House Books of the Nuremberg 12 Brothers Foundation

Peter Zillig, who writes the insightful, wide ranging VUSCOR Books/ Paper/ Reused Objects/ Steampunk Blog, sent me a link to some early portraits of  German craftsmen, House books of the Nuremberg 12 Brothers Foundation.  (Here is a link to Zillig’s blog via Google translator, which isn’t very accurate). After analyzing the scene, Peter reflects on his own appetite for bookbinding tools, when realistically only a few are necessary. There are 9 bookbinders in all pictured, and their birth dates are from 1532-1762.  There images are fascinating, and worth spending some time with, below is one I found particularly interesting.  There are over 1400 portraits depicting many trades, including a beater of metal flakes, a chain mail maker, a capon feeder and a brazil wood masher.   These books were digitized in 2008.

Vasare Rastonis sent me the following explanation of the project: 

“The “House books of the Nuremberg 12 Brothers Foundation” Project is a study of the house books of Konrad Mendel, a wealthy merchant in the 14th century and Matthaus Landauer, a contractor of some sort in the 16th century. Konrad Mendel set up a foundation which provided food and housing for 12 poor people at a time in 1388. The books document the needy who were taken into Mendel’s, and later Landauer’s, care and taught a trade/craft. The Mendel books, in the early years, contained a portrait and the person’s birth date and name and in later years a brief biography was included.

The project is to document each book and page digitally including a photo and written description of each entry so that the crafts/trades practiced in Germany between the 15th and 19th centuries are accessible. The project partners are the Nuremberg Public Library, who possess the books, and the German National Museum, who seem to be the supporters of technological information… I am going to guess that this means that they promote the dissemination of technological developments, history and information.

In total they have documented 1430 portraits and have included information on the bindings. The website, as you noticed, has been set up in such a way that you can look at each book page by page or search by trade/profession, by a “brother’s” last name, work equipment, materials, finished products and EVEN medical condition!”









This painting is of Nicasius Florer, dated 1614. Foot simply describes his as “…portrayed at age 77, seated at a table with a bound book to which he is attaching a clasp.  A folder, a hammer and a bowl and sponge are on the table.” (134)


The sharp eyes of Peter Zillig noticed a few additional items of interest, in paticular what he describes as a circular plough knife blade on the wall, a beating hammer used as a weight (btwn 5-8 kg.), a falzbein(bone folder) and a leimpottchen (pastepot?), and two hammers.  He also notes the text describes a “Beitel awl” stuck into the wall.  Keep in mind some of these terms came through Google translator so could be butchered.  

It is endlessly fascinating, contentious and complex to attempt to identify the tools portrayed in early illustrations of bookbinders, but here it goes. Florer is labeled a bookbinder, but it seems possible that he is a clasp maker, which I thought were different trades at this time.  Or perhaps he is just attaching the clasps onto the books. Note the beating hammer used as a weight, which makes me think that this was a binder, and the white, alum tawed straps awaiting their clasps. The shape of spines of these books shout out “Made in Germany”.  


In comparing this with Jost Amman’s binder’s shop of 1568, there seems to be very few tools in the workshop.  Of course, since this is a portrait, not a shop view, perhaps Florer chose his favorite tools to be pictured with.   And if this binder was attaching clasps to the exponential flood of books that occurred in  the early 17th Century, his strong looking arms may be an accurately portrayed.


The tools hanging up in the background appear to be wood carving chisels and a mallet in the center, though Zillig interprets this as a plough blade, which makes sense that this sharp tool would be stored out of the way and paring knives.  But if it is a plough blade the storage seems somewhat precarious.  Could the smaller tools at the other end be gravers, (Zillig calls them “gravierstichein”) which would support the hypothesis that this man was a clasp maker as well as a binder?  This storage shelf must have been built especially for these tools- the blades hang between two pieces of wood (or drilled out wood) and the handles keep them from falling through.  I use a similar method to store handsaws at the back of my woodworking bench.  If these are chisels, they were  possibly used for the shaping of the wood boards, or perhaps Zillig is right that these are paring knives.  The sharply angled fishtail chisel in the front could be used for edge paring with a forward motion, like modern German paring knives. The small press, resting against the wall is a fairly standard German style with nuts, rather than handles used to tighten it.  It also looks like some kind of wood board against the book in the press– used for adjusting the clasp tension?


The foreground is occupied by Florer, attaching a clasp to the leather straps and it looks like a small anvil underneath.  The tools he is using are possibly a handless brush in a paste pot (is this what Foote interpreted as a sponge?), but Zellig describes this is “Leimwasser”  on the left.  The German word leimen means to spread with glue. small unidentified pot (containing tacks or pins?), a chasing hammer (the shape of the handle is still in use today by silversmiths) some clasps (perhaps already completed by someone else?) , a riveting hammer, an awl and a bonefolder on the right. If it is a bonefolder, this is more evidence to support the claim this man is a bookbinder.  I’ve never seen a hang hole in a bone folder, however, it seems to be a Germanic tradition, Foot includes a plate from P.N. Sprengel in Kunste und Handwercke in Tabellen mit Kupfern that pictures one dating from 1778. (45)  Florer is most likely sitting on a three legged stool, similar to the one behind him and there is large chest at the back of the workshop.  The style of latch on the door is still in use today on primitive outbuildings in rural America.  And that is one big hat–fashion statement or  a symbol of social stature?


