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.
Like many bookbinders and conservators, I’ve used Ace bandages for many years. They are almost essential when rebacking leather bindings (apologies to Bill Minter) since nothing else has the gentle stretch and breathability. I never really wondered about the name, assuming the word “Ace” meant something like excellent, marvelous, or first-rate.
So I was interested to learn, upon purchasing an older Ace bandage in the original box, that it is an acronym for “All Cotton Elastic”.
According to the blurb on the original box,”This Ace Bandage obtains elasticity from the unique weave and its properly twisted warp of long-fibered Egyptian… Washing restores elasticity.” The familiar looking brass clips were patented by Fairleigh Dickinson in 1933, though there are only two teeth on each end, not three as drawn in the patent. The patent expired in 1950; most Ace bandages I’ve seen use something similar.
A bandage I have from the 1990’s is a looser weave, and doesn’t conform as well to irregular surfaces. One from the 2010’s made by 3M has “latex free” printed on it, is less breathable, possibly containing synthetic fibers. This is a good reminder that something that we generically call an Ace bandage may have significantly different working properties.
The older bandage stretches less when tensioned than either of my newer ones, so it can apply more compression in use. Yet another item to keep an eye out for while conducting primary research at flea markets and antique malls; aka. shopping.
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?