Category Archives: history of bookbinding

The Excelsior Metal Folder

Using bone to make tools is likely very early in human history, maybe just after the rock and the stick.  Bone folders are still very common today in several trades, mainly because a better synthetic substitute has not been found, much to the dismay of hard-core vegetarians. Wood, bamboo, teflon, carbon fiber, steel, and a few other plastics are useful for specific tasks, however are not as useful overall.  Bone as a material is so ancient, traditional, simple and perfect it is hard to imagine any way to improve it.

Around 1889, J.C. Forman of Cleveland, Ohio, wanted a harder, less breakable bone folder and thought an aluminum alloy might be the answer.


Forman’s Patent #398,825. I find the shape quite elegant and useful.

The patent specifies that the tool is made from “aluminum metal in alloy thereof, having the required degree of weight, strength, hardness, and as best adapted to resist the oxidating influence to which it is subjected in its use. These essential properties are required in the article for the purpose above mentioned, to prevent the paper and binding of books from being discolored and injured by a metallic oxide.”  The patent later mentions the tool is useful for rubbing signatures down between bands, tapping down band-points (?) and creating an even swell.  It is touted as especially useful for blank account-books because of the strength of the material and its hardness. Although the patent drawing has a complex tapered shape, the image of the folder in the advertisement below seems to be simpler, with an essentially flat surface along the length. The semicircular shape of the rounded end is similar to a modern tongue depressor. According to an unverified wikipedia link, both wood and metal tongue depressors were available in 1865, though I haven’t seen an image of one.


The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889, p. 124.

Since I was unable to find an example of this tool, I decided to make a replica. I first used 6061 aluminum and copied the dimensions mentioned in the Bookmaker article. Forman variously refers to the metal as aluminum, aluminum bronze, or “aluminum metal in alloy”. 6061 aluminum alloy, however, caused black skid marks on the paper when rubbed.  It also was much lighter than described.  This is a case where a description of the color of the metal would give us a much clearer idea of the metal. I also thought aluminum might have had a certain luxury appeal at the time, since it recently become a “non-precious” metal, plumenting in price from over $500 a pound in the mid nineteenth century (it was used for jewelry) to $2.00 a pound at the end.  In 1884, an once of aluminum cost $1, about the same as an average day laborer’s salary. It was Andrew Mellon (the Mellon foundation is well know today for its generous funding of conservation activities) who founded the aluminum monopoly which later became Alcoa, beginning in 1888.

The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889. p. xi. Forman implies there were already knock-offs of his design being made and sold. Note the dubious claim “Less effort with greater results”. Note the puzzling claim “The most complete Blank Book Folder ever made.” 


Next, I experimented with some aluminum bronze alloys, specifically types 954, 655 and 642. All these alloys are basically brass with around 10% aluminum, 3% iron, and varying trace amounts of manganese, nickel and cobalt. They were surprisingly difficult to work by stock reduction, which made me curious about the edge retention of an axe or cutting tool made from one of these alloys. I’ll put it on my list…. The 642 seemed closest to the “aluminum bronze” mentioned in Forman’s advertisement in terms of composition, weight and the fact that it barely marked the paper when rubbed vigorously. Forman, however, claims his metal alloy did not make a mark. Did I have the wrong alloy or was Forman exaggerating the qualities of his folder? I wonder if this small amount of offsetting might have been unnoticed or acceptable to late nineteenth century stationary binders. Possibly there are marks to look for along the spine edge of account books from around this time, if the folder was in fact adopted by some binders?

The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889, p. 124. This image seems to indicate a flat, rather than tapered shape for the majority of the folder, unlike the patent drawing.


Some kind of surface coating might mitigate this to an acceptable degree, but Forman doesn’t mention any. A thin coating of wax virtually eliminated the offset, though wears off quickly and itself offsets onto the paper. Possibly the heaviness of the folder was unpopular, it is roughly 2-3 times heavier than teflon or bone— 8.25 ounces (234 grams) for the replica I made, which is consistant what Forman reports.  Forman also mentions using this folder to tap, rather than rub, which solves the offset problem.

In the end, I really couldn’t find many advantages, besides the touted durability and unbreakability. Foreman’s patent is referenced by a 1965 claim by Hunt Manufacturing, but the base of this baren is made of teflon or similar material.  Bookmakers does sell a stainless steel folder, which they market as a “creaser”, and I think it is meant for scoring paper, not the traditional meaning of a “creaser” which is used to make blind lines on leather.