These are just a few preliminary observations, and I welcome corrections.  This site is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the history of technology and trades.  The high quality, large image size make it easy to examine in detail tools from this time period.  The database is easy to search, and English subject terms are provided.  Some of the books that house these images appear to have been rebound and the original pages adhered to a new structure.  Perhaps these books were badly damaged, but it is doubly unfortunate since there is a chance that perhaps one of the craftsmen depicted could have also been the binder.




Bockwitz, H.H., ‘Alte Bildnisse von Buchgewerblern und ihrer Hantierung’, Archiv fur Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik, 75, heft 11, 1938, 419 (Abb.4), 420 (Abb. 5)


Foot, Mirjam M.  Bookbinders at Work: Their Roles and Methods.  The British Library and Oak Knoll Press: London and New Castle, 2006.


Sprengel P.N., Kunste und Handwercke in Tabellen mit Kupfern Berlin: 1778.



11 Replies to “House Books of the Nuremberg 12 Brothers Foundation”

  1. Thanks! Does it literally mean “folder” or “bone folder” or something else?

  2. Webster: German words ‚falten’ or ‚falzen’ => ‚to fold’ in english.

    @‚ I’ve never seen a hang hole in a bone folder, however, it seems to be a Germanic tradition …”
    To show some friends, bookbinding newbees and teflon folder users how my most importand tools look like I posted this:
    Watch the heavy bonefolder left out (13×3 cm). It has a double circled line around its hang hole like most of bone folders of the early years of 1900 in german speaking countries. Most of the other holes I made with my minitool ;–)

  3. Its amazing how much can be winkled out of a picture like this; I had seen this one before, but never looked at it carefully enough. A few expansions or comments:

    To me the “circular plough blade,” if that is what it is, looks like it is mounted on a single straight handle. This would make it ready for use, not just a spare blade, and would hold it on the shelf at the odd angle it seems to have in the picture. There is quite enough historic precedent for such a tool. At least one 20th-century Russian binding manual shows an edge being ploughed with a circular blade on a handle, the lying press held vertically between the binder’s waist and the ground; and I think we may have a second Slavic manual with a similar drawing. Twenty-five years ago Guy Petherbridge, while doing research on current binding in Thessalonika, found a circular blade on a handle being used as a plough, and took a slide of it. My experience with a circular-bladed plough is that the plough rides on the rim of the blade, not on the plough cheeks, and this makes the use of the blade with just a handle a tempting low-cost alternative. My blades (from Jenson of Copenhagen) are slightly dished on the bottom, like a Japanese chisel, rather than dead flat. I agree that the drawing is vague enough to bear interpretation as a mallet, except that I don’t see any edge tools that would require a mallet to drive them.

    If the object on the shelf is a plough equivalent ready to use, then perhaps the book in the press with just one board has been locked up ready for an edge to be trimmed, with the single board the backing to cut against and the edge to be trimmed against the wall. I can’t quite make sense of which edge of the book is which, unless the exposed edge is the foredge, which would make nonsense of my ready-to-plough theory; nor can I suggest why a book would be left locked up ready to plough (or just having been ploughed) while the binder did something else. Another possible interpretation is that there are two books in the press, one of them hidden behind the board, possibly so that their spines can be worked on or their edges colored at the same time.

    When I first took binding lessons in the early 1980s several of my favorite bone folders came with hang holes in them. Possibly these were bought through a local art supply store, not a binders’ supplier. They had a semi-triangular shape that suited my hand, and I bought and lost at least two or three of them before they became unavailable; fortunately by that time I had traced one into my notes and I was able to make a replacement of the same shape (though I didn’t bother with the hole). At that time most bone folders sold in America were marked “Made in East Germany” (the ink marking or paper label soon washed off); now they come from China, but are bleached or boiled until they are weak and brittle.

    The beating hammer interested me because the drawing is very similar to the drawing of a beating hammer in Jost Amman’s woodcut. Amman’s hammer is almost unidentifiable to me (I would almost have supposed it a broad hatchet except that there is an unambiguous broad hatchet hanging on the wall in Amman); this drawing gives a bit more clarity to the bell shape that is still found in several 19th century drawings of beating hammers. A beating hammer, by the way, is one of the tools we most desire for the Bookbinders’ Museum, but we haven’t yet been able to obtain one.

    As for the small number of tools in the picture— of course, estate inventories show that binders before 1800 did use fewer tools than we do now, but I would suggest that the artist was being paid a set price for these miniatures, and didn’t want to spend the time to draw every little tool for what was becoming a money-losing job. None of the other Mendel bookbinders are shown with any tools at all, beyond a couple with sewing frames in the background.

  4. Nice photo- Do you actually hang them on the wall? Thanks for the info.

  5. A handled plough makes a lot of sense, but it looks like the book in the press is already covered and has clasp straps hanging out.

    I know Rare Book School is also looking for a beating hammer- It might be time to get a Blacksmith to make a couple up.

  6. You’re right about the book in the press— the straps are decisive. Foredge visible, then, and now I don’t have any guess about what is being done to it.

  7. There are two books in the press (perhaps). Note that they are pitched and pinched together to induce the German round-no-back in the still setting adhesive. Those under the hammer are also seasoning and stacked to evenly dissipate moisture.

    These shops may have included many steps to season work and materials. No labor is needed and many irregularities could be managed.

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