A book binding press

A bookbinding press

The ancient craft of bookbinding goes back into the distant past, well before the invention of printing. Evidence for the antiquity of the craft may be seen in the fact than Bookbinder exists as a surname; the names Mason or Turner similarly represent occupations. Printer and Papermaker are not surnames as far as I am aware, and these crafts were introduced after people had already acquired their surnames.

Early books were hand written, and in Europe they were written on vellum rather than paper. Vellum is made from the hides of calves and goats. Paper was made in the Orient long before it was used here. Papyrus, as used in Ancient Egypt, was a paper-like writing material made from a kind of sedge. Indeed the word paper derives from the Latin word papyrus. Paper was used in Europe before it reached England, but by the 14th century it was being imported. Where else was the earliest known paper book in England produced but Norfolk? The Red Register of Lynn dates from 1307. The printed book made paper an essential commodity, as vellum was too rare and expensive to be used in quantity. At first all the paper used for printing in England was imported from the Continent. A few attempts to produce paper in England were made in the 16th century, but without long-term success. It was in the 17th century that paper makers from the Netherlands began working around London.


Early printing press

The craft of printing had been invented in China, but was introduced into Europe right at the beginning of the Modern Age; in many respects printing heralded this period, and made it possible. The use of movable type was not very relevant to the Chinese way of writing language, which uses many more pictograms than the 26 letters of the alphabet, but this European invention was crucial to the new method’s success. Printing was introduced in 1439 by the German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg. After this initial revolution, printing remained more or less unchanged for three or four centuries. With the craft of paper making minor changes were made to the process in the eighteenth century, but it was only in the nineteenth century that experiments were made that changed both printing and paper making to automated processes, employing complicated machinery, steam power and an ‘endless’ sheet of paper.

In paper making the introduction of machinery came with the invention of the Fourdrinier paper making machine in the first decade of the nineteenth century. This was originally a French idea, but it was perfected in England. Because large quantities of water were used in the production of pulp, paper mills were always place alongside streams, which made water power the obvious choice for the earliest Fourdriniers. The amount of power was limited by the head of water available, and soon steam engines were introduced to supplement the power of the water wheel.

Bookbinding remained in its original state longer than printing or paper making, and this produced a bottleneck of its own.  The newspaper trade led the way in introducing machinery for paper making and printing, and of course newspapers do not require binding. In books the hardback was the norm in this country until the advent of the mass market paperback, with Penguin books in 1935. Even so, the early paperbacks had the pages sewn together, although sewing machinery had replaced the original hand stitched method. The modern use of new glues led to ‘Perfect Binding’  (which was far from perfect) in the 1960s. One annoying feature of glued binding is the reluctance of many such books to open and to lie flat. Glued bindings also tend to crack down the spine, leading to pages falling out. The very labour intensive process of binding with threads from the spine out across the covers was an early casualty, and it is now impossible to find any hardback books that do not rely on glued in endpapers to hold the pages and the covers together. Naturally this kind of joint can easily tear at the hinges, which was impossible with the old method.

You may have noticed that I said that books were sold as hardbacks in this country. This was to distinguish our practice from that in France, where books were commonly sold in paper covers, to be bound by the purchaser if he wished to pay the additional expense (few did).

18th century paper mill.

18th century paper mill.

I will now return to the early forms of these processes used in producing books. The way paper was made did not change greatly in hundreds of years, and the method is described by John Evelyn in his 17th century Diaries. The picture above shows the paper maker dipping his forme into the vat of pulp.  The pulp was made from rags of linen, later from rags of cotton as well. Woollen rags were not suitable for making paper. When the sheet is turned out of the forme it is gather with a dozen or so other sheets and then pressed to remove much of the water. Next it is hung out to dry thoroughly. Further processes would be applied to writing or printing paper. You can see why paper was a very expensive commodity. Even brown wrapping paper was only used sparingly.

In much the same way printing was carried out sheet by sheet. The inking was a two-handed job, the ink being applied with dogskin inking balls between each impression. The use of rollers was part of the automation that began 200 years ago. Even after modern printing machines were introduced by the large printing offices the old-fashioned hand presses remained in use by small printers well into living memory. The sole difference from Gutenberg’s press was that they were made of iron rather than wood, and this allowed the use of a lever rather than a screw to operate the press. If you only wanted a few copies of  a poster for example, this kind of press made perfect sense, until the introduction of modern digital techniques rendered it obsolete.

Hand made paper was kept going by the need for special papers. Some requirements, like artists’ paper and paper for banknotes, demanded great care which was not available from machines. Banknotes needed to be hard for forgers to copy, and rollers for producing watermarks were not introduced into the paper making machine for three or four decades. Consequently security papers continued to be made by hand long after most other papers were made by machine.

I think I have told you enough to show what a fascinating subject something we take for granted, like a book, can be. All this is equally true whatever the written content may be, although the added pressure to produce cheap Bibles for the masses, from organisations like the SPCK and BFBS, only added to the force for change.

After all these hundreds of years of development, the age of the book might seem to be over, now that ebooks are the future. I think there is still some life left in the physical book however. For a novel, or any book you read from cover to cover, a tablet is a perfectly acceptable medium for reading; but for reference books I find the flicking through pages so much quicker than the laborious process of doing a computer search; and there is no chance of making that accidental Serendipitous discovery that is such a marvellous feature of a real reference book. With a computer you may eventually find what you are looking for, but nothing else.



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