Archives for category: Book manufacturing

How long have we had books? What about printed books?

Who knows when the first book was actually produced? How long does a piece of writing have to be for us to call it a book anyway? No length at all: we are perfectly happy to accept the existence of blank books. Books are not just physical objects; the are also intellectual output. Within this definitional haze, we have agreed that the oldest complete dated printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra which may be seen from time to time at The British Library. It is dated May 868 AD. What’s the oldest handwritten book? Hard to be certain, but obviously much older. Papyrus scrolls are subject to decay and don’t just leap out of the ground shouting “I’m here, I’m here”. We have found papyrus scrolls dating back to 1,500 – 1,800 BC. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are relatively modern; consensus dates them to the last three centuries BC.) Maybe we could think of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform on clay tablets as a book, but apparently the text wasn’t really finalized till about the 12th century BC.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo Getty Images


But let’s leave all these bits of clay and scrolls to one side and focus on what we tend to think of as a book: a number of folded pages bound into a pair of covers. The codex, as such an object is named, was allegedly originally invented to deal with Christian literature in 2nd century Rome. (No doubt that statement is too bald by several orders of magnitude — the folks around at the time didn’t leave us firm evidence, so we try conjecture and balancing of evidence.) The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century, who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format which takes up less space than a scroll and is more comfortable to hold in one hand. Let’s just start the life of the codex in the second century and, although manuscript codices can obviously still be produced*, mark its ending with the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454. So the reign of the manuscript book lasted for about 1,200 years: let’s just say 1,100 years, since that would neatly represent twice as long as the current lifespan of the printed book, which, despite some recent panic, doesn’t yet look doomed to being superseded by the ebook.

Yes, what we think of as a book has been around for about 550 years: a third of the time we have had codices, and maybe a sixth of the time we’ve had books.

But during these 550 years we’ve been busy. We got off to a quick start, and have been accelerating ever since. Peter Stoicheff informs us in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, “the press itself was small and cheap enough that within fifty years of its invention Europe contained at least 200 of them, and they produced more books in that short time than had been produced by hand to that point in history”. (You can see this spread dynamically in the map linked to at my post Atlas of early printing.) Our book output built slowly and steadily. “Prior to 1750, approximately one hundred new titles were published annually in England; by 1825 approximately 600 annually; by the end of the nineteenth century approximately 6,000”. We were up to 184,000 in 2013.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles which more or less corresponds to the output of those 200 presses over those 50 years. Of course the older the item, the more likely it is to have disappeared without a trace, but we can only deal with what we can deal with, and I take this to mean Professor Stoicheff is telling us that we know of something like 29,000 manuscript books produced from the first to the fifteenth century. This means, I guess, that every couple of months now we publish more books than ever existed prior to Gutenberg’s revolution. No wonder we suffer from angst about what to read next.


* In the late 1650s there was a newspaper issued twice a week by Henry Muddiman, handwritten and distributed to a select group of subscribers. In Dawk’s News-Letter (1696-1716), Ichabod Dawks exploited the personalization implied by the handwritten format by setting his newsheet in a specially designed typeface, Scriptorial English No. 2, leaving a space at the top so that the subscriber’s name could be entered by hand after the text had been run off.


Humidity alone is responsible for this curling. There’s a matte lamination on the outside of the cover which is printed on cover 2 and 3 as you can see. The lamination is doubtless involved; the interior color isn’t. The dampness has to go somewhere, and it can’t go through the matte lam which holds the fibers together on one side while they can relax and swell on the other.

Humidity. No real antidote . . . what more can you say? You can say that now, after a three months on a shelf under a couple of other books, this cover is pretty much back to normal (as thank goodness is the humidity).

See also Warping boards

Etherington & Robert (see the Print Glossaries tab above) define remboîtage as “A French term applied to the process of transferring a book, i.e., text block and endpapers, from its original binding to another. The new binding may be more luxurious, more nearly contemporary, or simply more appropriate, than the original. The term also refers to the process of transferring a superior text of a work into a better binding than the one originally made for it. There is not a comparable English word for this expression*, recasing being the closest; however, in craft bookbinding, “recasing” connotes a book that has been removed from its covers, repaired and/or resewn, and then returned to the original covers, while in library binding, it indicates a new, but usually just ordinary, case.”