Here the trail runs cold. Did Forman discover an aluminum alloy—or coating—that didn’t mark paper when used, as he claims?   Were these folders used by binders?  Are there any examples of these folders around? Moving forward, might there be other materials used to create a better bone folder? What would need improving?

Three copies of Forman’s folder I’ve made: On the top 360 Brass, in the middle 6061 Aluminum, and on the bottom aluminum bronze.


A Very Brief Account of Beating Textblocks

The compression of signatures before sewing is an interesting, important, and poorly understood aspect of bookbinding.  Many people immediately assume beating flattens the pages. Although this is partially true, the situation is more complex. Below is a brief introduction.


Both images, page 126 of John Marshall The Life of George Washington  Philadelphia: C. P. Wayne, 1804. On the top: beaten, edges cut and bound in full calf. On the bottom: unbeaten, uncut and boarded. Courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.

These two images, shot in raking light with a flashlight, demonstrate some of the effects of beating. The book in the bottom image is from a boards binding and is unbeaten, but has been pressed. The book in the top image has been beaten: it clearly demonstrates increased textblock undulations as compared to the bottom image, where the undulations are much looser. Baxter, in 1809, mentions that beating makes the leaves “smooth and lie close together.”[1]  Beating compresses the pages, smooths their surface texture, decreases the punch from the type, but it does not generally flatten the page overall. It usually does the opposite for the text area.

Pressing complicates all of this, but generally compresses the thickest parts of a textblock composed of handmade paper. Depending on the structure, time period, and nationality, bound books could be pressed up to six times: before sewing, when sawing in, during backing, while ploughing the edges, when applying spine linings, during edge decoration, and after pasting down the end sheets.

Depending on the techniques employed while beating, the margins of the page can get flatter, if beaten more, while the printed portions of the page simultaneously become more undulated. A useful food analogy is is to imagine pounding a veal cutlet.  The meat moves outward in all directions from the blows of a hammer, as well as getting thinner. Careful control can direct the movement, however. Beating hammers usually have some “belly”, so depending on how much force they are used, impact a smaller or larger area of the page.

Beating causes the textblock undulations to become more pronounced, and the pages to lie in closer contact with one another. This has the effect of helping to lock together the leaves, much like inserting egg crates into one another.  Much more information is available in my article, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays in the History of Bookbinding, Volume 1. Ed. Julia Miller. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2013. (pp. 316-381)


1. John Baxter The Sister Arts (Lews: Printed and Published by J. Baxter) 95

Forty Bookbinding Reference Books

Florian asked, in a comment, what my most commonly used bookbinding reference books are. Below is a list, which is heavily weighted to my current interests in early nineteenth century American bookbinding.  The books below serve a variety of purposes for me. Some contain a quick review of structural history and others are key primary references. Some are a basic starting point for more in-depth research and others are a handy source of images to show clients. Anyone else have some favorites?

Appleton’s Dictionary of Machines, Mechanics, Engine-Work and Engineering. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1852. 

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials and Conservation. Ann-Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press, 2010. 

Bearman, Frederick, Nati H. Krivatsy, and J. Franklin Mowery. Fine and Historic Bookbindings from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992.

Bennett, Stuart. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800. New Castle, Deleware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2004.

Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper before Print. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 

Blumenthal, Joseph. The Printed Book in America. Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Library, 1989.

Bookbinding in America, 1680-1910. From the Collection of Frederick E. Maser. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr College Library, 1983. 

Bosch, Gulnar, John Carswell, and Guy Petherbridge. Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1981. 

Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors, 7th ed. Revised by Nicholas Barker. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1995.

Comparato, Frank E. Books for the Millions: A History of the Men Whose Methods and Machines Packaged the Printed Word. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Co., 1971.

Darley, Lionel. Bookbinding Then and Now. London: Faber and Faber, 1959. 

De Hamel, Christopher. The Book: A History of the Bible. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001.

Edlin, Herbert L. What Wood is That? A Manual for Wood Identification. New York: Viking, 1969.

Foot, Mirjam M. Bookbinders at Work: Their Roles and Methods. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006. 

French, Hannah D. Bookbinding in Early America. Seven Essays on Masters and Methods. Worchester: American Antiquarian Society, 1986.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New Castle, Delaware and Winchester, UK: Oak Knoll Press and St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1995.

