Jost Amman’s 1588 “Two of Books”: An Important 16th C. Image of a Bookbinder

Fig. 1. Jost Amman’s 1568 Bookbinder from the Book of Trades.  Credit: Incline Press.

Jost Amman’s 1568 image of a bookbinder from his “Book of Trades” is quite well known, and a rich source of information about 16th century bookbinding. Not so well known is his 1588 “Two of Books”, which depicts two bookbinders, one sewing and beating a textblock. The images are in a playing card iconography. They originally appeared in a book, along with a poem in Latin and German.

Amman used a variety of suits that may seem odd to us now:  books, printer’s ink balls, earthenware wine vessels, and metal drinking cups. Later, the French standardized the suits we now use: Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs.

Fig. 4. Jost Amman’s 1588 “Two of Books”. Colored when?  By hand? Stencils are more common for playing cards.

The “two of books” is extraordinary visual evidence for binders and book historians, since it depicts a sewer and beater in action. They arrangement is similar to the binders from the Book of Trades (Fig. 1) with a muscular seated foreground binder, actively ploughing or beating, and a sewer with his back to us in the background.

The sewer is using a Northern European style frame with hooks and what appears to be some kind of gated front on the very thick base. He sits almost parallel to the frame, with his left hand inside the book, his right hand free to pull the length of thread.  A ball of thread or beeswax to his right. The shape of the nuts on the frame is typically German. A finishing press lies under the table, with the same typical nuts. In a bindery of the time, he would have likely been facing a window, to help aid needle placement when the signatures were partially open, so the fact that he is facing away from the viewer makes me think Amman possibly based his woodcut on a bindery he observed.

The beater is beating a partially folded textblock — two pages are clearly visible — likely to remove a previous folding crease when the book was transported from the printer to the binder. (1) It is a testament to his strength that he is able to do this strenuous activity while seated. The beating stone appears to be one solid piece. It is drawn distinctly different than the wood stumps in the Fig. 1. And of course they are not working in a bindery.

The books above them (Fig. 4) are all typical late Gothic, with thick wood boards, a heavy round to the spine and foreedge, typical panel tooling, and clasps. Accuracy in details that we know about lend credence to the validity of other aspects we know little about, like how the beater held the hammer and the fact he is seated rather than standing.

Each image in the book was originally accompanied by short verses in Latin and German. The two Peters (Zillig  and Verheyen) provided a translation:

Because I too serve the liberal arts

By binding various/diverse books

I hope you will appreciate me

As a small link in Phoebe’s realm

Look here and see the benefits

Phoebe’s realm? Verheyen found that Phoebe (aka. Endymion,  Diana, Cynthia) was an allegorical figure for spiritual ascent or apotheosis, which makes sense in the context cards in this deck, which generally represent the search for virtue in the material world. (3)  Mary Carol Koester (Azalea Bindery) left an very interesting comment on my previous post about the two of printer’s ink balls from the same deck, noting that the “two” in a Tarot deck of cards concerns the transfer of oral to written history, which is mirrored in both these images of the material production of written texts.

Image
Fig. 2. The “two of books”. The paper looks typical for a 16th c. German book.  Credit: https://daten.digitalesammlungen.de/~db/0002/bsb00024415/images/index.html?seite=49&fip=193.174.98.30

Was this book intended to be converted into playing cards? The evidence is contradictory.  Worldcat lists only three institutions holding it.  I haven’t discovered any of the 1588 cards cut out of books, though I would love to know if any exist!

It is difficult to believe that the owner would cut out the cards. How could they be cut regular enough by ordinary means — a scissors or knife and straightedge — to be shuffled and dealt? And wouldn’t they worry about decreasing the value of an expensive book? Perhaps a professional would have done this, using something like the plough. The earliest  table mounted playing card cutter  I am aware of is 18 c . French.

Additionally, why letterpress print the poem only to have it discarded when cutting out the cards? Playing cards are usually printed on a sheet, then laminated with a paper core and a back. This was done for rigidity and durability, and to prevent the image from showing through on the back. Laminating one card at a time, after cutting it out of a book, would be very time consuming. And again, something the general public would be unable to do. Without laminating, is is quite easy to see through the page, at least enough to identify the card if you were familiar with them.

Vergroesserung
Fig. 3. It is possible to identify the two of books from the verso. Not ideal when playing cards! Credit: https://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/0002/bsb00024415/images/index.html?id=00024415&groesser=150%&fip=193.174.98.30&no=&seite=50

The images in the book certainly have all the standard iconography of playing cards, and they were printed only on the recto of the leaves, which is unusual, and does suggest they were meant to be cut out. The left over poems could have been cut out and used for other purposes, I suppose; hung on a wall or lining a coffer or small box.

Maybe there was a different dedicated card printing of his woodcuts on full size sheets for cutting into cards? I haven’t found one. This is where examining the originals might shed further light.

Fig. 5. Jost Amman’s 1588 “Five of Books”.

The image visually references the etymology of the word “book”, by portraying the books growing on a tree.

