Books and their bindings

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By popular demand, we present you a scroll. Unfortunately not from the 4th century but from 15th century Archduchy of Au
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By popular demand, we present you a scroll. Unfortunately not from the 4th century but from 15th century Archduchy of Au

Introduction

Today we are going to talk about various types of book bindings. Books can contain works of art so can a work of art contain the text of a book. In a similar way the way the text of a book can contain a work of art so does the binding. Craftsmanship of bookbinders requires skills and a technical knowhow as well as an artistic soul. Book owners take pride in the fact that their libraries contain valuable books or rare first editions but that’s only half of it. It’s always impressive to see shelves with beautifully decorated leather (or other) bindings.

Before we can talk about the various types of bindings, we should say a few words about the standard book format, also known as codex. The word “codex” comes from the Latin “caudex” that stands for trunk of tree or block of wood.  It also refers to a book constructed of a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus (or other similar materials) with hand-written contents. These books were usually bound by stacking the pages and fixing one edge with a cover slightly thicker than the sheets. It is safe to say that codexes made quite a revolution in the history of book making and shaped the former in the form that we know today. The previous book format that can be considered standard was the scroll. First described by the 1stcentury Roman poet Martial, who praised its convenient use. Afterwards the codex gained popularity and totally eclipsed the use of the scroll by the 6th century. Although the term „codex“ is mostly reserved for the manuscripts made before Gutenberg’s revolution, modern books are technically also codices.

Types of binding

We can now talk about some of the most common types of bookbinding, and we will do so in chronological order:

Velum or Parchment bindings: Vellum (derived from the Latin word vitulinum meaning “made from calf”, leading to Old French vélin – “calfskin”) often refers to a parchment made from, surprisingly, calf skin. Calfskin was processed for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. Today the term “vellum” is normally reserved for calfskin, while any other skin is called “parchment”. Vellum was most commonly used in bookbinding while parchment was used for other purposes. The later was used to cover  panels (wooden or  cardboard) or alone without any backing. Most vellum bindings are simple and undecorated. It was common for books printed in larger numbers to be bound in velum.
Vellum and parchment bindings.
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Vellum and parchment bindings.

Leather bindings: As the name suggests, leather bindings are made also from animal skin. Two most common types of leather bindings are Calf and Morocco, where the first being more common than the latter. Its natural color is a very characteristic variety of light brown. Morocco bindings first appeared in Europe in the early 16th century. Usually dyed in strong colors, Morocco bindings are most commonly made from goatskin and appeal for their durability as well as their appearance.


A beautifully decorated, blindstamped and giltstamped leather binding
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A beautifully decorated, blindstamped and giltstamped leather binding

Original Boards: The original boards or covers that the publisher first bound the book in.  This usually concerns books published from 16th to the middle of the 19th century. At the time was considered fashionable to have books custom bound for private libraries library.  Boards from this era are often very plain as they were meant to be disposable.  Because of this rarity, some collectors find original boards quite desirable.

Cloth binding: Beginning around the 1830s, publishers began binding their books in cloth as an alternative to plain boards.  What began as a novelty and an ingenious way for advertising and differentiating books eventually became the norm.

Paperback binding: Paperbacks came into mass production during the interwar period but still retain their popularity. The low cost of manufacture as well as the rise of literacy made this type of binding very popular. Paperback bindings offer a great potential for cover art. Previous bindings were bound to have decorations (mostly) in the form of giltstamp or blindstamp. On the other hand, paperback bindings could display more than just the contours of a seal pressed into a calfskin wrapped cardboard panel. Paperback bindings offered way more options for designers to work with because the binding could be printed.
Books with a wrapper, a cloth and a modern paperback binding.
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Books with a wrapper, a cloth and a modern paperback binding.

Other bindings: Besides the ones listed above, there are other, not so common types of bindings. Luxury editions of leather and parchment books can be decorated with various types of metal (gold, silver, bronze, steel, etc.) as well as jewelry. It is also common to bind wrappers in leather or half-leather binding (still maintaining the original wrapper binding), in effort to preserve it.

Stamps: Most common decorations on leather and cloth bindings are gilt and blind stamps. Colored and multi-colored stamps became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when single or multiple colors were stamped on to the book covers, as a vignettes or illustrations.
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