Early book cloths, in the 1820s and 30s were only a marginal upgrade on the paper-over-boards style of temporary binding that publishers had been purveying for a few years. Temporary because it was still assumed that everyone would get their books rebound in leather, so these covers were merely a protection to ensure the sheets got to the bindery in good shape. From about 1850 onward it became usual for the publisher to assume the cost of final binding — i.e. the temporary cloth binding evolved into a permanent gold foil stamped hardback book intended to remain that way for ever. Of course there remained traditionalists who’d take that hardback and subject it to remboîtage.

Jeff Peachey has a post about his attempts to replicate this early temporary book cloth in which he says:

Publishers’ book cloth started in the 1820s.  Originally it was undecorated, faded quickly, attracted dirt, and over time became brittle. The book structures it was used on were traditionally considered “temporary”, were cheap and insubstantial, and as a result many examples have been rebound. Most studies of nineteenth century bookbinding focus on attractive and visually interesting aspects of book cloth that begin in the 1840, such as gold stamping and cloth grain patterns. Until recently, these early cloths have been overlooked by historians. It is doubtful that three piece adhesive case binding (aka. the hardcover) would have become the dominate rigid board book structure without book cloth.

Many examples of early cloth, searchable by year, can be found at The Library Company of Philadelphia’s wonderful online database of nineteenth century cloth bindings.  Another easy to use visual resource is The Publishers’ Binding Online, where you can browse by the decade. But the best thing is to get to the nearest library and examine some actual books. Images cannot substitute for this.

John Carter, in his classic essay, “Origins of Cloth Bindings” recounts the moment of the innovation: a conversation in the 1820s between Mr. Pickering (the publisher) and Mr. Sully (the binder), with Mr. Pickering expressing a desire to cover a boards binding with something a little “neater”, like a blue calico window curtain that was hanging in the room. Since this event was recalled and recorded first in the 1850s, some leeway should be ascribed as to the details of this encounter. But it’s a good read.”


* Any implication that this is what remboîtage means in French should be resisted. This adopting of the fancy foreign word to designate a special instance of something for we have a perfectly normal word is not that unusual — cow/beef, sheep/mutton, pig/pork. In French remboîtage means recasing tout court. Who knows, the French may call rebinding into a superior cover “recasing”! As well as its book binding sense, the French word in general means putting something back together, including that jerking of an arm to get a dislocated shoulder back into place which is (maybe used to be) such a highlight of the rugby field.

An Oxford hollow is “a flattened paper tube inserted between the spine of a book and its cover to strengthen the spine and allow the book to be opened flat more easily.” But it’s not just like taking an empty toilet-paper tube and flattening it: the tube, if properly made, is constructed in situ. A stout bit of kraft paper is glued to the spine of the book block. Then a piece, almost three spine widths wide is cut and folded. The middle part is glued to the first piece on the spine. This leaves two flaps, A and B, as shown in this diagram (from Cornell Library). B is glued onto the top of A, taking care to keep any glue out of the space below A. Then when you open the book and look down the spine, there’s the tube separating the pages from the binding.

You can see the top of the hollow (and the A/B join) in this photo from Parks Library Preservation.

Jeff Peachey tells when it’s better not to use one in book repair.

If you feel inclined to start checking your book collection to find an Oxford hollow, I suspect you’re going to be out of luck. Most commercial bindings are made with a simple hollow, a single strip of heavy kraft paper glued to the cloth in the spine space between the two boards. Nothing hollow about this at all, but the name has adhered to this degenerate survivor. The most likely place to discover an Oxford hollow in a modern commercial production is in a leather-bound Bible.

Guillotine is what we call the machines which trim the edges off our books after they have gone through the binding line. Huge guillotines are also used in paper handling for cutting down and squaring up sheets. And of course most of us are familiar with the piece of office equipment thus named: 




The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference to guillotine, in the paper cutting way, dates from 1883. Already in 1850 Hawthorne was using the word in the sense of curtailing parliamentary discussion (in The Scarlet Letter). I wonder who the cynic was who first applied the name of Dr Guillotin’s hair-raising brainwave to more mundane articles.

This image, from Jeff Peachey’s blog shows why we now have all these safety bars which attempt to make it impossible to leave even a finger in there. Notice that, perhaps understandably, the French word for this machine is “massicot”.

