Unbelievable Book Sewing. The American Bookbinders Museum. Petition Against the Closure of the Greek Conservation Department.

sewing in the air

Chase, A. and Clow, Stories of Industry, Vol. II. (Educational Publishing Co.: Boston, New York, Chicago, 1891), 174. Author’s collection.

I can’t quite believe the above image reflects an actual practice. Sliding the books up after they are sewn? This would seem to cause extreme abrasion to the cords, thread and signatures. Cords from this time are often very weak, though. There are other suspect elements; the title is wrong and the sewing frame uprights are incredibly tall. The whole frame would likely be very unstable and the tension on the cords would be extreme; could three weak, thin, late nineteenth century cords support this weight?

Generally this image is believable, though. The body and hand positions of the women are accurate. Women from around this time could sew very fast, 2-3 thousand signatures a day. Being able to sew a large number of books without having to restring the frame would likely be a time savings. Is this image the result of artistic imagination, ignorance or possibly an accurate description of an unusual trade practice?

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have found this intriguing image if it were not for the wonderful online bibliography of bookbinding manuals from The American Bookbinders Museum. It is annotated, so can save anyone a lot of time searching through less useful sources. The American Bookbinders Museum was also incredibly gracious host when I taught my 18th century French class in San Francisco, letting us closely examine a first edition of Dudin’s 1772 L’Art du Reliure, followed by a reception. Their collection of books, tools and machines is unique and irreplaaceable.

But The American Bookbinders Museum is currently in crisis, due to two water leaks in recent months. They need to raise a lot of money to relocate their collection.  I chipped in. How could you not contribute to a Museum that contains possibly the coolest bookbinders ticket ever?

bookbinder and taxidermist

Collection of The American Bookbinders Museum

If you would like to send a check please  make the check out to “The American Bookbinders Museum” and send it to the following address:

Bookbinders Museum Relief
c/o Taurus Bookbindery
2736 16 th street
San Francisco, CA. 94110

The Museum is a 501-(c)3  organization and all donations will be tax deductible.

For further questions contact Tim James anytime  9:00 AM-9:00 PM PST at 415-710-9369  (Tim James)   or email: Tim [at] Bookbindersmuseum.com

If you are interested in helping to find a permanent home for the Museum and insuring its future please leave your contact information at: info [at] bookbindersmuseum.com


And since you are doing one good deed, how about signing this petition to help save the Greek Conservation Department as well?

Dear friends and colleagues,

The Department for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in Zakynthos, Greece of the Technological Educational Institute of the Ionian Islands is threatened with unjust and unreasoned closure by the Greek Ministry of Education.

The profession of conservation is suffering a blow yet again, following the closure of several courses throughout Europe over the last few years and job cuts in museums, libraries and institutions, putting our cultural heritage at greater risk.

Please read our petition and if you support our cause sign it and forward it anywhere you can.


[NOTE: The appeal for money after you sign the petitions is for ipetitions, not Greek Conservation]

Thank you for your help,

Nikolas Sarris

Nikolas Sarris, PhD
Book Conservation, Assistant Professor
TEI of the Ionian Islands
Dep. for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage
Zakynthos 29100 – Greece

5 Replies to “Unbelievable Book Sewing. The American Bookbinders Museum. Petition Against the Closure of the Greek Conservation Department.”

  1. The image was copied from the front cover of the issue of Scientific American for October 2, 1880 (New Series volume XLIII: number 14). This had an article on the American Book Exchange, the largest and most up-to-date book factory in the country, and the cover showed vignettes of the various processes (machine sewing as well as hand sewing is included). The vignettes on sewing and gathering are not adjacent, so some scrambling of the titles and vignettes has clearly occurred along the way. I found a note on line that the American Book Exchange was founded by John B. Alden in 1874 and went bankrupt in 1881. If I remember correctly, it has some modern notoriety as the publisher of many cheap editions of British bestsellers that had no American copyright. The last time I was in the Bookbinders’ Museum there was a copy of this issue of Scientific American framed on the wall.

    In the case beneath the issue was, among other items, a large photograph of a woman sewing books in just this way. From her hair and clothing the date of the photo would have been in the 1950s; from the large but mixed batch of books on the frame, I believe she was working for a library bindery. Believable or not, the practice did exist, and for much longer than might have been supposed.

  2. Late to the party as usual. When I do edition work I’ll sew between five and ten copies at a time on the frame, then take them down and pull the tapes through and cut them off for each copy. It’s a pretty efficient way to sew multiples.

    I’ve never tried to push them up to the top of the frame as in the illustration though…

  3. Very cool, thanks. It is also interesting to note all the books were sawn-in and sewn on the same three cord spacing. Jeff

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