Rare Book School’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection and Leo Sewing Support Clamps

If all printed information the world were somehow destroyed, but Rare Book School’s (RBS) collection of books, illustrations, material samples, ephemera, tools and equipment somehow spared, could our bibliographic heritage be reconstructed? Would it matter? Without any artifacts to study, would these obsolete technologies have any bearing in future organization and dissemination of information? What could they tell us about the past? I found myself wondering questions such as these as I was given a tour through the collections of RBS, which seemed like a kind of seed bank that could repopulate the world of books after an apocalypse.

I should have spent the afternoon examining eighteenth century bindings.  Instead, part of the collection, some bookbinding tools, caught my eye. Quite likely bibliographers may dismiss the tools of bookbinding as unimportant, or even unrelated to books. But what is the physical book other than an assemblage of materials, organized by structure and technique, formed by tools?

Barbara Heritage, Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, provides some background on this collection. “Thanks to the good offices of Dan Dwyer (Johnnycake Books, Inc of Salisbury, CT), RBS was able to acquire the bindery of Jacques Ploschek (1919–2009) through his executrix and step-daughter, Tania Poliakoff.  The gift, appraised at $25,000, includes a large collection of finishing tools in excellent condition, including c.450 decorative hand stamps, pallets, gouges and seven decorative rolls and fillets, as well as a sewing frame, backing press, plough, and group of lying and finishing presses.  Ploschek studied under the binder Charlotte Ullman, whose tools can be found among this wonderful addition to our teaching collections.”

In particular were an unusual form of sewing hooks and keys, so remote from their historical origins that they seem to deserve a new name— sewing support clamps?

Fig. 1. A Pair of Leo Sewing Support Clamps. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These sewing support clamps are designed to fit into German style sewing frames, which have a slotted upper crossbar (cantilevered or not) which usually contains hooks which can slide horizontally into position, and lowered or raised vertically by a wing nut, similar to the one on the far right.  The flat area, stamped “LEO”, serves to prevent the entire hook or clamp from twisting as the wing nut is adjusted. Although the sewing frame they are associated with had a gated front, I imagine they could fit into and function in a standard slotted version. Another possibility may be that the clamp on the right  (and in Fig. 3) is made to fit into the upper position of an English style sewing frame, which typically has a round upper crossbar.

Fig. 2. The Leo clamp in the frame. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.


Fig. 3. Lovely file work on the lower (?) clamp. RBS’s Jacques Ploschek Bindery Collection.

These clamps are designed for tapes or vellum, quite possibly for account or blank book work given their width.  They are presumably German, given their design based on a hook, and seem likely to have been invented by the Stuttgart bookbinder Wilhelm Leo, who in the late nineteenth century invented an unknown number of bookbinding tools and machines.

Four of Leo’s innovations, with woodcuts, are featured in Zaehnsdorf’s 6th ed., Art of Bookbinding, 1903: two types of mechanical  marbling machines, a set of marbling supplies for bookbinders, and perhaps the most well known, his finishing press. Zaehnsdorf notes the complete set of marbling supplies is particularly invaluable to the small, country bookbinder. None of these illustrations, or textual descriptions, are in the the first (1880) edition of Zaehnsdorf. I haven’t been able to check the other editions. No other manufacturer receives four separate mentions; endorsement by Zaehnsdorf is high praise indeed.

Fig. 4. The Leo Mechanical Marbler. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 75.

Zaehensdorf describes the function: the top roller (or rollers, one version has more) is inked, and the spring pressure transfers it to the lower roller which contains an embossed pattern. This is then transferred onto the book edges. Currently, I am unaware of specific examples produced by this machine, but the ‘cobweb’ style pattern on the roller is seen on German books from around this time.

Fig. 5. The Leo Finishing Press. Zaehensdorf, 6th ed., The Art of Bookbinding, 1903, 122.

The Leo finishing press is more well known, with an updated version manufactured in the US in the 1990’s, known as the Jordan-Dehoff finishing press. This version swings out of the way, under a workbench when not in use. Several binders I know who have them swear by them. When looking at the above illustration under magnification, it appears the Leo press has a fore edge shelf, which Jordan-Dehoff version lacks.  There are also some striking visual resemblances between this fixture and dictionary holders of the time.  These sewing support clamps and the finishing press do reveal several commonalities: a single screw, easy adjustability, intelligent design, and are well made. Additionally, the ball head on Leo’s press is a very early precursor to the ball head now standard on tripods for photography. Book as camera— fodder for the book artist or poet, I suppose….

Upcoming Lecture at Rare Book School, University of Virginia

Reconstructing Diderot: Eighteenth Century French Bookbinding

Monday, June 4, 5:30

 Auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Rare Book School

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

This is an image driven (150+), fast-paced, terse overview of the research I have been doing on eighteenth century French bookbinding. The extensive documentation concerning eighteenth century French bookbinding, as found in Diderot, Dudin, and other sources, form a unique starting point in the examination of the larger questions associated with the history of craft and material culture, the transmission of textual information, and, of course, the history of bookbinding. Book structures of the late eighteenth century stand at the cusp of one of the most radical transformations since the invention of the multi-section codex: by the mid nineteenth century, the machine made cloth case binding begins to dominate book structures. In this talk, I will illustrate the historical context of how these books were made and compare this with physical evidence of books from this time. Particular attention will be given to the tools and techniques used to produce these bindings.

This lecture is free and open to the public.

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