Gascoigne, Bamber. How To Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink-Jet. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Gould, F.C. The Mechanization of Bookbinding. London: Master Bookbinders’ Association, 1937. 

Harrison, Thomas. “The Bookbinding Craft and Industry” London: Pitman, [1926] Facsimile in “The History of Bookbinding Technique and Design”. Ed. Sidney F. Huttner. New York: Garland, 1990. 

Herbert, Luke. The Engineer’s and Mechanic’s Encyclopedia. London: Thomas Kelly, 1841. 

The History of Bookbinding 525-1950 A.D. Baltimore, Maryland: The Trustees of The Walters Art Gallery, 1957.

Hoadley, R. Bruce. Identifying Wood: Accurate Results with Simple Tools. Newtown, Connecticut: Taunton Press, 1990.

Knight, Edward. American Mechanical Dictionary. New York: J.B. Ford and Co., 1874. 

Krupp, Andrea. Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-50. New Castle, Deleware and London and New York: Oak Knoll Press, The British Library, The Bibliographical Society of America, 2008.

Lehmann-Haupt. The Book in America: A History of the Making and Selling of Books in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1952.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, Ed. Bookbinding in America: Three Essays. New York: R.R. Bower Co., 1967.

Mayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 5th Ed., Revised and Updated. New York: Viking, 1985.

Middleton, Bernard C. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. London: Hafner, 1963. 

Pearson, David. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800. London and New Castle: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2005.

Pollard, Graham and Esther Potter. Early Bookbinding Manuals: An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1984. 

Posner, Raphael and Israel Ta-Shema. The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey. Jerusalem: Keter House Publishing, 1975.

Ramsden, Charles. London Bookbinders 1780-1840. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1987.

Ramsden, Charles. Bookbinders of the United Kingdom (Outside London) 1780-1840. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1987.

Ramsden, Charles. French Bookbinders, 1789-1848. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1989.

Spawn, Willman and Thomas E. Kinsella. Ticketed Bookbindings from Nineteenth-Century Britain. Bryn Mawr and Deleware: Bryn Mawr College Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1999.

Szirmai, J.A. The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999. 

Thomlinson, William and Richard Masters. Bookcloth: 1823-1980. Cheshire: Dorthy Tomlinson, 1996.

Tomlinson, Charles. Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts, Mechanical and Chemical…. London: Virtue & Co., 1868. 

Ure, Andrew. Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines: Containing a Clear Exposition of their Principles and Practice. 2nd. Ed. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1840.

Wolf, Richard. Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. 

Soon to be Published! Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, Volume 1

UPDATE 2/13/2013: This book is now available for purchase from The Legacy Press

I’m quite excited about this forthcoming book for two reasons: my essay on the beating of signatures is included and I’m really looking forward to reading the other essays. Julia Miller is the editor as well as the author of an essay on scaleboard bindings. This is the first of a volume of a planned series on the history of bookbinding.  Binders take note, there will be copies in sheets available. This book is scheduled to be published in early 2013 and if you want to know when it is published email: thelegacypress (at)

Cathy Baker, founder of The Legacy Press,  also publishes a number of other award winning books on book and paper history. I wrote a review of her own excellent book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums, Technologies, Materials and Conservation, in the The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011. Books from her press are thoughtfully designed, well made, and most importantly contain valuable, original content.

My essay, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing”  is a comprehensive examination of the tools, techniques and effects of beating. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of beating in the forming the appearance and function of virtually all textblocks from the handpress era. Prior to the 1830’s, all bound book were beaten by hand with hundreds—likely many hundreds—of hammer blows. Records indicate it could account for up to 25% of the cost of a binding.  Today beating is virtually ignored or barely mentioned, even in most book histories and in specialized workshops on historical bindings. Beating hammers are very rare and I’ve only located about a dozen of them, though I suspect there are many more as yet unidentified. The study of the history of tools is often divorced from the study of the history of the objects they were used to make: here, I attempt to integrate the two. I trace the history of beating, the evolution of beating tools and machines, and interpret the results of beating in an essay of over 21,000 words with 42 illustrations.

