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The Art of Bookbinding by
Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf

Book Binding History / Introduction

Book binding carries us back to the time when leaden tablets
with inscribed hieroglyphics were fastened together with rings,
which formed what to us would be the binding of the volumes.  
We might go even still further back, when tiles of baked clay with
cuneiform characters were encased one within the other, so that
if the cover of one were broken or otherwise damaged there still
remained another, and yet another covering ; by which care
history has been handed down from generation to generation.
The binding in the former would consist of the rings which bound
the leaden tablets together, and in the latter, the simple
covering formed the binding which preserved the contents.
We must pass on from these, and make another pause, when vellum strips were attached
together in one continuous length with a roller at each end. The reader unrolled the one, and
rolled the other as he/she perused the work. Books, prized either for their rarity, sacred
character, or costliness, would be kept in a round box or case, so that the appearance of a library
in Ancient Jerusalem would seem to us as if it were a collection of canisters. The next step was
the fastening of separate leaves together, thus making a back, and covering the whole as a
protection in a most simple form; the only object being to keep the several leaves in connected
sequence. I believe the most ancient form of books formed of separate leaves, will be found in
the sacred books of Ceylon which were formed of palm leaves, written on with a metal style, and
the binding was merely a silken string tied through one end so loosely as to admit of each leaf
being laid down flat when turned over. When he mode of preserving MS. On animal membrane or
Vellum in separate leaves came into use, the binding was at first only a simple piece of leather
wrapped round the book and tied with a thong. These books were not kept on their edges, but
were laid down flat on the shelves, and had small cedar tablets hanging from them upon which
their titles were inscribed. The ordinary books for general use were only fastened strongly at the
back, with wooden boards for the sides, and simply a piece of leather up the back.
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In the sixth century, book binding had already taken its place as an “Art,” for we have the
“Byzantine coatings,” as they were called. They are of metal, gold, silver or copper gilt, and
sometimes they are enriched with precious stones. The monks, during this century, took
advantage of the immense thickness of the wooden boards and frequently hollowed them out
to secrete their relics in the cavities. Book binding was then confined entirely to the monks who
were the literati of the period. Then the art was neglected for some centuries, owing to the
plunder and pillage that overran Europe, and books were destroyed to get at the jewels that
were supposed to be hidden in the different parts of the covering, so that few now remain to
show how bookbinding was then accomplished and to what extent.

We must now pass on to the middle ages, when samples of binding were brought from the
East by the crusaders. And these may well be prized by their owners for their delicacy of finish.
The monks, who still held the Art of Bookbinding in their hands, improved upon these Eastern
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specimens. Each one devoted himself to a different branch: one planed the oaken boards to a
proper size, another stretched and colored the leather; and the work was thus divided into
branches, as it is now. The task was one of great difficulty, seeing how rude the implements then
in use were.
The art of printing gave new life to our trade, and during the fifteenth century bookbinding made
great progress on account of the greater facility and cheapness with which books were produced.
The printer was then his own binder; bust as books increased in number, book-binding became a
separate art-trade of itself. This was a step decidedly in the right direction. The art improved so
much that in the sixteenth century some of the finest samples of bookbinding were executed.
Morocco having been introduced and fine delicate tools cut, the art was encouraged by great
families, who, liking the Venetian patterns, had their books bound in that style. The annexed
woodcut will give a fair idea of a Venetian tool. During this period the French had book binding
almost entirely in their hands, and Mons Grolier, who loved the art, had his books bound under his
own supervision in the most costly manner. His designs consisted of bold gold lines arranged
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geometrically with great accuracy, crossing one another and intermixed with small leaves or sprays. These were in outlines
shaded or filled up with closely worked cross lines.

These were in outlines shaded or filled up with closely worked cross lines.  Not, however, satisfied with these simple traceries,
he embellished them still more by staining or painting them black, green, red, and even with silver, so that they formed bands
interlacing each other in a most graceful manner. Opposite is a centre block of Grolier. It will be seen how these lines entwine,
and how the small tolls are shaded with lines. If the reader has had the good fortune to see one of these specimens, has he
not wondered at the taste displayed? To the French must certainly be given the honor of bringing the art to such perfection.
Francis I and the succeeding monarchs, with the French nobility, placed the art on such a high eminence, that even now we
are compelled to look to these great masterpieces as models of style. Not only was the exterior elaborate in ornament, but the
edges were gilded and tooled; and even painted. We must wonder at the excellence of the materials and the careful
workmanship which has preserved the bindings, even to the color of the leather, in perfect condition to the present day.
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