Rare Book School’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection and Leo Sewing Support Clamps

If all printed information the world were somehow destroyed, but Rare Book School’s (RBS) collection of books, illustrations, material samples, ephemera, tools and equipment somehow spared, could our bibliographic heritage be reconstructed? Would it matter? Without any artifacts to study, would these obsolete technologies have any bearing in future organization and dissemination of information? What could they tell us about the past? I found myself wondering questions such as these as I was given a tour through the collections of RBS, which seemed like a kind of seed bank that could repopulate the world of books after an apocalypse.

I should have spent the afternoon examining eighteenth century bindings.  Instead, part of the collection, some bookbinding tools, caught my eye. Quite likely bibliographers may dismiss the tools of bookbinding as unimportant, or even unrelated to books. But what is the physical book other than an assemblage of materials, organized by structure and technique, formed by tools?

Barbara Heritage, Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, provides some background on this collection. “Thanks to the good offices of Dan Dwyer (Johnnycake Books, Inc of Salisbury, CT), RBS was able to acquire the bindery of Jacques Ploschek (1919–2009) through his executrix and step-daughter, Tania Poliakoff.  The gift, appraised at $25,000, includes a large collection of finishing tools in excellent condition, including c.450 decorative hand stamps, pallets, gouges and seven decorative rolls and fillets, as well as a sewing frame, backing press, plough, and group of lying and finishing presses.  Ploschek studied under the binder Charlotte Ullman, whose tools can be found among this wonderful addition to our teaching collections.”

In particular were an unusual form of sewing hooks and keys, so remote from their historical origins that they seem to deserve a new name— sewing support clamps?

Fig. 1. A Pair of Leo Sewing Support Clamps. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These sewing support clamps are designed to fit into German style sewing frames, which have a slotted upper crossbar (cantilevered or not) which usually contains hooks which can slide horizontally into position, and lowered or raised vertically by a wing nut, similar to the one on the far right.  The flat area, stamped “LEO”, serves to prevent the entire hook or clamp from twisting as the wing nut is adjusted. Although the sewing frame they are associated with had a gated front, I imagine they could fit into and function in a standard slotted version. Another possibility may be that the clamp on the right  (and in Fig. 3) is made to fit into the upper position of an English style sewing frame, which typically has a round upper crossbar.

Fig. 2. The Leo clamp in the frame. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.


Fig. 3. Lovely file work on the lower (?) clamp. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These clamps are designed for tapes or vellum, quite possibly for account or blank book work given their width.  They are presumably German, given their design based on a hook, and seem likely to have been invented by the Stuttgart bookbinder Wilhelm Leo, who in the late nineteenth century invented an unknown number of bookbinding tools and machines.

Four of Leo’s innovations, with woodcuts, are featured in Zaehnsdorf’s 6th ed., Art of Bookbinding, 1903: two types of mechanical  marbling machines, a set of marbling supplies for bookbinders, and perhaps the most well known, his finishing press. Zaehnsdorf notes the complete set of marbling supplies is particularly invaluable to the small, country bookbinder. None of these illustrations, or textual descriptions, are in the the first (1880) edition of Zaehnsdorf. I haven’t been able to check the other editions. No other manufacturer receives four separate mentions; endorsement by Zaehnsdorf is high praise indeed.

Fig. 4. The Leo Mechanical Marbler. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 75.

Zaehensdorf describes the function: the top roller (or rollers, one version has more) is inked, and the spring pressure transfers it to the lower roller which contains an embossed pattern. This is then transferred onto the book edges. Currently, I am unaware of specific examples produced by this machine, but the ‘cobweb’ style pattern on the roller is seen on German books from around this time.

Fig. 5. The Leo Finishing Press. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 122.

The Leo finishing press is more well known, with an updated version manufactured in the US in the 1990’s, known as the Jordan-Dehoff finishing press. This version swings out of the way, under a workbench when not in use. Several binders I know who have them swear by them. When looking at the above illustration under magnification, it appears the Leo press has a fore edge shelf, which Jordan-Dehoff version lacks.  There are also some striking visual resemblances between this fixture and dictionary holders of the time.  These sewing support clamps and the finishing press do reveal several commonalities: a single screw, easy adjustability, intelligent design, and are well made. Additionally, the ball head on Leo’s press is a very early precursor to the ball head now standard on tripods for photography. Book as camera— fodder for the book artist or poet, I suppose….

6 Replies to “Rare Book School’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection and Leo Sewing Support Clamps”

  1. Notice that on the longer sewing clamp, the wide flat area near the threading seems not as wide as in most good German sewing hooks. My impression is that cords tend to turn the hook because they try to untwist as pull comes on the cord, in addition to any twisting tendency caused by turning the wing nut. In these sewing clamps there would presumably be less or little tendency to twist, since they are designed for flat support materials, not for cord.

    The smaller clamp seems adapted to a bar about half-an-inch in diameter, thinner than the cylindrical English cross-bar; but I don’t see any alternative to your hypothesis that it was designed for an English-style frame.

    Leo was almost the only company that dated their marked finishing tools, for a couple of decades each way from 1900. I’ve also seen Leo wooden two-screw presses, up to the size of a large English liying press. All their tools were very well made. They are still in business supplying edition binders, and even have a few small tools on their website, awls, agate burnishers, scissors, needles, and so on; but they seem to be less welcoming to Anglophonic and hand binders than is Schmedt.

    A clone of the Leo bench-clamped finishing press was made in England, by Hampson Bettridge or Harrild, I would guess in the 1930s or 1950s. If I remember correctly the Jordan-Dehoff version was inspired by the English clone, not the German original. There were photos of the press they copied on theJ-D. website just three or four years ago, but the site seems to be gone now.

  2. I don’t, unfortunately. If you find one please leave a link here! Regards, Jeff

  3. I think the only pictures are from GBW. This one from No. 158 / Feb 2005. I can’t seem to add the jpg. here so I’ll email it to Jeff. Bryan

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