Suicide d’un relieur qui se guillotine avec un massicot dans l’imprimerie rue de l’Amiral Roussin a Paris. Gravure. Une du journal “Le petit parisien” le 19/06/1910. Collection privee. ©Lee/Leemage

Modern 3-knife trimmers tend to be integrated into high speed binding lines and function without any human manual intervention. Here’s a video showing an off-line trimmer with obvious safety features. After trimming these book blocks will proceed to casing in. Note the sophisticated piece of equipment the operator uses to clear the off-cuts.


I can remember in my early days seeing trimmers which were quite open and readily available to chop off your arm — all that stood between the operator and dismemberment being his good sense.

As ever, if you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this blog post in order to view it in your browser.

Fine binding is not an edition binding which turned out pretty well. The term refers to the craft, the art, of hand binding at its highest pitch. In Britain there’s a society of binders, Designer Bookbinders, and an annual prize organized by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Queen even has a bookbinder: Ian Barnes of Temple Bookbinders in Oxford was recently named ‘Hand bookbinder to Her Majesty, the Queen’, as AbeBooks informs us.

The rather impressionistic video below whisks you through the fine binding process, courtesy of The Folio Society. I am still wondering what the function of that tin of Brasso is. Note that the book in this video features mass produced headbands and artificial hubs (raised bands which originally were the evidence for the cords which secured the boards and the sewing)*, so though it’s a pretty fine binding, it’s not “hand binding at its highest pitch”. It’s interesting, though like so much else, obvious on reflection, that “the term ‘raised bands’ only entered the bookbinder’s vocabulary when the structural need for them had disappeared.” (John Carter: ABC for book collectors).

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post so you can view it in your browser.


* See the video at Hand binding.

Why is a piece of art in a book referred to as a figure?

It’s been that for long enough. The Oxford English Dictionary defines figure as “a delineation illustrating the text of a book”, and gives as their earliest example Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (c. 1400) “For the more decl[a]racioun, lo here the figure.” The book is still available, so, lo, there too the figure.

The word is well established, and the OED doesn’t bother to show any examples later than 1885. Recent enough you may say, but not long into the life of photography, which is what got me started on all this. I was reading an Oxford University Press book, George Cotkin’s Dive Deeper, and was struck by the fact that all the art is labeled as Figure this that and the other regardless of whether it is a photo or a line drawing. This actually seems an absolutely normal state of affairs, but why should I think that a figure should only be a piece of line art?

I fear the answer is that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, something I’m a bit ashamed to have to admit. In the old letterpress days, when photographs tended to be printed on separate sections of coated paper, they were referred to as Plates, and got their own numbering sequence. The other bits of artwork, which were printed on the text paper were labeled Fig. 1, Fig. 2 etc. Once offset presses enabled publishers to print halftones on text paper, they could be incorporated into the same Figure sequence. Indeed Judith Butcher tells us in Copy-editing, Third edition (first published in 1975, but in use internally for years before that) “Text halftones are usually included in the figure numbering. Halftones printed on different paper are more likely to be numbered in a separate sequence, because of the expense of inserting them at the right place in the sequence when the book is bound.”*

Still, figure remains an odd word for what might be called an illustration, a drawing, a diagram, a picture even — though perhaps no odder than may of the words we easily utter. The word ultimately derives from the Latin figura, which apparently (mysteriously?) was a medieval rendering of σχῆμα (from which we get schema, or schematic which is a word occasionally to be found as an alternative to figure in scientific publication).

Why is an illustration in a book referred to as art for that matter? This seems simpler I think. The manuscript would arrive at the printers as two stacks: pages of text, and a pile of drawings which had to go to a draftsman to be turned into reproduction quality “artwork”. So to refer to illustrations in a book as art, is to focus on their original production method.


* This reference to inserting plates at their text reference brings up another aspect of book manufacture. If you have a photo printed up and have to tip it in facing its text reference (which is obviously the most convenient location for the reader) you have to interrupt the binding process to flip through the book to find the page in question, open it up and do your tip-in. If there’s only one halftone plate, for example a frontspiece, this extra cost was often tolerated, but if there were multiple plates, the cost quickly became exorbitant. Gathering all the halftones together in one section doesn’t really inconvenience the reader all that much as it’s pretty obvious where the plate section is.













