Here’s an example of a gilt top only, from The Cornhill Edition of The Works of Thackeray published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1911. The gilt top is evident in the light: the fore-edge is untrimmed, which makes any gilding impossible as it requires a super-smooth surface. The bottom edge is bare too. The book has a portrait frontispiece guarded by that sheet of tissue paper. This is exactly the kind of book which would get such an embellishment: a sort of prestige sale. Feel good about yourself for buying such a “handsome” set of volumes (no doubt offered at an attractive set price too).

The poor man’s equivalent of top edge gilding is a sprayed-on color stain such as one finds on the top edges of the old Modern Library books. A variant of the spray-on is a splatter-pattern spray, often for some reason to be found on dictionaries. Here’s an example from the Cassell’s Compact Latin Dictionary I bought at Titus Wilson’s bookshop as a 13-year-old schoolboy.

Sprayed-on color was applied to a lift of unbound sewn book blocks. A dozen or so copies would be held by boards at each end and clamped very tight so that the top edge of the books could be sanded very smooth. Then the color would be applied with a spray gun and the book blocks left aside for a while to dry off, before resuming their progress through the binding process.

Apart from Bibles though you rarely come across gilt edges. Sometimes a dictionary and the odd de luxe series. It is therefore a bit surprising to find in The Bookman’s Glossary a entry for t.e.g. which apparently meant “top edges gilt”, and was allegedly used as an abbreviation on orders to the bindery. Can’t have been too many people using that term, surely. If I’d been ordering a book with a gilt top I wouldn’t have been trusting enough to assume the guy at the other end would recognize the abbreviation. Heck I even learned not to order a set of “f & gs” from the printer: you really need to say “trimmed f & gs” if you don’t want to have to get loose with your paper knife once in a while because some junior didn’t realize what you really wanted. You may have worked in the job for years but it’s not safe to assume that the person at the other end of your communication knows all the jargon.

The Bookman’s Glossary “Fourth Edition, Revised and Enlarged” was published in 1961 by R. R. Bowker Company. Mary C. Turner, the editor, informs us in the preface “In the summer of 1924 THE BOOKMAN’S GLOSSARY made its first appearance, in serial form in the pages of Publishers’ Weekly.” At that time Bowker owned Publishers Weekly which still had its inverted comma in those less daring days. They collected the columns into a book in 1925. Even in 1924/5 I suspect you’d have been a bit rash to assume that a bald “t.e.g.” would get your top edges gilded. The preface does allow that “Abbreviations that are perfectly clear to the seasoned veteran are often obscure to the novice” — precisely the reason to be cautious in throwing them around. It may be hard for today’s novice to believe, but back when I started out if there were a query about the specs on a job this would have been handled by a leisurely exchange of letters. After a few years the telephone did grow in acceptability as a medium of communication between publisher and printer, but the urgency provided by e-mail etc. was well beyond our expectation.

The book contains a fascinating section of Foreign Book Trade Terms where you can discover that Goldschnitt is the German for gilt edges. Danes would call them güldsnit. We aren’t told what the other languages represented, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish would say. Maybe they all said t.e.g.! The section is obviously directed at a not altogether uncommon problem back then: when you’d get a letter from abroad and have to figure out what the translation might be. I’ve participated in quite a few of these efforts: this glossary would have been a big help.

See also Gold leaf, where you can find a video of a gilding machine in action.