Historical Bookbinding Teaching Set

***Structure & Action in Books

A Teaching Set of Historical Bookbinding Models

Here you will find models of different historical bookbindings.

These bookbindings illustrate the appearance and structure of common books in different cultures and across time. As you read the descriptions for the individual types investigate their physical features and mechanical actions. Handling of these model bookbindings will provide a lasting impression of the innovations and changes in the mechanism of the codex book. Each bookbinding model exemplifies specific attributes of the codex structure, and the array of books together tells a story of a persistent mechanism for reading.

The book is a machine, or as we say, a technology, just like a car or a computer. But the book machine is much older; people began producing books almost as soon as writing was widespread. Many kinds of books evolved to suit many needs for conveying information and knowledge. The type of book called the codex, in which all the pages and covers are attached along one edge, is the one we use today. This kind of book was first made popular by sectarians who lived in the deserts, river valleys and cities of north and eastern Africa at a time almost two thousands years ago. These books were so popular and practical that they helped to spread beliefs that are still with us today.

Another important purpose of this teaching set, beyond telling the story of the history of bookbinding, is to provide a hands-on experience of the feel and actions of bookbindings. Such an experience is counterpart to the study of the history of the book.

But it is even more important than that. The experience of reading indicates that the physical book is ultimately designed to provide prompts to comprehension. A deep, though relatively invisible learning path is at work in which the hands prompt the mind. This learning path has been with us through our own long evolution and is instilled in the book. Again, the teaching set provides an opportunity to discover haptics, or qualities of physical navigation, of codex reading mode and to compare these attributes with those of other on-line reading experiences.

The Study Session

Let’s begin by observing the array of the closed bookbindings.

You will immediately notice the different sizes, shapes, colors and stances of the various bookbindings. This first impression of diversity is accurate. We will examine each model in turn and observe that each differs from the others in structure and action and culture context. Perhaps their only fully shared trait is that they are all codex format bookbindings. Another shared aspect is that their differences are accentuated by their side-by-side comparison. In its given time or in its given culture context each of these books would be very familiar.

As we investigate these various books notice that many have revealing cut-away features in the lower boards that enable viewing of underlying structures. Now let’s begin to learn about book mechanisms across time and cultures.


Papyrus bookbinding represents the earliest type of codex book. These codex books, which have only a singe gathering of folded pages, are known from the fourth century. They were constructed and written on papyrus and many were archeologically recovered in Egypt that was the only source of manufactured papyrus writing material in Antiquity.

Papyrus bookbindings are distinctly different; their design traits include a square sheet shape producing a folded page shape of a half square. Papyrus books also have a unified construction since both the rigid cartonnage covers (sheets of papyrus pasted together) and the pliant leaves are made from the same material

Handling and Action

Note the lightness and organic feel of the papyrus book. These structures were made for reading outdoors. Wrapping and rewrapping the various ties of the cover was part of the ritual of beginning and concluding recitation from the book.

Papyrus was purchased in rolls produced by pasting sheets together and some of these pasted joins survive when the rolls were cut into squares for book making. In Antiquity books in scroll format were the traditional format while the codex format was the new technology.


The Ethiopian book introduces the multiple gathering codex.

The model of an Ethiopian binding also illustrates the persistence of early book structure and introduces us to a contemporary culture exemplified by its traditional book. To this day, books of the Ethiopian Church are bound in a way that reflects the structure and action of the papyrus book era of late Antiquity.

The Ethiopian binding is a member of the larger family of “sewn board” bookbindings. This early structure of the codex bookbinding is known from late Antiquity, particularly from northern and eastern African sectarian book cultures. It subsequently spread to Islamic and Eastern Orthodox cultures.

Three characteristics of this sewn boards type are (1) chain stitch sewing,(2) boards sewn to the text almost as if they were outermost pages, (3) covers and text equal in size. These same characteristics are echoed in the modern paperback with its equitable, adhesive leaf attachment, page like cover and flush edge trimming.

Handling and Action

Note the docile, flat opening of the book. This flat spread eases reading while also providing a dramatic display when the book is reversed to display it to viewers. The mirror inset in the board places the individual reader into the company of illustrious persons in scripture or into the company of royal lineage in sagas of the kings.


The 14th century account book represents a blank paper book.

The trade of blank paper binding included production of empty ledger, voucher and accounting books. Such books for business recording were produced until the advent of electronic business recording. One of the tradeoffs of the transition to electronic recording has been the loss of a self-authenticating, archival format for business records.

The long stitch structure was common for early account and ledger books beginning with the introduction of paper into Europe which occurred before the 15th century. It features a mechanical tight back attachment of the cover since the page sewing which passes through the fold of the gatherings also passes through the cover. In use, the exterior long stitches are protected by gliders of buttons. As the long stitch books accumulated on accounting house shelves, the specific contents were retrieved by learning the distinctive patterns of the tacket patches and stitch arrays. Diagonal and circle stitch chains and endless variations of rug woven stitches were used.

Handling and Action

A fascinating feature of the long stitch account book is its ability open flat without flexing the binding spine. This paradox is enabled by the sliding motions at the folds of the un-adhered gatherings. Watch for the escalator like splay in the alignment of the folds. Much later “spring back” ledger binding retained the rigid cover but permitted the text back to suddenly flex out of its cover. Such double binding structures actually have their origin in late Coptic bookwork of the 7-8th centuries.


This is a wonderful 16th century bookbinding.