Abstract for “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing”

The tools and techniques of bookbinding have received little attention within the study of book history, bibliography and book conservation. From the fifteenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth, the compression of book signatures prior to sewing was accomplished by hand beating with a large hammer. Signatures were beaten for various reasons at different times, but generally to meet expectations of solidity, smoothness, and openability. In 1827 the introduction of the rolling machine replaced hand beating in large binderies in England, and quickly spread to other countries. Both literally and figuratively, the transition from hand beating to the rolling press demarcates the end of bookbinding as a vernacular hand craft and the beginning of machine bookbinding. Papermaking, printing and book structures also changed radically around this time. The rolling press and descriptions of other presses are well documented in early bookbinding manuals, trade records, nineteenth century encyclopedias and other accounts of which together provide an unusually rich and detailed insight into this time period. This study will follow one technique of bookbinding—the compression of signatures prior to sewing—and investigate how it was done, how the tools changed, what the technique meant to the bookbinders, and how it affects the bookbindings themselves.

Sewing a Book: 1902 and 1946

Above: Douglas Cockerell,  Bookbinding, and the Care of Books

(New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902), 104.


Above: Edith Diehl, Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique

(New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1946), 123.


It is interesting how much bookbinding has changed in the 50 odd years from 1900 to 1950. The skirts and hairstyles are much shorter. The stool you sit on also looks to be metal, rather than wood. Thanks to the sharp eyes of the John Townsend (aka. Anonymous Bookbinder) for bringing this to my attention and supplying these images. John has noticed that 23 illustrations originally done by Noel Rooke (Cockerell’s illustrator)  are highly likely to be redrawn by Mrs. Edna Kaula (Diehl’s illustrator).

A Bookbinding is not a Picture Frame

“In point of fact, a stack of printed or handwritten sheets of paper does not become a book until it is bound. For this reason the binding cannot be seen apart from the book and differs therefore from the picture frame, with which it is sometimes compared but in which there is seldom any structural parallel with painting.” Jan Storm van Leeuwen [1]

Thinking of a book’s binding as something independent from “the book” as an entirety is a serious misconception. This raises some practical concerns:  if a book has been disbound, and perhaps remains disbound for the purposes of display, is it no longer a book? Does it now belong in a special category of the book; a disbound book? [2]   Much descriptive terminology adds similar qualifiers; an unbound book, a rebound book, etc…. A work of art remains a work of art if it is in its frame or not.  A textblock cannot just be taken out of its binding without radically altering its ontological status as a book.


[1] Jan Storm van Leeuwen. Dutch Decorated Bookbinding in the Eighteenth Century, Volume 1: General Historical Introduction. Den Haag: Hes & De Graff, 2006. p. 41.

[2] The extreme of this might be the leaf book, a new book made  to highlight a single leaf from another book. There are a number of excellent essays, including one by a lawyer/ leaf book collector who considers ethics and international law in the catalog to the exhibition Disbound and Dispersed: The Leaf Book Considered. Chicago: The Caxton Club, 2005.

The Best One Paragraph Summary of Nineteenth Century Bookmaking?

The entire nineteenth century history can be seen as a continuous struggle against bottlenecks, many of them caused by the sudden speeding up of a single operation previously performed by hand in a more or less leisurely manner.  Thus, the invention of the papermaking machine, which produces a continuous web of paper, calls for the rotary press into which this web can be fed; then there was need for the stereotyping process which allows the production of curved printing plates; and last but not least, composing machines which can produce a sufficient amount of set type to feed hungry presses.  And of what good to anyone would have been the accumulation of printed paper if there had not been machines developed which would cut, fold, sew and bind the sheets?

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut.  The Book in America, Second Edition. New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1952. (p. 147)

19th Century Book Display

The Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, Vol. 2, 1851 (p. 538)

The illustration above it a bit difficult to read: it shows the upper cover of a book, in the center, and on the top and sides are mirrors (angled around 30 degrees?) reflecting the spine, foreedge and top edge. Judging from the joint at the top right corner, it looks like this display was custom constructed for the exact size of this book. I rarely see mirrors used in the display of books, and never three mirrors as pictured above of this Royal Bible bound by Messrs. Leighton. It seems a good idea for displaying super-extra bindings — the kind of books that the exterior decoration is their primary value. Obviously, it doesn’t solve all the problems of displaying these kind of books, but it does present more than just the upper board, and in a nineteenth century manner.

Kirtas Books

Kirtas books is digitizing on demand portions of the Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding at Rochester Institute of Technology.  Thanks to the hardest working man in applying new technologies to bookbinding, the man who is always online, Peter Verheyen, for introducing me to this site.  Not everything is available, but there is a lot of very hard to find material here.  Cost for downloading a searchable pdf is an unbelievable cheap $1.95. Getting a printed on demand paperback add $10+, depending on the page count.

