French Leather: 1755 vs. 1810

Godfrey Smith’s The Laboratory or School of Arts is an important, and popular 18th  C.  description of bookbinding.  It was published in at least 7 editions over some 70 years.  Reproduced below are two paragraphs, dealing with “French leather”, which is a method of sprinkling leather. It is extremely prevalent during that time period, and Dudin mentions that “…our eyes are so used to seeing it there that the work would seem unfinished if it was absent.  Moreover, it is, to a certain extent, necessary to hide the minor defects…in calfskin.” (Dudin, 52)  He later notes that it is too expensive to use Natural Calf, since one would have to use leather without holes in it.  Patching holes in a leather binding– almost unthinkable today, given the reversal in the price of labor vs. materials– was considered standard practice. In this time period a pencil means a brush.  Note that hog bristles have yet to be replaced by a synthetic for bookbinding brushes.  This was an English book, commenting on a French tradition, and it appears the author colors the leather (“strain it on a frame;”) before covering, although the French generally applied color after covering.

But what I find most interesting, about the two passages reproduced below, one from the fourth edition, 1755, and one from the seventh, 1810, is how much closer to our own times the 1810 edition is.  Even apart from the long ‘s’, the whole look of it is different in ways that relate to the change in binding structure at this time–from a bound book to a cased one, which I have discussed in another post.  Still, there are some interesting similarities, such as the eccentric italicization in the title.

Although the text is virtually unchanged, the change in typography and the standardization of the printing is dramatic. The letter spacing is more open, even and controlled in the seventh edition contrasted to the fourth.  Visually, all the lines are much more even in the seventh, making the fourth look crude or charming, depending on your viewpoint. Just looking at the differences in these examples highlights the tremendous influence of the beginning of the industrial revolution, and the radical changes that occurred in book structure, machinery, tools, typography and in the world.

Fig. 1The Laboratory or School of Arts. Fourth edition, 1755.

Fig. 2.  The Laboratory or School of Arts. Seventh edition, 1810.

Dudin, M. 1977. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder. Trans. R. Atkinson.  Leeds, England:The Elmente Press.

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