Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique

Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique

by Edith Diehl

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Mammoth volume by one of the world's foremost practitioners. Both historical survey emphasizing decorated bindings, and eminently practical guide to hand bookbinding. 93 plates, 242 figures.
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Mammoth volume by one of the world's foremost practitioners. Both historical survey emphasizing decorated bindings, and eminently practical guide to hand bookbinding. 93 plates, 242 figures.

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Dover Publications
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Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
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ISBN: 978-0-486-15614-9



The book form has gone through very few changes in physical appearance since its inception, and it is interesting to note that each change of form has been the natural and even the compelling result of a change in the character of the tools and materials used for recording the text.

The printed book is a thing taken for granted in this twentieth century, but one must remember that its origin is of comparatively recent date, and was preceded by centuries of inscribed and written documents, many of which were recorded thousands of years before the Christian Era. The form in which these documents made their appearance varied from age to age with the development of civilization.

Long before an alphabet was conceived and writing developed, men found it necessary to make records and tabulate ideas, and their early pictorial recordings, cut on stone or wood, constitute the first step in the development of an alphabet and the evolution of the printed book. This form of record making was undoubtedly practiced all over the world wherever primitive man existed, and it apparently had its origin in no one place. While these early pictorial records are not directly related to our present form of book, they are interesting in themselves and because of their bearing on the development of our alphabet.

We have the early animal drawings on the walls of caves and tombs, such as the artistic animal delineations in the caves of the Dordogne in France, which were doubtless full of meaning and told a story to the people of the time, serving as signposts or guides to them in such matters as where they could procure food and the like. Then there are the cryptic cup and ring markings found on rocks from Western Europe to the Far East, all with a certain similarity in form, suggesting a common idea among widely separated tribes of men. There are other records of similar character, numerous and suggestive of varying degrees of civilization, in addition to the Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions that scholars have been deciphering and interpreting for many years. But it was at quite a late period that all these records were sufficiently analyzed to supply evidence that it was through them that the art of writing was evolved. The carvings by men of the early Stone Age represent prehistoric picture books, and there is reason to consider them the earliest ancestors of all our later art and literature.

As letters of the alphabet now in use were derived from hieroglyphics, so hieroglyphics were copies from the animal and vegetable forms familiar to primitive man, and there gradually evolved three great pictorial systems of writing in the old world–the Assyrian-Babylonian, the Egyptian, and the Chinese. These systems, however, in their symbolic form were by degrees lost as complex ideas of civilization progressed. For while concrete happenings could be expressed in picture writing, the portrayal of abstract notions demanded a less primitive system.

In addition to the inaccessible Egyptian and Babylonian monuments, there are in our museums examples of pictographic and ideographic types of record keeping in the form of Chinese leaves of jade, carved amulets, notched sticks of primitive tribes, runic calendars, and the very much later clog almanacs. The wampum belts of our North American Indian are not without interest in this connection, and the knotted quipus of Peru represents an amazing system of a sign language.

We find that the uncivilized peoples, such as the North American Indians, continued symbol writing and found it equal to their needs, while the development of civilization in Egypt and China made it necessary to find a form of writing better adapted to the expression of finer shades of meaning, and these nations converted symbol writing into a syllabary, or character writing. As men emerged from a simple life to a more complex manner of living, incidents and thoughts became more involved, and their transference through records became more difficult to achieve. A sketched picture outline served well to portray a concrete message or to record incidents among primitive peoples, but was found inadequate for expressing intricate ideas and involved incidents. So we find the hieroglyphic modernized to meet the demands of civilized life. This change from the symbolic to the syllabic as a mode of expression marks the actual beginning of our alphabet. It may be noted here that the Egyptians never developed an alphabet as did the Western Europeans. They continued to retain traces of a vivid art and imagination in their form of writing.

For centuries little was known about the origin of the five great early alphabets–the hieratic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, for the key to their interpretation was lost from the fifth or sixth century until the end of the eighteenth century when the Rosetta stone, now in the British Museum, was discovered (1799). This stone contains a trilingual inscription, namely, an inscription in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. Since the Greek was understood, the stone proved to be the key to the mystery of the hieroglyphic, and from it a common origin of these five early alphabets was established. The Latin alphabet was found to have been derived from the Greek, the Greek from the Phoenician or Semitic, the Semitic from the hieratic, or cursive, Egyptian, and the hieratic from the hieroglyphic. And thus our twenty-six letter alphabet, which was inherited from the Latins, has been traced back to the hieroglyphic monuments of Egypt.

