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Slideshow: Tracing the history of bookbinding in Special Collections exhibit

September 30, 2008

  • This illustration breaks down the typical construction of a book, covering some of the specific vocabulary related to bookbinding.
  • Traditionally bound books are composed of several sections of papers, folded and sewn together. Each section is called a signature. When sewn together, the signatures compose what is called the book block.
  • Vellum or parchment is an un-tanned scraped animal skin that has been used for documents and bookbindings for thousand of years. After the development of moving type in 1455, vellum continued to be the primary binding material, but the scarcity of thin, binding-quality vellum led binders to find alternative materials, rendering vellum almost obsolete except as ultra-fine bindings. The pictured book is by Jacob Feucht, Der Este Theil des Andern Tomi…Über All Fest und Feyertäglich Evangelien D
  • This illustration depicts different stages of a traditional bindery, including a wood press and a sewing station.
  • From 1600 to 1800, cardboard, paper, and leather replaced vellum as the primary materials for binding. Expert binders added highly stylized and intricate details to their work, like gilt designs to the inside covers, or marbled endpapers, like those seen in this copy of Lewis and Clark’s Travels to the Source of the Missouri (London: Longman, 1817).
  • As literacy rates soared in the nineteenth century, the demand for books likewise increased. The shift from leather to machine-bound cloth covers saved publishers money, and the introduction of the embossing press, made elaborate cover designs possible.
  • From 1830 through the 1890s, book covers became increasingly ornate. These examples, George Catlin’s North American Indians (Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1926) and Henry Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent (New York: Harper, 1878), show the Victorian Era style of gilt decoration on cloth covers.
  • Mass-market publishers dominated twentieth-century bookmaking, with the industry ultimately favoring plain cover designs and cheap, printed book jackets.
  • In response to mechanized bindings, artisans employed a wide range of materials and techniques to produce spectacular handmade covers. Charles Erskine Wood, a writer and patron of the arts, commissioned a number of books during this period, including Sonnets (Portland: 1918), bound in leather with marbled endpapers and issued in an extremely limited edition for family members. This copy is stamped in gold with “EW” for Wood’s son, Erskine.
  • Another example of a twentieth-century binding innovation, the cover of Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air (Waldport, Ore.: Untide Press, 1945), designed by Kemper Nomland, balanced a limited budget with a modern aesthetic. Nomland’s solution was a paste-down title label to conceal the inexpensive staple binding.
  • Throughout the twentieth century, artisan printers and binders issued interesting works that resisted the mechanized trend. Here is an example from Elizabeth Coberly, engraver, printer, and binder of William Stafford’s The Design on the Oriole (Eugene, Ore.: Night Heron Press, 1977).
  • These images highlight the incredible detail created by Mare Blocker, binder and artist for a limited edition of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (Portland: M. Kimberly Press/Charles Seluzicki Rare Books, 1989). With hand-painted endpapers, intricate cover design, and a tent-shaped box, the volume typifies the modern book arts movement.

(Portland, Ore.)—Despite the proverb, judging a book by its cover can illuminate the rich creative and cultural history in the art of bookbinding, as demonstrated by an exhibition at Aubrey R. Watzek Library. The exhibit examines 500 years of bookbinding history, from the era of vellum through contemporary handmade books, revealing some of the lesser-known items in the rare book holdings of Lewis & Clark College Special Collections.

With attention to the changes in literacy rates, affordability, and taste, the exhibit traces the evolution of bookbinding from a German vellum-bound volume from 1580 through the advent of cloth covers, embossing, mass-market publications, and modern book arts.


“Our exhibitions typically focus on a major, singular collection of books,” said Doug Erickson, director of Special Collections. “The current exhibit is an opportunity to highlight individual items that haven’t been displayed before, while sharing a snapshot of our holdings that represent diverse styles and periods.”

Among the most unique items in the collection are the first book with an embossed cover, volume 2 of Byron’s Works (London, 1832), and a limited edition of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (Portland, 1989) that features hand-painted endpapers and a cover design that stands out in relief.

The exhibition will be on display in Watzek Library Atrium until December 19. As part of Lewis & Clark’s Alumni Weekend, the library staff will curate the exhibition on Saturday, October 4 from 1 to 3 p.m.

For more information:

Emily Miller
Public Relations Coordinator
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