The quality of the scans are not perfect, and books that are now yet scanned can take 4 weeks to be delivered.  It also seems they use some type of scanning machine, which I can’t believe is not damaging the books. I also wish the page margins were in full view — so that I could read the inscription on the title page below, for example.

But they are ledgible, and a fantastic deal for the price.  Time to create some more shelf space.

A Short Treatise on the History and Use of the Electric Backing Hammers; Comprising an Accurate and Popular View of the Present Improved State of Human Knowledge

Since the time of the ancients, bookbinders have struggled to back books quickly and efficiently. Early on, they avoided it entirely by naturally rounding and backing, later they would locate the nearest large hammer and apply it with great force to the spine of the book. Even though this is great fun, after a while, the hand and arm tire, the mind wanders and bookbinders began to dream of mechanical devices to accomplish this task, which culminated in the electric backing hammer. The origins of this hammer are unknown, and the last known example, thought to be made in the 1960’s, is represented by a single surviving example.  I trust that this small contribution to the history of bookbinding will, perhaps, demonstrate the importance of this almost forgotten tool. So, dear reader, let us take a brief tour of the illustrious, noble, and little known history of electric backing hammers.

First of all, however, I most humbly and modestly would like to point out that all scholarship concerning the history of the book is a load of crap.   Below is a book, printed by moveable type, in my possession, from the year seven.  This pushes back the origins of movable type by fourteen centuries.

Fig. 1. An example of a  book printed in the year 7. The binding has an ms. inscription on the upper board that mysteriously reads, “BOUND for lil’  J. CHRIST”.  I would be extremely interested to find J. CHRIST– any information as to his whereabouts is much appreciated.


Anyhoo, there are virtually no references to backing, and especially electric backing hammers until the 17th century.  The first reference we have to an “Electro backing Hammer” is found in the in the c. 1694-5 broadside of a bookbinder’s sequence of operations known as “The Bookbinders Case Unfolded”, which was found bound into Samuel Pepys copy of Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises. Bernard Middleton wrote about this broadside, which is considered the earliest detailed description of English bookbinding, although inexplicably, passed over the reference to electro hammer without comment. [1]  There are no known examples of this hammer.


Fig. 2. The earliest known reference to an ‘electro backing hammer’, c. 1694-1695. Believe it or not, many  so-called  ‘authors’ from this time didn’t even know the difference between an “f” and an “s”!



Fig. 3.  An early ‘magic hammer’.  Mirrors hide the source of power for this floating hand ?


THE MAGIC HAMMER, c. 1470-1908

Most illustrations, like Fig. 3, originally from 1467, but redrawn and used numerous times, are at best a bit vague as to the exact mechanism involved. There is a chance that this might be an early mechanco-electric powered hammer. Although the title misleadingly reads, “Method of Backing Book”, the author neglected to include any actual information about this method of backing a book.  The reader is left with the impression that a hammer is held over a book then, presto, it is backed, magic.  Around the time of the Enlightenment, the first automatic style backing hammer makes its appearence.


Fig. 4.  Above is a French water powered book backing machine, c. 1767.

LE GROS MARTEAU, c. 1750-1810

The first actual record of an automatic book backing hammer, Le Gros Marteau, is pictured in Diderot’s magnificent encyclopedie. The limitless power of a running stream is harnessed to replace the toil and drudgery of the bookbinder. This ponderous mechanism may account for the unusually solid, inflexible spines usually found of French books of this time, and even today in French fine bindings. By the by, in 2007, French fine binders purchased 27% of the world’s sandpaper.  This water powered hammer is an ancestor to the electromagnetic hammer of the 1960’s. Notice it is big. Modern style people like small things: cell phones, tic-tacs and the Fiat 500. Modern style people don’t like big things like this machine, but they do like big screen television, but it has to be thin in its thickness.  But I digress.  And I will digress further.  Notice the exceptionally  fine decoration depicted on the edge of the book, pictured above. It appears to be some kind of gauffered allegory. The scene depicted is difficult to interpret– perhaps the wolf child is running towards liberty? Why is it’s mouth slightly bleeding? What is the strange symbol on the flag down near the fore-edge? Could this bizarre scene somehow be interpreted as fear or anxiety about the machine replacing human labor?