One of the most interesting records of the Assyrians and Babylonians is the foundation cylinder (see Plate 1). These cylinders are barrel shaped, hexagonal, or round. They are flat at each end, with a hole pierced through them lengthwise. They were made of clay, and upon their sides are inscribed accounts of historical events, in consequence of which they have proved a valuable source for establishing facts and data concerning this ancient period of Babylonian and Assyrian history. Stone cylinders and other records on stone constitute the first books, if we accept the dictionary definition of a book as a written or printed document.

The Egyptian inscriptions on stone were followed by clay tablets (see Plate 2), originating in Babylonia at the time of the Semitic invasion, about 2400 B.C. It was found by the scribes that the complicated picture characters, or hieroglyphics, incised on stone were difficult to impress on clay, and gradually the old picture writing seems to have been transformed into conventional signs of greater simplicity, and the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing came into being. This form was a modification of the hieroglyphic.

The invaders of Babylonia, who first discovered the use of clay as a material for writing purposes, made their tablets quadrangular in shape, wrote upon them while still moist, and then baked them in the sun or in an oven. Writing was impressed on them by means of a stylus, a pointed instrument usually of wood, bone or metal; and these tablets proved very durable for record keeping. They were first used for recording business transactions, such as the sale of a parcel of land or the loan of money, and later they were used for literary purposes. On the tablets representing business transactions, seals of mud were affixed in order to attest the presence of witnesses.

We have reason to believe that these early documents were stored on shelves in libraries in a manner similar to the fashion prevalent in our libraries today. They too had their covers and their labels, as have our present-day books, the difference in kind obviously due to the difference in the substance of the material used for the text. The covers of these tablets were sometimes earthen jars, and they were labeled with clay markers secured by straws. Frequently the text continued from tablet to tablet, like the leaves of a modern book. In the seventh century B.C. a large library of clay tablets existed in Nineveh. It is said to have been established about 3800 B.C. by Sargon I, founder of the Semitic empire in Chaldea, and it was the first great library of which we have any record. It was destroyed by fire on the fall of Nineveh.

In the Oriental countries the early books were made from narrow strips of palm leaves as well as from strips of bark. The writ-in on these strips, or sheets, was scratched in and then blackened with lampblack in order to make the text stand out more distinctly. The leaves followed each other in sequence and were covered on the top and bottom with wooden boards, which were fastened on by means of cord run through holes at each end. Sometimes these covers were of gold or silver and were often elaborately decorated with carvings or with intricate inlaid designs.

The papyrus roll (see Plate 3) made its appearance at a very early period. Each roll was made of sheets of papyrus leaves pasted together. The text was written in ink by a scribe who used a sort of reed brush-pen. One of the earliest literary examples of a papyrus roll, called the Prisse Papyrus, is now in the Louvre, and dates before 2500 B.C. Many papyrus rolls have been found buried in the ground in earthenware jars, which served to protect them from the ravages of dampness, insects, and other injurious agents. In forming the rolls, one papyrus sheet was pasted to another lengthwise, and after the text was completed, the manuscript was rolled up tightly and placed in a cylindrical box called a scrinium. Some of the more valuable rolls were protected with a wrapper before being put in their boxes, and there was frequently more than one roll in a box, each usually with a tag or label affixed to it.

Papyrus as a writing material has probably been in use since about 3500 B.C. It continued to be employed almost exclusively for this purpose until the early part of the Christian Era, when vellum began to supplant it as a substance better adapted to the work of the scribe and less vulnerable to injurious agencies. However, it continued to be used in Western Europe far into the tenth century, and it is used in Egypt even at the present time for recording certain documents.

When the scribe began to write on papyrus, he was forced to change his writing implement from the hard stylus employed on clay and wax to a tool less incisive, and he developed the brush-pen. It was made out of a reed and had a fibrous pointed end. Both black and red inks were used on papyrus documents, and these were made by the scribe as he needed them – the black ink being a mixture of lampblack, gum, and water; and the red ink, a sort of metallic infusion. A sponge was kept at hand by the scribe while laboring over a papyrus text for the purpose of erasing writing when in need of correction, since the surface of papyrus does not admit of scraping with a knife for erasures as does the surface of vellum.

The papyrus plant was widely cultivated in Egypt along the Nile and is still found in the upper Nile region and in Abyssinia and Sicily. It is a very decorative plant that grows in bush form, with many stalks coming up from a single root, each stalk ending in a tufted head. It resembles quite closely, and is related to, some of our common North American sedges.

