A recent comment asked why perfect binding was so named. I responded that I’d always assumed that it was an ironic usage — but that’s obviously an unlikely explanation. I was just reading Book Makers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century by Iain Stevenson (British Library, 2010) where I came across a footnote on page 155: “‘Perfect’ binding is not named for its quality but for its (American) inventor, a Mr Perfect. Adapted for long print runs, it involves the ends of the book sections being sliced off [he’s referring to the fold], and the resulting loose pages then being glued into a card case. The glue dries out over time, whereupon loose pages fall out and the spines tend to crack as the book is read. It was an early example of planned obsolescence. Since most paperbacks are also printed on high-acid wood pulp paper, which yellows and becomes brittle on exposure to the atmosphere, they tend to have a considerably shorter life than hardbacks printed on alkaline papers. In recent years, technical improvements such as better quality glues and ‘slot’ binding have made paperback quality better, and in general better paper is now used, in part to meet environmental requirements. Some have observed that production standards for hardbacks have in their turn declined, with unsewn bindings and poorer quality paper than hitherto.”

There’s quite a lot that could be unpacked in there, but in general it does do as a description of the process. The fascinating bit is the reference to “a Mr Perfect”. Mr Perfect strikes me though as a suspiciously vague designation; couldn’t we be given a first name? Still as the reference comes from the Professor of Publishing at University College London, I guess we can place some weight on it. However, all the references to Mr Perfect which I have been able to find lead us back to Book Makers as a source. Is this circularity suspicious? If you ask Google, Mr Perfect appears to be American wrestler, Curt Hennig, though there are a couple of other fighter-claimants of the sobriquet. There’s no evidence of activity by any of them in the world of book-binding!

According to Hotmelt.com perfect binding was invented in 1895 but wasn’t much used in bookwork till 1931 when German publisher Albatross Books pioneered the paperback. The Oxford English Dictionary gives an earlier date, with their first quotation coming from American Bookbinder in 1893 (or is it 1886?) “Mr. Crawford is the inventor of what is known as the ‘perfect library binding’.” Mr Crawford? Was he aka Mr Perfect? The Oxford Companion to the Book is tight-lipped on the subject: its entry for “perfect binding” reads in full: “A term commonly used for modern unsewn bookbindings whose structure depends on glue to hold the leaves together.” Perhaps only in Oxford is a process invented in 1895 describable as “modern”. Perfect binding is understandably beneath the notice of Joseph Blumenthal’s The Printed Book in America. Everyone’s look-up-of-last-resort, Pocket Pal, is brief on binding in general and wastes no time speculating on the origins of perfect binding.

Unless there’s some ancient bookbinder out there who can set us right, we shall have to go forward on the assumption that Professor Stevenson’s explanation is correct, though the OED is troubling. Does anyone have any other source for Mr Perfect?

Later: See the comments, where Professor Stevenson effectively disowns Mr Perfect.

[I wrote about perfect binding a couple of years ago.]