Fig. 5. A happy and contented Roger Pain demonstrates the backing position known in the trade as ‘coat hanger’.



This illustration of Roger Pain makes it clear that these knee high press-tubs were generally used by children and hunchbacks.  Why is he wearing his bedroom slippers, and backing an already covered book with his hands?[2]  This etching dates from 1700 & something, I got tired counting all the “X”s and “I”s. Why were those people so stupid that they didn’t write real numbers?

The French were a bit more advanced in their book backing technologies, and after Le Gros Marteau, they mostly dispensed with hammers altogether, instead using the elegant, fantastically designed, sophisticated, efficient, and vastly superior in all respects tool called  le froittoir (ON SALE NOW !).  Mechanization in late eighteenth century England was generally avoided in preference to child laborers and hunchbacks. Some of the terminology of olden times is confusing– children were often treated like ‘little adults’, especially when they were married at age eight.  But what if they actually were little adults? Maybe smaller adults are fewer vittles? And if children ate fewer vittles, maybe they became smaller adults?

The English contributed greatly to the history of book backing by offering young children the opportunity to play alongside adults. By the early nineteenth century,  bookbinders backing hammers were marketed specifically  for children.  They were sized “OOO” to “4”,  with size “000” used 5 year olds, “00” for 6, and so on.    Small pieces of rock candy was given as rewards for the children upon meeting production goals and submitting properly formatted quarterly reports.

Fig. 6.  An assortment of 19th century backing hammers. They are all stamped  “Made for Children” on the cheek not shown. Notice how dirty they are. Everything, and everybody, was dirty in olden times!


THE  SONG OF THE HAMMER, c. 1840-1916

To ease the oppressive burden of their labors, the children would often sing songs while backing books. Even today, many ye olde bookbinders cannot help singing along when they  hear the words below, which were painstakingly beaten into their skulls, one signature at a time, over the course of decades:

“The plough we move so swiftly,

The hammer wield so deftly,

Upon the beating stone.

In rounding or in backing,

We find no music lacking,

Each has its merry tone.


Hallo, halli, hallo, halli

The Binder’s life for me. [3]

Child labor was one of the great delights of the olde days– men and women would often have plenty of spare time to write their names with lots of curlycues. But eventually the teeming masses of children workers could not keep up with the onslaught of books spit from the mouth of the cylinder press.  Unbacked books began to pile up in enormous warehouses. Factory owners grew morose and stared out of coal stained windows, eyes focused on the horizon, while their teeth clenched ever tighter around an unlit cigar. Something needed to be done.

Fig. 7. Because of the demands of the work, bookbinder food was invented. Snapper soup proved ideal.

At first it was thought special diets might help the workers keep pace with production demands. During the last half of the nineteenth century, many different companies produced bookbinder food, and Snapper Soup was very common.  The penial gland of the red snapper fish contains a vital fluid which is essential for the productivity of bookbinders.  Similarly, most bookbinders today, myself included, need to dine on premium quality sushi at least twice a week.  Alas, even this unusual dietary supplement was not enough to help the child laborers keep pace. A more rapid means of production had to be found. The scientists were forced to turn to their last resort: science. The stage was set.  The field was ripe for the induction of electromagnetism.



Karen Hanmer sent me this bit of personal history, which fills a small gap in this still largely undocumented history.

I hear you are looking into the origins of the electromagnetic hammer, and I have a connection to what might be a precursor to the one in Peter’s collection. Before Nikola Tesla built his own laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899, he rented space in the same building as my great grandfather Josip, the town bookbinder. They were both part of the small, close-knit Slavic community there. Grandpa Josip was beginning to get arthritis, and backing was very difficult and painful. Tesla moved the job backer into his shop, and wired it in series to Grandpa’s backing hammer and a huge rack of vacuum tubes. The electricity flowing between the hammer and the jaws of the job backer resulted in a 90 degree shoulder with very little physical effort. Tesla was not able to complete the wireless version of the electromagnetic hammer before he left Colorado Springs to return to New York in January of 1900. My grandfather would tell wonderful stories about the magical happenings in the workshop shared by his father and “Uncle Nikki.” I’m sure this is why I became a bookbinder and my brother became an electrical engineer. [4]