From Wikipedia: “The word book comes from Old English bōc, which in turn comes from the Germanic root *bōk-cognate to ‘beech‘.[4] Similarly, in Slavic languages (for example, RussianBulgarianMacedonianбуква (bukva—’letter’) is cognate with ‘beech’. In Russian, Serbian and Macedonian, the word букварь (bukvar’) or буквар (bukvar) refers specifically to a primary school textbook that helps young children master the techniques of reading and writing. It is thus conjectured that the earliest Indo-European writings may have been carved on beech wood.[5] Similarly, the Latin word codex, meaning a book in the modern sense (bound and with separate leaves), originally meant ‘block of wood’.”

An additional point of overlap: German books from this time often had beech boards.  Almost half the tools depicted in Fig. 1 are for working wood: files or rasps, a broad axe, gimlet, frame saw. Possibly the drawknife in the foreground on the floor could be used for wood or bookblock edges. Books and wood have a long and close history in many traditions.

The images on these cards reflect a high-octane Protestant work ethic. H.T. Morley, author of “Old and Curious Playing Cards”, mentions the cards in this deck were intended to promote “the advantages of Industry and Learning over Idleness and Drunkenness.” (2) The two of books exemplifies this, with blooming books growing out of the tree of knowledge.  An unclasped book is about to be opened on the left, while an open book with leaves fluttering on the right suggests the growth that learning can provide.

In Fig. 5, the “Five of Books”, a bookseller has fallen asleep or passed out, while monkeys steal books out of his basket, urinate or defecate on his head, and pick his pocket. The horn books that the monkey is stealing are usually made out of wood. Or is the monkey stealing only a codex book and leaving the horn book?

This deck of cards is a perfect example of proto-capitalist ideology: you can edify your moral fiber AND make a few bucks playing cards at the same time.

 


  1. More details at: Peachey, Jeffrey S. “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays in the History of Bookbinding, Volume 1, edited by. Julia Miller. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2013. 316-381.
  2. Morley, H.T. Old and Curious Playing Cards, London: Bracken Books, 1989. 79.
  3. Personal email from Jun 5, 2020, 8:56 AM.

*****

A scan of the entire book:  https://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/0002/bsb00024415/images/index.html?id=00024415&groesser=150%&fip=193.174.98.30&no=&seite=1

Amman, Jost / Schroeter, Johann Heinrich: Charta lusoria, Nürnberg, 1588 [VD16 S 4258]

I bought an inexpensive reproduction deck for $5 from MacGregor Games, which are quite nice for the price.

Printer’s Ink Balls: Before the Roller or Brayer

Jost Amman’s 1588 two of printer’s ink balls, from a deck of cards. Note the barefoot pressman!

Before brayers and rollers were standard in the mid-19th century, printers used a pair of ink balls (aka. inking balls, dabbers) to ink to the type. They appear in Jost Amman’s 1588 deck of playing cards as a suit. Another suit from the same deck, the “two of books” depicts binders, which I will blog next week. The shape, size, and material composition of historic ink balls varies considerably.

A recent commission from Bill Minter, Senior Conservator at Penn State University Conservation Lab, for a pair of printer’s ink balls turned into a lot of challenging fun to make. Although they are historically based and will be used with a ca. 1830s Washington Handpress for demonstrations, I was given some leeway to make them as I desired, and Minter provided an excellent starting point and a dimensioned drawing.

A finished ink ball. A stainless steel rod runs through the handle to attach it to the bowl.

Because it was tough to find any wood in the appropriate size to make it in one piece, I made it out of two pieces of mahogany which I had been saving for a special purpose. They are bolted together with a steel rod and epoxied.

This job ended up becoming a prolonged comedy of equipment failures. To begin, the drawers where I kept my turning tools slipped off the track in the back and became wedged shut. Lets just say a crowbar was involved to extract the tools. When I started turning the handles on a wood lathe, the motor burned out halfway through. I switched to my metal lather, which turned out too small for the bowl, so I had to convert my milling machine to a lathe by building a tool rest for it.  Then the drive belt broke on my milling machine, the factory was closed, etc, etc….  In the end, I was pleased with the results. And it reminded me — yet again — of the importance of perseverance.

Finished ink ball with chrome tanned sheep covering. Leather covering and photo by Bill Minter.

Minter decided not to finish the ink balls with the traditional untreated sheepskin or dogskin and wool or horsehair stuffing. Instead, he covered it with chrome tanned sheepskin by tying a cord into a groove near the bottom, rather than the traditional nailing, and stuffed it with polyester batting. Testing is still under way, but he thinks it has the right resistance, flexibility, and softness for applying the ink. Possibly other coatings may need to be applied to the leather to aid ink clean up. We will find out once the press is fired up.

 

The Cincinnati Press. A Perfect All-Around Tool

As most people interested in the physical construction of books know, the history of bookbinding is largely unwritten and the majority of the evidence resides in the material books themselves. This is why book conservators try to preserve as much of the physical information as possible for future study, interpretation, aesthetic enjoyment, artifactual value, etc….  Although bindings are usually not dated, the bookblock usually is, which allows us to get a general idea when a book was made.

