Sony and Stony



I am struck by how closely the dimensions of  the 7th century Stonyhurst Gospel (now renamed as St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John) match the screen size of the Sony Portable Reader System PRS-505.  On the left is a model of the Gospel, which is described in the literature as being 134-138mm high, and 90-95mm wide (1:1.49).  The screen of the Sony Reader is 124mm high and 92mm wide (1:1.35).   Coincidence? Perhaps. But might their dimensions relate to our hand size or comfortable handheld viewing range?  These books are separated by 13 centuries!

I played with the Sony last weekend at the Small Press Fair in NYC. I was impressed by the resolution of the eink at any viewing angle, but page turns were agonizingly slow, and accompanied by an epeliptic inducing flash of background reversal– the text would go white, and the “page” black for a split second.  I also tried out a prototype of the next version, which has a touch screen interface, but doubt this would be a great advantage when reading.There is a promotion on now at Sony—  enter promo code:  10sonyclassic    You can get 10 free ebooks to read on your computer or ebook reader  from the “classics” collection– think 19th C. standard DWM’s.  

I think the Stonyhurst needs a tagline too.  How about “The Stonyhurst: Carry the Gospel of St. John in one hand.”

The Integument is an Integral Part of the Book-Brander Matthews

In 2008 there were two major exhibitions of 19th century publishers’ bindings; The Well Dressed Booat the University of Maryland,  and The Proper Decoration of Book Covers: The Life and Work of Alice C. Morse at the Grolier club in NYC.  One day symposiums accompanied both, and the speakers rallied around the cause of celebrating the presumably unknown, or at least undervalued work of 19th century publishers’ binding designers, often only identified by microscopic initials hidden within the stamping on the front cover.  

Last weekend, I purchased and read Brander Matthews’ book, Bookbindings Old and New, (Strand Bookstore, ex-library copy, $20!) published in 1895, expecting to find the typical remarks of a pedantic 19th century bibliophile, but instead found an opinionated, yet breezily written assessment of mainly French bookbinders from the 16th through the 18th centuries, a chapter on publishers’ bindings and a short history of the Grolier Club.  I found Matthews to be passionate about defending the high quality of work by many book designers of the day– including Margaret N. Armstrong, Mrs. Henry Whitman, Stanford White, Harold B. Sherwin, Hugh Thomson, Edwin A. Abbey, D.S. Maccoll, and more. “The beauty of the modern book is not that of the book of yore” (172), he writes, “Just how excellent some modern commercial bindings are, scarcely any of us have taken time to discover; for we are prone to overlook not a few of the best expressions of contemporary art, natural outgrowths of modern conditions, in our persistent seeking for some great manifestation which we fail to find. ” (174)  He later continues, “It is a fact that commercial bookbinding , often ignorantly looked down on, is now at a most interesting stage of its history; and it seems to me very worth while to consider some of its recent successes.” (175)  

He even is an early advocate for preservation of paper wrappers, “One word of warning, and I have done:  never destroy the paper cover of a book, even of the least important pamphlet.  The integument is an integral part of the book…” (283) The page opposite this quote is an illustration of the Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which today is worth much, much more if in original wrappers. He obviously recognizes and values the unique physical character of books, and  quotes Hawthorne’s admonishment to collectors who rebind their publishers’ cloth books in leather, those who “strip off the real skin of a book to put it into fine clothes.” (If anyone knows where this quote appears in Hawthorne’s Oeuvre, please let me know, a citation is not included in Matthew’s book)

But at the same time, he complains about the state of hand bookbinding, and is particularly disparaging of the use of the roll in tooling. “The use of the roll, repeating the same motive indefinitely as it is rolled over the leather, is indefensible; it is the negation of art; it destroys the free play of hand which is the very essence of handicraft.” (69)  For Matthews, Cobden-Sanderson is the height of modern bookbinding genius–there are 8 large plates of his bindings– and is critical of the “artistic sterility” of Zaehnsdorf.  “The most original figure among English binders of this century–in fact, the only original figure since Roger Payne–is Mr. Cobden-Sanderson.” (129) “Believing in handicraft as the salvation of humanity, and that a man should labor with his hands, he abandoned the bar, and studied the trade of the binder.” (132)