There might be an interesting connection between the electrified job backer, and the electric rounding and backing machine, of which Tesla is know to have investigated.  The Tesla connection is complicated by the information provided by Tom Conroy, “I believe the Edison Reciprocating Rounding  Hammer and the Edison Rotary Backing Hammer were regarded as tools of potential value, but the designs were never successfully converted from direct current to alternating current. Westinghouse took a different tack, but made the mistake of trying to mass-produce and market their version as a necessity for every household. That didn’t fly well, though it had no effect on the basic uselessness of the tool.” [5]

Although we know that Tesla worked for Edison, and Edison essentially cheated him out of a huge bonus for redesigning Edison’s DC motor, when he began, or gave up, on the AC backing hammer is still unknown.  Similarly, the next half century is essentially devoid of information related to electric backing hammers. But we do know that the first, commercially viable electric backing hammer began production in 1966, in West Germany, and was marketed and distributed worldwide.



Fig. 8. The only extant electric backing hammer, collection of Peter Verheyen.

Peter Verheyen, has the only electric backing hammer that this author is aware of.  Peter writes, “This backing hammer features electrically activated percussive action on both sides of the head for precise and faster backing for today’s less robust binders.” [6]   Peter  is an expert on less than robust bookbinders, and he seems to know a bit about backing as well.  I visited Peter, in an attempt to try out this rare bird. The head rotates on an axis to the handle, mimicking the proper hand motion.  Since this hammer is the only known example and was basically NIB, and Peter requested I only visually examine it.  I had to wait until the he left the room I was not able to plug it in and try it out, so I do not know how rapidly it can jitterbug out of control then make dents on his workbench and I also do not know how easily the face can become chipped when it falls on the floor.

Later, I managed to track down a few bookbinders who recalled using this sublime exemplar of the toolmakers art, although none could locate the actual hammers.  Recollections of the hammer provoked a variety of responses:

“I don’t ‘member that much about it… a plug, you say?”

“Bloody beast was horrible. Least I couldn’t hear the darn child’n singin.”

“Tingled me toes when I wore steel toed boots. YEE-HAW!”

“You ever hit your stinkin’ thumb with a stinkin’ hammer? Imagine doin’ it with this devil, fer christsakes!!”

“It was great for vellum manuscripts– ‘specially the early ones –I rebound all of them in our collection with perfect 90 degree shoulders. Here is a little bookbinder secret– this beauty makes it much easier to put a LOT of  PVA on the spines.”


And although I thought this might be the end of the electric backing hammer story, the Anonymous Bookbinder sent me this account of his recent experiences:

W.O. Hickok discontinued the electric backing hammer (their model #WOH13459) at the same time they discontinued regular production of most of their traditional binding equipment (not sure of the actual date).  However, as with all of their binding equipment they continued to offer it as a made to order item from the original molds and patterns.  I first learned about this from an acquaintance at the old Ruzicka Bindery in North Carolina (since bought out by Etherington Conservation, Inc.).  They ordered a gross of polishers (the manual version) but found the barrels were not attached to the shaft at 90 degrees, which of course made them useless.  Apparently, without the old master toolmakers around no one really knew what they were and could not properly interpret the drawings.  At first they thought it was an “offset” bookbinding hammer, according the guy at Ruzicka.

At any rate, about two years ago I inquired about the electric backing hammer.  My original one is still more or less in working order, but it’s pretty banged up (no pun) after a carpenter putting in a new set of steps to my building “borrowed” it.  I thought that since the electric hammer was a bit more modern than polishing irons they might still be able to do a passable job on a custom order.   After several transfers I eventually talked to a young archival engineer at Hickok who seemed pretty eager to look into it.  Long story short, he said he could use the original drawings to do a cordless version (12V, which may explain the lack of umph).  As I had just signed a contract for hand binding the print version of Wikipedia (hence the digitally enhanced endpapers) I thought it worth a shot and Hickok offered to defer the development cost if I bought a dozen.    Given the scale of the project and the special pricing ($675.00 ea) I though this was worth a go.  But the results were as I previously reported.[7]  I can send you one to try for yourself if you’d like.  Maybe T. Conroy should have one for the Bookbinder’s Museum, if he doesn’t already.  Do they have an outdated technology section?

