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Old Books:


Printing & Binding

Did you know?

Differences in Plates

Differences in Bindings

Printing & Binding

  Way back when monks were hand copying manuscripts, each "book" was unique. There were no mass market paperbacks, book clubs or publishing houses. Books were indeed rare, expensive and guarded, which was just as well as most of the population was illiterate anyway.

One day In the 1450's, Gutenberg was sitting around his wine press enjoying the fruit of his labor and eating bread dipped in olive oil. He remembered that he had a lot of errands to run when he went into town, so he grabbed a sheet of paper, his pen and some ink to make a list. His insignia ring was feeling too tight so he took it off and laid it on the paper which he had inadvertently laid on top of some of the olive oil dripping from his bread. Just then the neighbor's dog screams around the corner being chased by the cat and hits the lever on the wine press. Down comes the press on top of his lunch, ink pot, ring and list. Fortunately, he had turned away from the press to see what the commotion was all about.

He cranks the press back up, looks at the mess, picks up his squashed ring, looks at his list, sees a perfect backwards G and ....discovers moveable type, invents the first printing press and changes things forever. (It might have happened this way.)

Although Gutenberg gets the credit, I've read that the Chinese knew the movable type process as early as 1041 and that the earliest known book was printed from movable type in 1403 in Korea. It is also said that Gutenberg wasn't the only one having lunch and making lists as it is thought the printing press was simultaneously developed in Holland and Prague.

Anyway, books were still rare and expensive and most people still couldn't read, but literacy started to grow because now books and printed materials were becoming available to all, not just the monks, the rich or the politicians.

Books back then were not sold bound. If you wanted a book, you'd go to the publisher, pick up the pages (quires, signatures) and take them to your favorite bookbinder who would custom bind it for you. You could choose from a wide variety of bindings from cheap and plain all the way to jewel encrusted. If you wanted your whole library to look the same, you could have every book bound in the same material.

Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that they might be able to sell more books if they offered them already bound and ready to read. Even then, the publisher might use different colors or designs on the books.

A bit later someone figures out that the setup, labor and materials to change the color or design of a book with the same insides was costing a lot of money, so books became what we are used to - all books in the same run are the same. (There are some exceptions to this but that's another story.)

Somewhere in this mix (around 1850 or so), some publishers decided that the nice, quality paper they were using was just too expensive so they started using cheap acidic paper (until the 1950's). That is why today that some books published from 1850-1950  are yellowing and crumbling. It is vital that these books be digitized before they are lost forever. 

Until I bought my second "The Flowers Personified" I had never thought about bookbinding.