-style ornaments, tooled in gold, along with stylized gilt flowers, stars, dots, and arabesque corner pieces. The motif of round four-petaled flowers, springing from pairs of leaves, is a distinctive pattern associated with the Queen’s Binder B. The six compartments of the spine are tooled in gold with stars and flowers. The covers and spine alike have been decorated in silver paint that has now tarnished.

C. Julii Casaris qua extant cum notis et animadversionibus Dionysii Vossii. . . .

C. Julii Casaris qua extant cum notis et animadversionibus Dionysii Vossii. . . . Amsterdam: P. & J. Blaeu, 1697.

Prize bindings were an important segment of the upmarket binding trade in 18th-century Netherlands. The books were distributed as prizes to students in the 40-odd Latin schools that existed in the republic. They were most often bound in parchment and stamped or tooled on the upper and lower covers with the arms of the city or town in which the school was located. The figure of a woman bearing a shield on the cover of this binding represents the arms of the town of Enkhuizen.

Polyanthea, hoc est, opus suavissimis floribus celebriorum sententiarum tam Graecarum quam Latinarum exornatum. . . .

Dominicus Nani Mirabelli. Polyanthea, hoc est, opus suavissimis floribus celebriorum sententiarum tam Graecarum quam Latinarum exornatum. . . . Lyons: H. E. Vignon, 1600.

This French prize binding is an example of a semé, or semis, binding pattern, in which the surface of the leather is profusely decorated with repeated and regularly arranged small tools within a frame. The upper and lower covers also bear the armorial stamp of Thomas Morant, Baron du Mesnil-Garnier, a domain in Normandy. In 1620, Morant instituted a prize program for the Jesuit College de Mont in Caen, and, as part of the program, he required that prizes be distributed to students in his name in perpetuity.

De nullitatibus contractuum. . . . Rubricae primae, pars quarta.

Don Blasio Altimaro. De nullitatibus contractuum. . . . Rubricae primae, pars quarta. Naples: Caroli Porpora & Nicolai Abri, 1704.

This large and luxurious early 18th-century bookbinding is from a six-volume set that was intended for presentation to Francesco Pignatelli (1652–1734), a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, by the Italian author Don Blasio Altimaro, who likely hoped to gain financial support or other forms of patronage in return for his gift. RBS faculty member David Whitesell points out the presence of blind-scored lines dividing the upper and lower covers into four equal quadrants. These lines were made by the binder to help plot out the complex, symmetrical tooling design.

A New Version of the Psalms of David Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches.

N. Brady and N. Tate. A New Version of the Psalms of David Fitted to the Tunes Used in Churches. London: Printed for the Company of Stationers, 1706.

This copy of The Psalms of David, printed in 1706, was bound in what is known as a somber binding. Somber bindings were made in England between 1670 and 1720. Their dark, sober covers appeared on bibles and devotional books, and they may have been used during periods of mourning or for the purpose of observing Lent. Their distinctive covers of fine, black goatskin feature tooling in blind. This copy contains a contemporary ownership inscription: “Anna Grahame | Her Book.”

Las fantasmas de Madrid. . . . Tomo IV.

Íñigo Gómez de Barreda. Las fantasmas de Madrid. . . . Tomo IV. Salamanca: Antonio Villargordo, 1763; François Nepveu. Pensamientos: o Reflexiones christianas. . . . Tomo III. Iulio, Agosto, y Septiembre. Barcelona: Maria Angela Martì Viuda, 1755.

These two 18th-century Spanish books probably belonged to the same owner, who had them bound in a similar fashion. Both books are bound in goatskin decorated with a gold-tooled central fan motif, as well as several different tools depicting cupids. Additionally, there are gilt and gauffered edges. The books bear evenly spaced holes on the outer portions of the upper and lower boards, which indicate that they originally featured either clasps or textile ties.

Neuer Krackauer und Titular-Calender.

Paulus Turinsky. Neuer Krackauer und Titular-Calender. Brunn: Johann Franz Swoboda, [1708].

Purchased with funds provided by the B. H. Breslauer Foundation.

Before the end of the 18th century, most European books were sold in cheap or temporary bindings, typically made from parchment, paper, or lightweight cardboard. Customers could then commission new bindings of their choice for their copies. When sales of popular titles were certain, however, or when books would be used immediately after purchase (e.g., almanacs, diaries), the publisher or bookseller sometimes had texts bound in leather in advance of sale. This leather-bound almanac is a very early example of this practice.

The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded.

Bunyan, J[ohn]. The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded. London: Printed for W. Johnston, 1760.

Gift of David Richardson.

This 1760 copy John Bunyan’s work is a scarce, early example of an English publisher’s use of a plain textile as a covering material for a cheap bookbinding. It is considered by some on RBS’s faculty to be the earliest known example of its kind. A form of a trade bookbinding, publishers’ bindings were made in advance of retail sale. Canvas bindings were introduced possibly owing to a shortage of leather. Canvas was certainly less costly than leather while still being able to withstand heavy use.

Neu aufgelegtes Memmingisches Gesangbuch.

Johann Mayer. Neu aufgelegtes Memmingisches Gesangbuch. Memmingen: Johann Mayer, 1771.

The striking Dutch gilt endpapers in this Bavarian hymnal are sometimes referred to as “Dutch flowered papers.” Despite their name, these luxury, decorative papers were made in Germany and Italy; they were frequently imported into France and England through Holland, however, hence the term. Dutch gilt paper, which began to be made around 1700, emulated the rich brocade textiles of the time. They were only occasionally used as endpapers; more often, they were used as paper bindings for pamphlets, chapbooks, and works of music.

Wiener Kalenderl auf das Jahr 1777.

Wiener Kalenderl auf das Jahr 1777. Wien: Sebastian Hartl, [1776].

This miniature almanac was created in Vienna. Its outer case is embedded within a carved wooden case shaped and painted to look like a Viennese bread roll! Luxury almanacs were akin to fashion accessories, and this binding would have stood out as being unusual. At the same time, the wooden case has a practical purpose, providing protection for the delicate book within. The almanac is bound in blind-embossed, glazed paper that has been hand painted with two figures. It includes a mirror and a Dutch gilt pocket containing a table of currencies.

The Four Medical Tantras (Tib. rgyud bzhi, རྒྱུད་བཞི་).

The Four Medical Tantras (Tib. rgyud bzhi, རྒྱུད་བཞི). N.p. [probably Beijing], n.d. [ca. 1750].

This copy of The Four Medical Tantras is wrapped within a cloth (na bza’ or “robe”) and tied with a cord (ska rags or “belt”)—terms that, in Tibetan, echo language used for clothing worn by monastics. In Tibet, Buddhist writings are often seen as living embodiments of religious teachers. The texts themselves were transmitted orally and in writing through long lineages of realized practitioners. This text is thought by many to have originated from the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, as is indicated, in part, by the book’s large size. 

Wooden sewing frame with text block.

Wooden sewing frame with text block.

In Europe and North America, from the hand-press period to the present, binders have used wooden frames to facilitate the sewing of gatherings. This sewing frame is used for bookbinding demonstrations that illustrate how codices are sewn. Folding printed leaves into gatherings and sewing were among the last stages of book production to be mechanized. Women most often carried out these processes in European and North American binderies up until the 20th century.