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Bindings - The Basics


There are many types of bindings for books, but I would say that in essence books are bound in cloth, paper, leather or vellum, which is what I want to discuss today.

Cloth Paper Leather Vellum

They are usually bound in one of these formats:

Quarter Half Full

The above examples are bound in leather (more specifically calf) with varying degrees of marbled paper over the boards. This is not the only combination. They can be half leather with cloth on the boards, or quarter cloth with decorative paper on the boards, etc. Basically any combination of the four materials: cloth, vellum, leather and paper. The rule of thumb is that the more durable material covers the spine (and corners) with the less durable material on the boards. This is because the spine and corners experience the most abuse over time and so are more vulnerable to damage. It would therefore be very unusual to find a book with paper covering the spine and leather over the boards.

If it is a half binding the spine and corners will usually match. Sometimes I have come across a book where they don't, but this is usually done later in a books life when perhaps the book is rebacked, or bumped corners on a quarter binding have been tipped with vellum to protect them from further harm. It is great that someone has chosen to repair a book thus improving its lifespan, but any work done should be sympathetic and take the existing binding into account.

The names for the binding formats are pretty self explanatory, but for the avoidance of doubt if you look along the top edge of the book the leather (as in the above examples) is either covering a quarter, half or all of it. At least that is the general idea. If it is just the spine that is in leather then it is leather backed.

Leather bindings are split into two camps: calf and morocco. The rule of thumb is that if there is a grain then it is morocco. If it is smooth then it is calf.

Calf Morocco

There are many more types of leather binding (such as tree calf, long grain morocco etc), but they can all be easily spit into these two main categories. I will not go into the other leather bindings now, but will definitely cover them in a later blog post.

Nowadays paper bindings are the norm, but traditionally books were intended to be bound in something sturdier than paper such as leather or vellum. Don't forget that books were considered luxury items; not everybody could afford them and not everybody could read. Publisher's would bind books in a temporary binding such as the one made from sugar paper to the right. These would be drab (as they were not intended to grace bookshelves this way) and would have a label to the spine for ease of indentification.

These books would be purchased and sent to the buyer's preferred binder with instructions before, in all likelihood, making their way to the country estate and the family library. Not everyone who bought books could afford to do this, and so it is not uncommon to find examples of these supposedly temporary bindings surviving today. They may look a bit uninspiring, but they can sometimes be very desirable because these books are in their original state.

In the early 19th century advances in technology allowed for the printing of more affordable books on cheap paper. These were not intended to be bound in expensive leather and were bound in richly illustrated paper to catch the eye. Often known as yellowbacks for their distinctive yellow background.

The earliest dust wrappers (or dust jackets), date from the 1820s, and were not as they are today. They were a wrapping around the book like a parcel and sealed with wax. They were not highly illustrated either as again they were not meant to be kept, but removed once the book had been bought. Not a huge amount is known about them as records were not kept, but the earliest surviving example is in the Bodleian Library and dates from 1829.

The dust wrapper, as we know it today, began in the 1850s. The presence of a dust wrapper (wrap to keep the dust off) can greatly increase the value of a book. The Great Gatsby for instance is vastly more expensive with the dust wrapper than without. If you come across a plain cloth book it would likely have originally had a dust wrapper that has unfortunately been lost. This is not the case for all plain cloth books as some earlier ones would have been intended as a temporary binding like the sugar paper.

I should also like mention that if a book had a dust wrapper that does not necessarily mean that the cloth binding beneath was plain. They were often beautifully decorated.

Plain cloth Pictorial cloth Gilt decorated

I would probably define full cloth bindings into the above three categories: plain, pictoral and gilt. You can go into more detail and describe many more features of cloth bindings (if they have them), such as bevelled edges, blind stamped etc, but as with morocco and calf these three cover the basics.

Lastly we have vellum. Vellum is most common on older books, such as the 16th and 17th century. They are often in Latin and can have a limp binding. This is where the boards of a book are not very hard and so are flexible (and limp). Vellum has a habit of warping if it is not kept in the right conditions, and so vellum books often become splayed out, with the spine end being considerably more compressed than the fore-edge. This is not intentional. Often with a little care you can bring it back to its natural state.

As you can see above vellum is most recognisable by its cream colour. It is usually smooth and stiff. Older vellum books can appear grubby. You can easily see in the above photographs which is the more recent binding. You can also see that as it ages it becomes a yellow-cream colour, rather than the paler cream shown in the middle image.

I think this covers the basics of book bindings. Please let me know if I've missed out anything glaring. I am intending to do a future blog post covering book terms and would like to do a post on styles of bindings at different points in history. Thank you for reading; I hope it was in some way useful.

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