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  • Bound/Unbound
  • James N. Green

Binder, Disbound, Sheets (paper), Sewn, Stitched, Uncut (edges), Boards binding, Trade binding, Quarter bound, Half bound, Vellum, Leather, Stephen Potts, John Locke, Royal Society of London, Library Company of Philadelphia

Printers don’t print books. Printers print sheets; binders make them into books. This aphorism (which I thought I first heard from Roger Stoddard) reminds us that much of the evidence about the dissemination and reception of books lies not in their printed text but in the bindings of individual copies: in the inscriptions and other marks on endpapers and covers, but also in the materials and structures of the bindings themselves, if we know how to read them.1 This proposition suggests to me a corollary, that a book is by definition bound. It has a binding. It has been bound. But this is true only up to a point, and that is the binary I want to explore here: bound/unbound.

In the hand-press period in America (which is the place and time I mainly have in mind here) no one ever even thought of reading the sheets of a normal small-format book straight off the press, because the text was radically discontinuous. The pages of the text were imposed (arranged on the press) by the printer in an order that became legible only once the sheets had been folded in the proper way.2 A book in sheets, right off the press [End Page 614] and not yet folded, is unequivocally an unbound book. But binding was a process involving many steps. At what point does the unbound book become bound?

Folding was the first step in the binding process. If the printed text was made up of just one, or even two or three sheets, someone in the printer’s office (usually a wife, a child, an apprentice, a servant, or a slave) could fold the sheets and sew them together with a single simple stitch and issue it as a pamphlet. There was no need to employ a binder to do this, and accordingly pamphlets were not usually thought of as bound; but they were sometimes thought of as books, and indeed they could be made into books simply by binding them. They occupied a sort of limbo between unbound and bound.

But if the text was made up of many sheets, they had to be bound in order to withstand repeated readings. This involved several further steps requiring the skills and specialized tools of a binder. First the binder beat or pressed the folded sheets to make them into a solid block. (As in a printing office, operations requiring less skill might be performed by the binder’s family member, employee, apprentice, servant, or slave.) Then he or she sewed the sheets onto cords, usually passing the thread through the center of each folded sheet or signature and around two or more cords running across the spine. Next the binder trimmed the three outer edges of the text block (which cut the folds of the printed sheets and turned them into separate leaves), and attached pasteboard covers to the cords. The book was then covered, usually with a single piece of leather of some kind, which was glued to the boards and the spine. Only then could the book function properly and be read without risk of destruction. In addition, the covers and the spine could be decorated with blind- or gold-stamped designs to make the book more attractive, and a gold-stamped spine label could be applied. All these binding processes (and others I haven’t mentioned for the sake of simplicity) made the sheets into a bound book.3

Printing and binding were separate trades in England and often in America as well. Normally the entire edition of a book was printed by one printer, but publishers often divided the binding among many shops and had small batches bound as needed for their sales. Other booksellers also bought batches in sheets and had them bound by their own binders to their specifications. Sometimes wealthy people had books custom bound, but in America at least, almost all books received some sort of binding...


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pp. 614-620
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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