Family Bibles

Mentioning Family Bibles to a group of bookbinders will provoke a variety of responses somewhat similar to the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the end, most of us accept the fact we will work on them—many, many, of them. Anecdotally, there seems to be less of a demand to work on these in New York City than some of my country based colleagues report; perhaps NYC is just not a Bible keeping/reading kind of town. Family Bibles (along with family cookbooks filled with recipes, notes, butter stains, etc..) are often the only books of valued enough by the general public to consider preserving, a trend that is likely continue and increase.  The large size and poor quality materials of these Bibles make them difficult to work on. Claire Manias is familiar with these challenges and wrote this brief essay about Family Bibles for an exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art.

Clare is the Conservator of Rare Books at the Museum of Biblical Art, and has twelve years of experience in conservation. She has worked in major institutions around New York City including the New York Academy of Medicine, The New York Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Union Theological Seminary, as well as in private practice.  She is a former co-chair of the NY Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers, 2006-2010.

A Note on the Conservation of Family Bibles

Clare Manias

Family Bibles like the ones displayed in The Book of Life: The Family Bible in America were purchased to begin and maintain important record-keeping traditions for families. Major life events, emotional trials, and joyful expressions were recorded by family members and passed down through generations.

These Bibles were read, shared, displayed, stored, passed around, neglected, and found. All of this activity rendered itself not only on the pages of the book, but also on its binding. Hands left worn spots, paper was torn while reading, and the binding was strained by articles pressed between the pages. These changes occurring over time are as important to the history of the book as is what is printed on the pages.

Fig 1. These Family Bibles were designed to appeal to the purchaser’s idea of what an important book looks like. Photograph by Gina Fuentes Walker for MOBIA.

The design of Family Bible bindings was meant to invoke a sense of tradition. The Bible with Apocrypha, printed in Syracuse, New York at the Bible Publishing House in 1882 (Figure 1) is an fanciful example of what a great book is supposed to look like. The binding’s style evokes medieval books which had thick wooden boards, large raised bands, metalwork, and elaborate tooling on the covers. Family Bible bindings also emulate the style of fine binding of the seventeenth century with tooled board edges, elaborately gilt spines, and shiny text paper edges.

New technologies like color lithographic printing, wood engraving, machine paper making, and industrial leather production helped make it possible to bring these luxurious books to their respective families quickly and less expensively. The advancements in paper making and leather tanning, however, would prove to be unfavorable for the preservation of these books. Rushed tanned sheepskin rapidly breaks down and is very acidic. Early machine-made paper had not yet had time to turn brown and brittle from age, so the effects of time on poorly refined wood pulp paper were yet to be discovered.

It is also possible that items placed in the Bible for safekeeping have distorted its binding or stained its pages. Thick cardboard items or locks of hair can strain the sewing and cause the spine to split. Newspaper clippings and pressed leaves release acids as they age that cause them to “print” their silhouette on the pages between which they are interspersed.

Fig. 2. The best way to preserve your family’s historical objects and documents is to store them in protective housing in a stable environment. Photograph by Gina Fuentes Walker for MOBIA.

Poor materials combined with heavy use make a conservator’s job much more challenging. Consider the Complete Domestic Bible, published in Syracuse, New York by Watson Gill in 1873 which has brittle paper that is almost impossible to repair and “red-rotted” sheepskin leather that is very difficult to retain (Figure 2). These fragile materials hold the marks of the Bible’s owners but require extensive conservation treatments to return them to readable condition. This is not feasible because so many of these Bibles were sold and so many copies survive, thus making the Bible relatively inexpensive even today. Though the book itself is not rare, the markings and changes brought upon it by the family that owned the book make it unique, and therefore a candidate for careful preservation. The binding should be preserved to retain the evidence of its history, even if that means stabilizing the Bible in a state of disrepair.

The best way to preserve unique family records is by careful storage. Libraries and museums maintain clean, temperature- and humidity-regulated storage environments as the most effective way to preserve their holdings. Keeping storage temperatures at 70 degrees and maintaining a humidity of 50% is the best way to keep brittle papers from yellowing further or already dry leather from breaking off and crumbling. Books and family records can also be kept in custom-made, archival storage boxes that support the book on the shelf and protect fragile paper from damage and soiling incurred from handling and long-term storage.

In preparation for The Book of Life, only minimal conservation treatment was implemented to ensure that the books shown are as close to their current state as possible, without trying to make them look brand new. This ensures they will retain the evidence of the family records they contain and invoke this historical period for viewers now and in the future.

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Reproduced with permission from the exhibition catalog, The Book of Life: Family Bibles in America, New York: Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), 2011.

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