Smuggler’s Bible

For reasons unknown to me, there are a number of these late 18th C. French bindings that have been converted into smuggler’s bibles.  The stamping on the front cover was done at a later date, and the inside of the textblock seems to have been edge glued, and the back flyleaf used to line the edges.  The bottom is the back board pastedown.  I always wonder what happened to the bulk of the text– thrown away or burned, most likely.  

So if I am “reading” this book correctly, with little or no text, it is the materials and the structure of the binding that give it meaning.  In a way, this book is a eloquent example of how a conservator approaches a book.   Firstly, through the lens of the history of technology, it is the physical substrates that support and protect the text that are documented, analyzed and conserved.   Secondly, we have not time, interest  or are unable to read the language of most of the books we work on.  Do we even need the text?

But this book also demonstrates how the brutal alteration of an artifact can distort our understanding of history.   I’m very interested in late 18th C. French bookbinding, and even though there are many extant examples, each one that is lost  distorts our understanding of the total production and subtle workshop variations. It is that it is very difficult to determine when this book was altered, so it gives the unscrupulous an easy excuse of saying they bought the book in this condition.  The market currently values destroyed or altered books such as this more than an intact volume. 

There is even a company called “Secret Storage Books” that currently makes new versions.  If I were being more stringent with my own ethics, I guess I shouldn’t have purchased this book, since it encourages more of them to be made.  

Octave Uzanne, writing in 1904, in The French Bookbinders of the Eighteenth Century writes: “‘Sham books’, simple wooden boxes, and sometimes mere mouldings, covered with gauffered and gold-tool leathers, with which they filled the empty shelves of a pretentious library, or with which they garnished the doors.”  The books below, however are real books that have been made to resemble the sham books he talks about.

























Jane Eagan kindly sent this image of a similar book she owns.





















On the 24th of March, 2009 I was watching Looney Tunes historic Chuck Jones animation, and from 1939 an 8 minute short titled “Sniffles and the Bookworm” featured a smuggler’s bible.  Watch the book on the bottom right.  I barely had time to grab my camera, so I missed a better shot earlier in the movie.












6 Replies to “Smuggler’s Bible”

  1. Jeff, I have one of these purchased in France a few years ago and as you say, it is difficult to know when the secret compartment was done. It’s a fascinating area and I’d love to know more about it. Could send you a picture if you like, Jane

  2. I’d love to get a picture, and if you don’t mind I will post it? It would be interesting to start comparing the design of the new rolled boarders and center stamps.

  3. Hi Jeff,
    I just found one of these for 5 dollars at an antiques store. The book is called “Repertoire Universel Et Raisonne De Jurisprudence Civile, Criminelle, Canonique Et Beneficiale” by Joseph Nicolas Guyot in 1779. It looks just the same as the ones you have pictured here, marbled paper and all. I find it such a peculiar artifact, and can’t find hardly any other information on Smuggler’s Bibles online. Do you know any more about them?

  4. No, I don’t know any more about them. But if you feel like sending me an image, I’ll post it, might start looking at similarities of tool marks, etc. My only hunch is that there are so many of these late 18th century books, that they were (and are) cheap to alter? Jeff

  5. I will send you a picture in a couple days, I don’t have any just yet. My copy is in much worse condition though, with the cover having fallen completely off.

  6. My brother has one of these, it came from our grandmother, who probably picked it up in the thrift shop where she volunteered. It’s in an 18th-C French book of religious lessons. The inside is undecorated wood. Some nice gilding, and the cover is still on. I’ll try to send you a picture – it’s at Mom’s house.

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