Bookbinding tools, however, are rarely dated and are often missing provenance. Identifying national styles is often based on connoisseurship and morphological characteristics rather than hard evidence.  In many ways bookbinding tools are more difficult to research than a binding. Often the most information we have about a particular tool is the reminiscence of a current owner, something along the lines of, “well, I bought it from Binder Bob in the 90s, and that’s about all I know”. Tools often are given or sold between binders, and sometimes used for 100s of years.

It is important for conservators to document and understand the broader context of how books were made (the foundation of bibliography), including tools and equipment historically used to make the books, since book conservation is still closer to its craft origins than other specialities.

Background

In order to understand a press more fully that I used while teaching at the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati, I asked Tim Moore to make a replica or model of it. For a while it was on the back burner. As is sometimes the case, the making of a replica evolved into both of us thinking through ways to slightly tweak and improve it. Making a replica involves more time spent carefully looking than even making a drawing, giving time to think through many aspects of an object. A more selfish reason was that I simply really, really wanted a press like this for my own use!

 

The Cincinnati Finishing Press from the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati.

At first I wondered if this press was altered in some way, especially the shape of the top edge. On further reflection, I don’t think so, considering the symmetrical distance between the handles and the top and sides. Yet it is impossible to be certain.

We decided to call it The Cincinnati Press. Some may rightly attribute this name to a lack of imagination on our part. At least it is better than yet another eponymous Peachey this or that.

All aspects of this press are carefully chosen, and contribute to its function: the handle placement, overall size, cheeks, handle design, and our addition of tying-up pins.

 

The Cincinnati Press. I haven’t driven the key home so it is slightly proud on the end, and haven’t put in the retaining pin in.
Handle placement

The extreme placement of the handles close to the top edge is likely the defining feature of this press.  It allows for a lot of pressure right at the spine edge, and is perfect for smaller books, since the press is less likely to yawn. It also fits older books which are sometimes wedge shaped.

Size

The replica press is 7.5 inches tall. This height positions the book spine close to your eyes, which is convenient when removing or applying linings if you have poor sight like I do. I prefer presses like this that support the book completely, rather than narrower profile ones. There are 12 inches between the screws, which according to my own thoroughly unscientific non-survey fits about 92.5% of books I usually work on.

Cheeks

The 1.25 inch thick cheeks (aka “five quarters” in the lumber world) resist deflection when tightening,  The sharp radius at the top edge also adds strength just where you need it to clamp a book or textblock firmly. The press is heavy enough not to slide around on the workbench. It can be used to gently back a rounded textblock, if you use a froitture rather than a hammer.

 

The Cincinnati Press, end view. Note the radius at the top which adds considerable pressing strength when combined with the thick and ridged cheeks.
Handle Design

The handles are smaller than usual for a press like this. Tim explained his thinking about the handles in an email, “I had never considered reducing the shoulder on the wooden screw this much but I like it. As you pointed out it adds strength (less leverage on the margin of the screw shoulder). I suppose there may be greater wear on the outside press surface (more psi of pressure) but it’s probably not significant with hard wood.” The original has a wider profile shoulder which is vulnerable to splitting. A thinner shoulder is also more comfortable to grasp.

 

The Cincinnati  Press. Detail of the tying-up pins and Tim’s careful selection of wood..
Tying-up pins

One significant change from the original was the addition of tying up pins, which are very useful. Tim also rethought his usual style and angle. He writes, “I drilled the tying-up pin holes at 15 degrees. This was a shallow enough angle that I could get a good start with a brad point drill. I didn’t think the ‘Vee’ channels that I’ve been using would look so good on this press. I think this is probably the way to go in future, provided the 15 degree slant is sufficient. My thinking is trending simpler these days and the channels now seem superfluous.”

The few tests I have done seem to confirm that 15 degrees is more than enough to keep the tying-up cords in place, and the pins themselves do not get in the way when using the press for other purposes. They actually make tying and untying quicker, since the cords slip on and off more easily, rather than getting trapped in a steep angle.

Conclusion

As with all of Tim’s equipment, the Cincinnati Press is meticulously crafted and beautifully finished. The wood screws are the super smooth — you can almost spin them! — and I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my career.

I think I will increase the diameter of the handles for my next one (!) to gain more torque when tightening. Tim considers this unnecessary, though, “I can’t decide whether increasing the diameter of the handle would actually increase the mechanical advantage. For instance most screwdrivers have rather small handles and there is some important relationship to hand size and grip that someone understands better than I. Many folks have smaller hands which might argue for smaller handles. Also, if you need the press really tight you can grab both ends of the screw with both hands for the final cinch.” For some reason when I am using any wood press, it seems more common that I grab the threaded portion to adjust it. Maybe we don’t need a handle, just a threaded rod?

It is by far the nicest finishing press I have.

*****

I keep thinking about some broader questions, applicable to all tools, that reconstructing this press brought up. Can a particular piece of bookbinding equipment  inform us as to the working procedures of binders? Could it affect how a particular book functions and looks? What would be the evidence for this? How can we better document provenance in the historic tools and equipment we use and collect?

 


In you would like more information about purchasing a Cincinnati Press, contact Tim Moore directly at: scobeymoore <AT> frontiernet <DOT> net