Distributed Proofreaders proudly celebrates its 34,000th unique title posted to Project Gutenberg, with the very apt A Manual of the Art of Bookbinding, by James B. Nicholson. Many thanks to all the DP volunteers who worked on it!
The Manual of the Art of Bookbinding, originally published in 1856 and reprinted in 1878, has everything you ever wanted to know about the hands-on side of bookbinding, and then some. It was designed for the amateur who wanted to bind just one book; or the collector who wanted to bind his private library of books; or the “practical workman” who wanted to learn the trade. Bookbinding was a popular trade back then, but it gradually fell out of favor during the 20th Century – until a devastating flood hit Florence in 1966, and experienced bookbinders were desperately needed to save priceless books damaged by the floodwaters. Even with the rise of e-books, independent bookbinders and conservators are still thriving, and bookbinding workshops for amateurs can be found all over the world.
As the subtitle promises, the Manual contains “Full Instructions in the Different Branches of Forwarding, Gilding, and Finishing,” along with “The Art of Marbling Book-Edges and Paper” – including lovely full-color examples of marbling. The Preface sneers that “nearly all the works written upon the subject [are] obsolete; their descriptions no longer apply to the methods practised by the best workmen.” Nonetheless, the Manual borrows heavily from its predecessors, claiming to adopt the “best” of them while rejecting the “obsolete.”
After an introduction reviewing the history of bookbinding, Part I focuses on “Sheet-Work,” beginning with the basic but crucial work of folding the printed sheets, “the beauty of a book depending on its being properly and correctly folded, so that, when it is cut, the margin of the different pages may be uniform throughout, and present no transpositions, to the inconvenience of the reader and deterioration of the work.” There are instructions for “beating” the folded sheets into a solid block – that is, laying them out on a special stone and striking them repeatedly with a hammer, a process that even then was already mechanized with presses in commercial bookbinding, but is described for the benefit of the amateur who wants to hand-bind a book. There’s even advice to keep one’s legs together while beating, “to avoid hernia.”
Part II is devoted to “forwarding,” the process of attaching the boards that will become the front and back covers, adding in the end-papers, covering the boards with fabric or leather, and gilding the page edges. It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds; this part of the Manual occupies over 120 pages of detailed instructions. The author repeatedly emphasizes the need for special care in this phase of bookbinding, particularly when binding for a private customer: “Let the workman who strives to excel in his art remember that his work goes through the hands of critics and judges; that it possibly may be compared with the productions of the most celebrated artists.”
The fun part is in Part III, a treatise on “Ornamental Art.” After a brief review of ornamental styles from ancient Egypt to the time of Louis XIV, the reader is introduced to the art of “finishing.” Here the author warns the would-be bookbinder to have “correct ideas in regard to taste, and be able to distinguish it from caprice or mere fancy,” for the laws of taste “can be easily learned, and they are unchangeable.” There are examples of good taste and bad taste, and of how to make the ornamentation appropriate to the contents of the book. There follows an extended practical exposition of the art, with plates illustrating classic design styles that can be tooled or stamped into the covers and spine of the book. There are precise instructions on gilding, polishing, coloring, and other finishing touches, as well as advice on restoring old books. There’s even a handy glossary of bookbinding terms.
Mindful of who the ultimate beneficiary of these efforts would be, the book also contains “Hints for Book-Collectors,” starting with the all-important rule, “Never write your name upon the title-page of a book.” We promise not to, now that we know how much work and creativity go into the lovely art of bookbinding.