Anyway, it was this same archival engineer who told me about the pending IEEE 802.11q standard.  After I sent him my review of the cordless model (which really ticked off Hickok–no more free development)  he said he was interested in going for low frequency wireless electric.  He thinks it will change the world–wireless electric, not the backing hammer.  I don’t hold out much hope for either, especially for those of us this far off the grid.  But I’ve been wrong before.[8]



Although electric backing hammers are practically extinct, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of book spines that at least to this conservators eye, look to have been electrically backed. The rapid blows create an almost  pointillist  scene on the spines, quite distinctive, sometimes quite pretty, and one time eerily reminiscent of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. In fact, there often is no shoulder, just a depraved, gaping concavity in the center of the spine.  An unbelievable number of books that have suffered this total spinal obliteration, as illustrated below.

Fig. 9. A book that has been backed to death. This damage is difficult, and very, very costly to repair  :)


I presume that many conservators have seen examples of similarly depressing vandalism.  Books that have been electromagnetically backed range from disastrous to preposterous to maliforous.  They are distressing to encounter, yet it is important to understand and analyze  how the tools and techniques of earlier bookbinders could have caused such damage.  A book conservator’s job would be much easier if bookbinders would have left the books alone and satisfied their craft urges by gluing little old things into a printer’s type drawer and hanging it on the wall.

Like many aspects of bookbinding history, the books themselves form the primary evidence of their making.  The saga of the electromagnetic backing hammer  is yet another chapter in the long, largely unwritten history of bookbinding, and bookbinding tools.


Many thanks to Tom Conroy, Marie Dagastino, Karen Hanmer, Miriam Schaer, John Townsend, and Peter Verheyen for freely sharing their arcane knowledge and recollections about this topic.  And although we may continue to disagree on certain points, any errors are obviously theirs. And perhaps it is fitting to recall the words of Blaise Pascal, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”



1. Bernard C. Middleton, The Bookbinders Case Unfolded, The Library, S5-XVII(1), 1962. pp. 66-76. Middleton observes, “Of all the operations in the binding of a book this is the most important because the permanence of the spine’s shape depends on it; while the shape remains correct strain will not fall on the wrong points.” (p. 69)

2. Of course, as Siegfried Giedion points out, “Beyond enumeration are the domains of mechanization and all the techniques that have gone to build up the life we know today.  But the method that forms the basis of all mechanization is amazingly simple.  The human hand.” Siegfried Giedion. Mechanization Takes Command. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1969. (p. 46)

3. This is a excerpt from a traditional German bookbinders song from 1842, (p 70). The song recounts many of the operations of binding.

4. Karen Hanmer,  email message to author, 25 March 2011.

5. Comparato, Frank. Books For The Millions. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole, 1971, p. 109.

6. Tom Conroy, email message to author, 24 March 2011.

7. “I recently tried out the cordless model but found the battery life far too short when I’m doing edition work.  Keeping a second battery in the charger helps, but the replacement is usually discharged well before the recharge is complete, so I still come up short.  As the day goes on there is less and less time between swapping out the batteries until I’m forced to switch back to the manual hammer to finish backing a large book. Unless fully charged, I find the cordless hammer also lacks the “umph” to deal with big folio volumes,  especially those with digitally reinforced endpapers. The corded version doesn’t have these same problems, of course, but the cord is always in the way, especially for a left-handed binder.  I hear there is talk of a low-frequency wireless electric hammer in the works–no cord, no battery–but wireless electric service isn’t available in this part of upstate yet, and may be a long time coming.  Perhaps by the time it gets here the new IEEE 802.11q standard for low frequency wireless electric devices will have been approved, which should be a big improvement.  Until then, it looks like we are stuck with unwieldy cords, short-life batteries or even manual backing hammers.” Anonymous Bookbinder, email message to author, 26 March 2011.

8. Anonymous Bookbinder, email message to author,  26 March 2011. It is always prudent to be extra cautious as to the veracity, or lack thereof, of Anonymous sources.

Unusual Leather Decoration

Kristen St. John, a book conservator at UCLA, has an intriguing post on their Preservation blog.  She has found an unusual method of leather decoration.  The book is French, from 1753.  It appears to be some kind of block print, although it she mentions it might be a stencil.  There are many more pictures on the blog, including some close ups. I haven’t seen any decoration like this before, and there is no reference in either Diderot, Dudin or Gauffecourt about the use of stencils in leather decoration, in eighteenth century bookbinding. ?


J-V Capronnier de Gauffencourt, Traite de la Relieure des Livres, W. Thomas Taylor, Austin, 1987.

Diderot & d’Alembert, Encyclopedie, Neufchatel [Paris], 1765.

Dudin, M. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder, The Elemente Press, Leeds, 1977.