Never heard of it — in a bookish context at least. The word can also be rendered as spue. But, as The Collation informs us, spew apparently results from a “reaction that occurs in some leathers which have been treated (or ‘dressed’) with different fatty or waxy compounds. When the leather is exposed to a change in climate, these unbound compounds migrate towards the surface and solidify, where they form a crystalline residue.” Spew can be found on your old boots as well as your leather-bound library.

It can be distinguished form its dangerous Doppelgänger, mold, by the fact that spew will melt when lightly heated.

The OED informs us that spew may also mean “the fourth swarm of bees in a season”. Good to know we have a word for that.

from Chicago Tribune

Walker Rumble’s The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races (University of Virginia Press, 2003) is an odd publication. Its main focus is on the weird phenomenon of races between hand typesetters. (Rapid typesetters were apparently referred to a swifts.) These races were put on in the sort of place, commoner in the second half of the nineteenth century, now represented by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or Madame Tussaud’s, and appear to have drawn large crowds. Betting on the speed of a hand typesetter had long been a feature of in-house work-time entertainment in print shops: this development pulled it out into a public forum and naturally did nothing to reduce the betting.

Speed of setting was obviously an important factor in the efficiency of a newspaper. Getting pages printed was no problem on their power presses, but you had to have type to print there: and there were limits to the number of people you could hire. Not only was there a limited number of journeymen out there, but training, all via apprenticeship, was controlled by the union. In a ten-hour day the average journeyman would set (and correct) about 7,000 ems, 700 an hour. At a rate of 1,500 ems an hour, which most compositors would achieve in spurts, their hand would be reaching into the typecase at a rate of 4,000 times per hour. Very fast workers might reach back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds. William C. Barnes, one of the last of the champion racers before technology took over and hand setting was superseded, managed 2000 ems an hour in the heats for the 1886 national typesetting championship in Chicago. He would also set blindfold and with his type cases reversed (i.e. upper case below lower case).

The workers naturally had an interest in not allowing the speed in the composing room to get too high: 700 ems an hour was just fine by them. One of the workers’ beefs about the attempt to bring women into the business in the years following the Civil War was that they would work too fast, no doubt to indicate how viable an alternative workforce they were. This represented a delicate balancing act for the macho typesetting unions who needed to demonstrate that men were better, and yet keep work rates down (thus pay rates up). This tension could be partially resolved by these typesetting races which seemed to show that men really could set type faster than women. This was almost certainly not the case, but naturally head-to-head races were not arranged. A comp could easily claim that it wasn’t possible to sprint all day: their competitive speed bursts were never allowed to become the norm. Of course the union, and all its members also faced the looming challenge of machine typesetting, a challenge which overwhelmed them all in the end.

Public hand typesetting races were a short lived phenomenon. They couldn’t get going till printing became industrialized in the 1830s and 40s, so that there were large groups of comps who could compete with one another in in-house competitions, and the races couldn’t survive when hand setting was superseded by machines and the contestants all lost their jobs (or retrained). Thus the “sport” only lasted for about 15 to 20 years from around 1870 when the first public events were arranged.

Regretful printer, by John DePol, from The Legacy Press.

You don’t want to be doing one of these. It means you (or one of your colleagues) have screwed up, and badly enough to warrant the expenditure of quite a bit of money.

Errata, also referred to as Corrigenda, are mistakes and misprints discovered after  a book has been printed. They may be joined by their cousin Addenda. In the early days of printing, when it took quite a while to work through the setting and printing of a book, Corrigenda and Addenda might be incorporated into the first printing, in the front matter which would be printed last. Some early printers corrected errors and omissions straightforwardly by hand-written additions.

The whole subject gives bibliophiles conniptions: they agonize over things like whether a book which had an erratum slip is complete if the erratum slip has gone missing — which of course tends to happen a lot.

If the mistake is embarrassingly silly it may be taken care of by a cancel — a completely new page tipped in in place of the ghastly original. An erratum slip may tend to advertise the carelessness of the author’s proofreading, and occasionally may be there as a silent admonishment by a frazzled publisher. Just dropping an erratum slip into the book is the cheapest way of dealing with the problem — other of course than simply ignoring it and assuming nobody’ll notice, which is more and more our modern attitude. But really an erratum slip should be tipped in somewhere near the end of the front matter: if you’re going to go to the expense of doing one, you really want the reader to get the benefit of the information it carries.

See also Anti-decluttering for a couple of examples.