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Book Bindings Bound For History

by Jim Dawson

diagram of parts of a book
Diagram of parts of a book

When discussing the housing of history, creating a safe and protective environment for the written word is paramount. Bookbinding has changed over the years, but the preservation of historic tomes through a better understanding of their construction allows us to see history as it was reported through memoirs, academic materials, and stories created at the time it was taking place. While the content may be truth or fiction (depending upon the writer and his/her experience), the written word is the link between then and now. Here is “Collecting Old and Rare Books” writer Jim Dawson’s tutorial on binding construction and care.

The protective cover of a book is its binding. This is usually a thin but hard pasteboard type of material covered with paper, cloth, or leather, and nowadays, imitation leather (which is made from the skins of imaginary animals?). Quality books have had leather bindings for hundreds of years. Books can be collected just for their bindings either because of the decorative value of the bindings or because of who bound them.
The parts of a book’s binding are easy to see but awkward to describe just with words. Let’s start with the spine, which is the narrow part that you see when the book is placed on a bookshelf. It usually has the title and author printed on it for identification. The spine is attached to the front and back covers of the book by hinges, the outer hinges are made of whatever the book is bound in but without the hard inner backing so that the leather cloth or paper that hold the covers on is flexible which allows them to be opened, and the inner hinges are normally formed by the flexible center of the front and rear endpapers inside the book that is glued to the block of pages, one half called the pastedown which is glued to the inside of the cover and the other half is loosely called the free front endpaper which acts as a page.
Better quality leather-bound books bound by  better quality binders are often in what is called “signed bindings.” A signed leather bookbinding doesn’t mean that it was actually autographed by the binder, but that the binder signed the binding with a tiny gilt stamp of the binder’s name. You often see this stamping on the inside of the front cover at the top or bottom or on the endpaper. As I said, it is small so you really have to look for it.  Riviere is one of the better-known names who worked in London in the 19th century and whose business was carried on by his son.
An 1823 book in original plain boards
An 1823 book in original plain boards

Up until the early 1800s, books didn’t always come already bound from the printer. Often they came in “boards” which would be the stiff, plain unfinished board covers with no covering on them. If you were wealthy (and who else would have been buying books at that time) your bookbinder would bind the book to your requirements, even stamping your coat of arms on the fancy cover or your choice. Books became much more affordable in the 19th century and usually were bought already bound in more affordable bindings.

Books could be offered in a choice of bindings limited only to the size of your purse. The leather bindings on books can come in several different formats for different pocketbooks. In general, the more leather, the more expensive it is. If the leather just covers the spine and outer hinges it is called quarter leather, half leather is the spine and the corners, and three quarter leather corners most of the covers. And finally, there is full leather which is a complete leather binding. Some- times the front and even the rear cover of the full leather binding have gilt-stamped designs.
Books were bound in many different types of leather even before the first printed books of the mid-1400s. Not many people could read then, let alone afford the expense of a hand-copied and illuminated book. Rich owners wanted their books bound in the best materials and even had them decorated with precious and semi-precious stones. Libraries often chained each book to the shelf to prevent theft.  Plainer, more utilitarian leather covers were used by the early 1800s and inexpensive leather bindings appeared around 1900.
Probably the most unusual binding I have ever seen is a book on sharks that was bound in actual sharkskin. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt shark skin or not, but it isn’t anything that you’d want to scrape your knuckles against as it resembles coarse grit sandpaper, but more so.
Old leather books aren’t that hard to find today, even ones two hundred years old, but sometimes they are in poor condition and with missing or detached covers. They may be worth only a few dollars in that condition, and may or may not be worth repairing depending upon a number of factors: what the book is, who wrote it, when it was printed, who printed it, where it was printed, who bound it, who owned it all have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes the age alone isn’t enough to make a book collectible.
Quarter Leather
Quarter Leather
Half Leather
Half Leather
Three-Quarter Leather
Three-Quarter Leather
full leather
Full Leather

It may be better and cheaper to restore and repair an original binding than it is to have it completely rebound in a new binding. Rare books should be kept as original as possible. If the book has no covers, then a good binder can rebind it and make it look much like it did originally. For some reason, most binders stamp the book’s printing date onto the base of the spine which was rarely done originally.  This is a quick test to see if a book has been rebound.

Care of Leather Bound Books

Important Warning: I am not advising you to do any of this on rare books, only more everyday books. Rare books should only be repaired or restored by an expert and professional bookbinder. And, it is always better to restore whenever possible than to have something rebound unless, of course, the original binding is missing or too damaged to restore. 
A friend recently emailed me about an expensive set of leather books he was buying and my email answer might be of interest to others.

