An Unusual Sewing Frame from the Roycroft Bindery

A very unusual sewing frame. Roycroft Campus, East Arora, New York.

I was excited to find a small display of bindery tools at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York.  Elbert Hubbard started Roycroft, was inspired by William Morris, and promoted the Arts and Crafts ethos in America during the first part of the 20th century. His press produced many books that today look aggressively “hand-made”.

The sewing frame from his bindery, however, is strikingly innovative and elegant.  The support attachments are similar to the Hickock blank book sewing frame, which I think was designed and produced at least by the 1920’s. I’m uncertain which came first. I use a similar idea for clamping supports in my Nokey Sewing Frame. The curved and cantilevered uprights allow for arm clearance and stability. The late 20th century Clarkson sewing frame uses a similar design.

The rod in the front might be to wrap tapes on, so they can be continually fed upwards.  It also looks like the rod itself can slide a bit in a recess, to the weight helps apply tension?  There are two hinged areas, the front one may also trap the supports, and the one towards the back may contain a storage area? There is some residue on the rod, suggesting something was adhered at some point. But what and why?

The uprights can be removed, and the frame stored in the wooden box it rests on, like the Clarkson design. Given the aesthetics and the use of oak which is common in arts and crafts furniture, but uncommon for bookbinding tools, I would guess  it was made at Roycroft.  But the bindery display contained many other pieces of equipment from other sources, including a very nice Leo Finishing Press, so it may come from another source. It is a clever and compact design.

An Unusual Bookbinder’s Roll for Dictionary Tabs

Bookbinder’s Roll. J. Marks maker mark.
There are 12 letters on the roll. Note the “A” has been repaired or replaced.

A few years ago, I picked up this roll, and I am still not completely sure what it was for.  I’m pretty sure is for tooling cut out leather thumb tabs, which would then be glued to the book.

It contains the letter sequence “A – C – E – G – I – L – N – P – R – T – W – Y” The makers mark is “J. MARKS”.  Tom Conroy’s Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers places this English company between 1868 – 1901. He also mentions there are no marks known, so this will be an entry for the revised and enlarged edition. No marks for J. Marks! Tom would love it, since he also wrote a book of humorous bookbinding verse. If you enjoy reading this blog, you will love both of his books.

The letters were hand cut on the double yoked wheel, which must have taken incredible skill so that they ended up essentially even in height.  The “A” was repaired or replaced at some point, and soldered into place. All the letters are quite worn.

The dealer I purchased this from cleaned it up and polished it, more than I would have liked. Cleaning is irreversible!

A W.O. Hickok Press

Source: https://theretrofactory.com/2014/03/28/an-1860s-book-press-repurposed-into-wine-storage-and-display/

On the one hand, I am happy to see this beautiful Hickok press, apparently still functioning, was not thrown into the trash heap. The repurposed aspects of this press appear easily reversible, simply by removing the wine box.

However, many artifacts are totally destroyed by being “repurposed”, which is often code for sold in the interior design marketplace. The Retrofactory blurb dates this press to ca. 1860’s, which seems like a wild guess. Hickok started in 1844, there are very scanty records pre-1930. If this date is correct, this press is the earliest known transitional Hickok book press I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see the documentation.

Transitional presses have metal and wood components. I used to sneer at them, so old fashioned!

Then I used one.

They develop wonderful creaking noises when gradually fully tightened, which gives some auditory feedback on the amount of compression. Look at the intelligent engineering of the thick cross-bracing on the upper platen — this is where rigidity is necessary in a press. The whole press is elegantly built for maximum lightness. The wood and iron elements interact complexly and organically. I think this helps prevent the press from backing off as much as all metal ones. The wood moves a bit, and the steel threads can settle in more parellel? The size of this press is very nice, the tightening wheel at a comfortable hand height. The wooden base is convenient to brace a foot against to keep the press from twisting in operation.

One of my pet peeves are presses that are not attached to a workbench or floor. You know who you are! If you have to hold onto the press while tightening it, you loose at least 30% of the compressional power, and are much more likely to damage whatever you are pressing.

Looking at the image of the press above, I bet a lot of shoes have braced themselves against it, though it was likely also bolted to the floor at some point, note the small slots at the ends of the feet. Given the distinctive shape of the four knobs on top of the wheel, there must have been a specialized press pin designed to fit them.

It irks me to see this beautiful press being removed from the functional bookbinding world, and co-opted into the interior design world, where its only value is to feed the appetite of the 1%. An unnecessary and silly wine storage rack for $3450.00.

More broadly, is sad when our collective culture values one of a limited number of remaining functioning 19th century Hickok presses more as a decorative object than functional one. Tools have become so invisible that we no longer even notice them, or value them.

Even though the W. O. Hickok Manufacturing Company is still in business, they have transitioned into primarily a job machining shop due to lack of demand for bookbinding equipment. Their web site mentions they still make presses and job backers on special order. The genuine Hickok 001/2 is my favorite press for general bookbinding and book conservation, much nicer than the copies of it. Please support them!

W.O. Hickok
Manufacturing Company

900 Cumberland St.
Harrisburg, PA 17103
ph 717.234.8041
fx 717.234.2587

wohickokmfg@comcast.net