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.

DISCARDED

DISCARDED stamp on a former New York Academy of Medicine Bookplate. This book has been discarded twice, and is now back in a Rare Book Collection.

A somewhat ironic placement of this DISCARDED stamp.  I suspect every institution has sold, discarded, or recycled books in their collection, often quite quietly, not just the NY Academy of Medicine. I’m amazed how many books I have worked on that were deaccessioned at some point in their lives, then recollected, once again deemed valuable. What is considered a rare book changes. I’ll lay good money that a lot of currently “non-rare” books will become rare at some point in the future. Will all paper based codex books be rare someday?

Is Restoration Dying?

First Ed. Tom Sawyer, seen at the 2019 NYC Armory Book Show a few weeks ago.

Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.

Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.

And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.

A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.

There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands.  A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us.  The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.

Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?

A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing.  The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility.  Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.

Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?