He ends up adopting a somewhat black and white position:  all hand bookbinding should be done by hand, preferably both the forwarding and the finishing by the same man, but commercial binding is the execution of of design. “So a book-cover stamped by steam may be a thing of beauty if it is designed by Mrs. Whitman or by Mr. Stanford White.” (175)  He ends his essay by claiming the Americans superior to the English in modern book design, and concludes that books are “…one of the most important forms of houshold art–of decorative art.  Properly understood, and intelligently practiced, it is capable of educating the taste even of the thoughtless, and giving keen enjoyment to those love books for their own sake.”(228)  

I am a bit reluctant to include this link to his book online, since it seems somewhat disrespectful to his wonderful phrase “the integument is an integral part of the book.”


Matthews, Brander.  Bookbindings Old and New: Notes of a Book Lover: With an Account of the Grolier Club of New York.  New York: Macmillan, 1895.

American Book Bindery Building

I noticed this building when walking down 9th Ave. at 30th St. in New York City.  Another blog, Fading Ad Blog by Frank H. Jump also has a couple of pictures of a different side of the building, with the left and right sides of text under the top reversed. Under the top sign,  it reads “The Stratford Press” on the left and “The American Book Bindery” on the right.  I can’t make out the sign on the very bottom, in a smaller font “Book… xxxxxxxx”

I intend to find out some more information about this building, but for now it serves as a reminder of the prestige and money that the press, bookbindery, and publisher once had.

On November 13,2008, Matthew Murphy sent me the following information. Thanks Matt!

A History of Book publishing in the United States / by John Tebbel. New York : R.R. Bowker Co., 1972-1981 [4 volumes]:
“The experiences of one well-known plant, American Book-Stratford Press, illustrates the kind of expansion that was occurring. The founder, Louis Satenstein, had come to the United States from Russia in 1889, and in ten years was the owner of a small shop, the American Book Bindery, which he soon combined with the Stratford Press. In the resulting rapid expansion, his three sons came to run the business– Sidney, Edward S., and Frank. Louis himself died in 1947, at 72.
Three years after his death, the company bought the Cornwall Press and Bindery, and then in the same year, the Knickerbocker Printing Corporation, an acquisition that was the largest in American bookmaking history at the time. Knickerbocker had been the property of the Putnam Family, begun and directed by George Putnam’s father, Bishop Putnam. Moved to New Rochelle in 1891, the plant was the victim of waste and bad management decisions, although it set high standards for the industry, and in 1930, Putnam sold its interests. It became American Book-Knickerbocker Press in 1950, with Sidney Satenstein as president, and his brother Edward as Vice President and treasurer.
By 1959, it was turning out 100,000 books a day, and by 1963, having reverted to its former title, American Book-Stratford Press, the organization was employing more than 1,600 employees in seven plants who were producing nearly 150,000 hardcover books every day. In 1967, the company built entirely new facilities, including a modern bindery, at Saddle Brook, New Jersey. One of its four bindery lines could make 6,000 books per hour, perfect-bound, soft- or hardcovered. That made it one of the largest book manufacturing plants in the world …” Volume IV, p. 455-456.

“One major manufacturer that found itself in trouble and skillfully climbed out of it was American Book-Stratford Press. In 1968 the family-controlled Manhattan firm had bought a neighboring company, H. Wolff Book Manufacturing Co., which had run out of family members who could carry it on. AB-SP made further acquisitions, and in the boom period was working hard to expand its services. When the market softened, in the early seventies, and costs increased, the firm suffered losses. It was able, however, to employ a bankruptcy procedure that permitted management itself to reorganize and arrange settlements. Accordingly, the firm dropped some nonmanufacting activities; the staff cut their own budgets; publishers cooperated by maintaining their orders; debts were paid; and–the major theraputic step–the firm consolidated all of its production work into its Saddle Brook, New Jersey plant,  …” Volume IV, p. 460-461.


So it appears likely the building at 406 W. 31st St. was one of those plants that might have been sold off in the 1970’s… It was, according to the Department of Buildings (via PropertyShark) built in 1914, and altered in 1983 to suit it’s current uses.
The American Book-Stratford Press is still extant, and have offices at 302 5th Ave. here in Manhattan, with their manufacturing plant still at 95 Mayhill St., in Saddle Brook, NJ. (according to Google Maps.)

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