We learn from Theophrastus that many useful articles were fabricated from the papyrus plant. He tells us in his history of plants that the tufted heads were used for making garlands for the shrines of the gods and that the roots were made into different utensils and were utilized for fuel. According to Theophrastus, boats, sails, cloth, cord, and writing material were all made from the stems of this plant.

Papyrus was made in Egypt by slitting the plant stems and cutting them into fibrous strips, which were laid side by side on a board until the desired width had been reached. Then at right angles across this layer of strips another layer was laid. These two layers of split stems, supported by the board, were then immersed in the water of the Nile, and after being thoroughly soaked, were left to dry in the sun. They were later hammered into flat sheets and finally polished with pieces of ivory or with a shell.

There was an early superstition that attributed certain chemical properties to the waters of the Nile, which were thought to make the strips of papyrus adhere to each other, but since papyrus was made on the Euphrates and in other places as well as upon the Nile, another explanation for this mysterious cementing together of these strips must be sought for. A theory has been advanced that inherent in the reed stems was a glutinous substance which exuded from the strips after being wet and served to bind them together. But a simpler and more probable explanation is that the early papyrus makers used some sort of adhesive which they applied to the strips. The papyrus produced by the Romans was remade from imported papyrus, and the brittle condition of the Latin papyri is evidence that the Roman papyrus was of inferior quality as compared to the Egyptian.

So long as papyrus remained the chief writing material, the roll form of book was inevitable. Papyrus could be cut into sheets and written upon, but its texture is more or less brittle and it does not admit of being folded without injury. Hence the roll form was continued for papyrus manuscripts.

The Greeks modified the Phoenician alphabet for their use probably before 700 B.C. and later both Greeks and Romans adopted the roll form of book. One of the earliest examples extant of a Greek papyrus roll dates back to about 280 B.C.

Skins of animals were used as a writing material at a very early date, though we know nothing about the earliest method of preparing them for manuscripts. It is probable that the character of the skins first used for writing purposes was rather heavy and more like a tanned leather than the thinner and better prepared ones found in the skin rolls of a later period. In the second century B.C., a great improvement took place in the preparation of skins used for writing on. This finer substance was called parchment or vellum, and was not tanned like leather but was prepared quite differently.

The invention of vellum has been attributed to Eumenes II of Pergamum, though it is known that prepared animal skins were used for MSS. before this time. It appears, however, that a new method was employed for preparing skins during the reign of Eumenes II, and a finer material was fabricated, which was smoothly finished on both sides instead of upon one side as previously.

According to a popular story, Eumenes, who was interested in accumulating books for his library, found papyrus difficult to procure, since the Ptolemies forbade its export from Egypt, hoping to check the growth of a rival library. Hence he was forced to substitute skins for his books. Be that as it may, we know that during the second century B.C., when Eumenes II was in power, Pergamum was the chief center of the vellum trade, and the term "parchment" doubtless derives its name from Pergamum, the early seat of parchment and vellum making. The term "vellum" is in general use at the present time to denote both parchment and vellum, though among manufacturers of these products parchment connotes a material made from the skins of sheep or goats, while a finer material made from the skins of calves or of stillborn lambs is called vellum.

The making of parchment and vellum is not a complicated process, though it is a very messy procedure. One of our American nuns, a scribe and illuminator, made her vellum skins for years, and she also produced the rare purple vellum, the making of which is an art thought to have been lost since the Middle Ages.

To make vellum, the skins are first washed, and the under-surfaces scraped and cleaned. Then they are put into a vat of caustic lime and are left to soak for many days until the hair is sufficiently loosened to be easily removed. To remove this hair, the skins are placed on a wooden block and are flayed vigorously. A second scraping and many washings follow, after which the skins are stretched tightly and evenly on a frame and are fastened there to dry. During the drying process more scraping has to be done, and the inequalities of the surface are pared down with a sharp knife. The drying often takes weeks, and the skins are kept evenly stretched during this time. When finally dry, they are rubbed down with powdered pumice and then given a dusting with finely powdered chalk. It is probable that a method similar to this was employed in preparing the fine vellum used on early MSS.

Rolls made of vellum were comparatively rare in Egypt, where papyrus continued to be the chief writing material. But their use was widespread in western Asia at an early period, and the vellum roll was the prescribed form for books used by the Jews in their synagogues.

Vellum rolls were written upon in various ways. The writing was on one side of the material only, and that was the so-called recto of the skin, which had been polished to a smooth surface. The earliest ones were written with the lines running across the width of the roll, and the manuscript was held upright as it was read, and unrolled from top to bottom.


Excerpted from BOOKBINDING by EDITH DIEHL. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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