Dear H, Looking at the photos, I see one thing that worries me. The spines of the set as seen in the first photo are noticeably lighter in color than the leather and leather corners as seen in the third photo (which shows the front of one of the volumes). The leather as seen in photos one and three would have originally been the same darker color as in photo three, which I have verified by comparison with my deluxe leather set which is virtually identical, except the spines in my set have not been sunned.


An example of a “sunned book”
An example of a “sunned book”

The seller mentions the spines describing them as “spines sunned to a rich brown” which almost makes it sound as if that is a bonus adding to the value of the set rather than a flaw.

Now the lighter color is not necessarily a deal killer as many times the gentle application of a proper leather dressing can darken them, as could buffing them with colored wax, but I would be concerned that the sunning, which is caused by direct sunlight shining on the books for many years, may well have dried out and weakened the leather spines, and while they seem to be intact now, might hasten future disintegration.
But as I say, best to get a little more info as the sunlight having faded the spines is not itself a problem only if the sunlight has dried out the leather to where it has stiffened which can lead to cracking, etc.
The lighter color by itself could be OK if the spines are solid, but if the sunning is a warning of more serious problems, then maybe not.
I’m guessing the set is probably ok, but more info from the seller to confirm that would be nice.
That said, the sunning could also have been caused by years of exposure to fluorescent light which while it might fade the spines it probably would not have done other damage.
I used to sell leather dressing but my source dried up. Proper leather dressing is a mixture of I believe lanolin cream and Neatsfoot oil.
– DO NOT USE NEATSFOOT OIL BY ITSELF as it is liquid and will make a mess and potentially stain the pages.
– Don’t use a lanolin wax by itself which will seal the surface and will not allow the leather dressing to penetrate.
And don’t use too much leather dressing as too little is better than too much as too much could then bleed into other areas of the books in time and make a mess.
British Museum Leather Dressing, a reasonably priced and highly recommended leather conditioner
British Museum Leather Dressing, a reasonably priced and highly recommended leather conditioner

I believe there is a British Museum Formula leather dressing for books that is sold online. (Editor’s note: As the former owner of a tack shop, another option would be BICK 4 leather conditioner, recommended by top saddlemakers in the U.S. and Great Britain.)

I would gently and sparingly apply the leather dressing, then buff. Be careful not to get any on the non-leather areas of the covers. Applying the dressing with your finger along the edges of the leather might be more precise than applying it with a cloth.
Now here is a trick that I use. After applying the leather dressing, I then use a shoe cream that comes in colors and can be ordered online to touch up any worn areas. Also, Kiwi leather dye can be used, but test an inconspicuous area first for the color, and don’t get any on the lettering. Pick a color closest to what the spines were originally. Be careful not to get any on the gilt-stamped lettering. Any on the lettering can be gently wiped off before it dries.
Using shoe cream on books might seem daft, but the secret is that leather is leather whether it’s on shoes or books!
Assuming the spines are in good shape and are just faded, I believe that a judicious application of proper book care products would greatly improve the appearance of the spines. – Jim

A well-loved and taped-together example of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer
A well-loved and taped-together example of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer

Also don’t use any leather dressing on books bound in paper, cloth, suede, or any raw, unfinished, or leather that has not been dressed, as that would be a horrible mess! Many of the turn-of-the-last-century like those published by Roycrofters Press and maybe some of the Altemus books circa 1900 were bound in suede which once it starts to disintegrate, I don’t know of anything you can do with them besides a complete rebind.

(Editor’s note: You do NOT need to apply leather dressing often or in large amounts. This will only weaken the leather and start to break it down. When buffing, watch as you use a soft cloth to ensure you are not taking a layer of leather off and distressing its state of being.)
Sadly, some people just LOVE to use tape for repairing split hinges or loose covers of old books. The more inappropriate the better, it would seem sometimes. I’ve even seen freezer tape used. Also, electrical tape. Perhaps I should start an archive “Bad things people do to good books.” I did not think to take a photo of the book someone had repaired with band-aids. At least they were clean band-aids, but it was still gross. Duct tape repairs are also common along with the use of clear packing tape. Inner hinges can better be repaired with a thin bead of white glue than by using any kind of tape which can cause more problems later on and may be difficult and impractical to remove.
As with old books and collectibles in general, when in doubt it’s best not to try and do anything yourself especially on anything really nice. Caring for old books is easy. Just avoid extremes of temperature and humidity especially attics or basements. If you’re comfortable, your books will be, also.