It illustrates the refinement of the anatomy of the book at the end of the era of wooden covers. Our model represents work from northern Europe. The boards were quarter cut oak or beech wood and were frequently covered with alum tawed pigskin. Tawing is an ancient skin curing method that causes the skin to whiten rather than darken as in the tanning process. The text was well sewn onto flax cords

Handling and Action

You must learn the secret of opening the clasps. This is a continuous pinch-and-push finger motion. Squeeze the text at the location of a clasp and simultaneously move off the freed hook with your thumb. The double action made the book “child proof” (and, in the 21st century, fairly adult proof, too).  Note the solid feel of the closed and clasped book and the slight release of the text compression as the clasps are disengaged preparing the book for the opening action. In the operating anatomy of the wooden board bookbinding the leverage applied through the board by the reader is directly transmitted to the movement and opening of the text. The back linings of vellum that are adhered to the inner face of the board, act to transmit the leverage of the board on opening. Note how gracefully the various motions of the boards are transmitted to the book. Most later bookbindings are crippled in this respect and cannot transmit the various actions of reading. The covering and the sewing supports transmit the leverage while closing and the clasps keep this leverage charged in the closed book. Note the vellum panel linings revealed in the lower board opening which were put down to the inside of the boards to transmit the opening motion. The colored endbands were sewn onto linen pieces and adhered to the text back and put down to the boards as well.


This is common Italian binding of the 17th century.

The “limp” vellum binding shows us innovations in speedy book production. This remarkable binding type, popular during the Italian Renaissance, came to notice again as a survivor of the Florence flood of 1966. This simple, springy and tough structure is associated with exemplary materials and both the limp vellum and subsequent 18th c. paper bindings now have the attention of modern book conservators. Such one-piece cover types were frequently made in print shops or in open markets.

Handling and Action

Note the springy action and a need for two-handed reading. Note the secure lacing of the cover and the well-sewn endband and light weight of this book. This binding can be tumbled and tossed without damage. The limp vellum binding was a favorite for popular books of poetry, new literature in vernacular languages and classical school texts.


This is the 18th century leather binding.

It represents the letterpress trade of bookmaking. Letterpress binders bound printed sheets, as contrasted with binders who bound blank or ruled sheets. Pasteboard, made of sheets of paper, replaced wood for book covers. The sewing is on single cords and the boards are covered in calf leather. Many of the features and book actions of the wooden board era have changed and many other abbreviations will subsequently occur as the hand bookbinding trade developed. However, the persistent method of attachment of the boards prior to application of covering materials remained the same. The in-boards, laced construction will be supplanted later by cased construction.

Handling and Action

Open this book upside down while watching the cover. Notice the severe crease of the joint and relative inflexibility of the spine. Such impairments of book action caused structural failures and reading difficulties. Although this bookbinding shares the structural type of the earlier wooden board binding, sewing onto cord supports, tight joint without a groove and covering in skin or leather, it does not share the book actions of the earlier work. The boards do not transmit leverage and the text block is immobilized.


This 18th century paper binding is from the German trade.

It represents the earliest production case binding with cover made in a separate operation and then attached to the text by adhesive alone.  Here the case is made with an underlying spine wrapper of handmade paper joining the two boards. This lapped, bare-board cover is then over-covered with decorated paper.

This case construction binding predates the better known production cloth case binding in the 19th century. Note the relative lightness and construction economy with a fully decorated style including edge trimming and coloring.

Handling and Action

A full, lay-flat opening is provided including a releasing action at the joint, as the text back moves away from the spine of the cover.


This is a 19th century publisher’s in-boards cloth binding.

The boards were attached to the text prior to covering in the traditional in-boards production method.  Note the quarter cloth covering and the untrimmed edges. The sewing and printed paper label are the same as used in early cloth case binding of the period.

The identifying feature of in-boards work is the torn waste sheet captured by the cloth turn-in, usually hidden under the pastedown endpaper, which you can see under the unattached lower board opening in the model. Also note that covering cloth is adhered directly to the back of the text.

Handling and Action

The adhered cloth across the back is vulnerable to creases and preferential opening positions. The sewing on sawed in cords remained unchanged during the in-boards to case transition period. This was an abbreviated, high speed hand sewing which was unsuited to heavy use. Note the pattern of stitches in the folds indicating alternating stitches as two gatherings were sewn with each pass of the tread. Be sure to notice the details of the lower board reveals and compare these with the lower board features in the cased model.


The 19th century case construction cloth binding reflects a momentous change in the process of binding. This change enabled both quicker production and the eventual mechanization of the bookbinding processes.

This important transition is indicated by slight exterior changes. In fact the appearance of the shelved book with its cloth spine and letterpress paper label was indistinguishable from earlier in-board work. Note the full cloth covering and trimmed edges. Note also the groove impression in the joint which indicates use of edged press boards. Another identifying feature is the text back lining and endsheet pastedowns sealed over the cloth turn-ins. Look in the unattached lower board opening to see the snagged miter trimming that indicates the lightning speed of the assembly work. See the scissor cut of the back lining.

Case construction subsequently permitted gold stamping and die stamping of the entire cover. With the advent of mechanized sewing, case construction offered a binding process that could be fully mechanized.

Handling and Action

Notice the case construction release of the text back from the spine of the cover, as was evident in the earlier German case construction work. This mobility is enabled by a cover-to-text attachment set back from the fold of the endpaper as well as by the flexible span of the joint or groove set by the use of edged pressing boards.


This limited edition binding was developed in 1987.

It represents the capacity of the codex to project itself into the future of reading and bookmaking. The use of the outer sewn folio as the cover board is know from Coptic bookbinding of the papyrus era. The double cover design, represented here with a free acting spine wrapper, is also from the Coptic tradition.

Handling and Action

The double acting, double cover is clearly apparent at the linen wrapper which acts as a case construction cover while the inner boards attach and act in alignment with the folds of the gatherings. The animated action at the head and tail of the double cover is visually focused by the opening configurations as well as a reveal of the sewn board laminations. This point of visual focus is more usually associated with an ornamental endband.


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