History of Bookbinding

The history of bookbinding is rich with input from different countries and cultures. The first books were nothing more than clay tablets, into which letters were drawn using a stick or stylus. These were followed by papyrus scrolls, which were brittle and best stored tightly rolled. The famous library of Alexandria boasted more than 700,000 volumes in scroll form, before being burnt by the invading Arabs.

The first true books were created using palm leaves, which would be written by scratching letters on the surface and filling in the scratches with a dark substance to make the writing visible. A piece of wood was then placed on either side of the stack of "pages" and holes were bored through the stack, which could then be held together with cord. The covers were often extravagantly decorated.

Early modern books were composed of single sheets of vellum. Vellum was soon replaced by large sheets of paper, which was folded over and then trimmed to the appropriate size. The pages were held together in the correct order by sewing flexible bands onto the back, creating a rudimentary spine.

These books, like the palm leaf predecessors, were kept flat by placing wooden boards on each side. This method was gradually replaced with leather, as it was more flexible and lighter.

Monasteries can be credited with modernizing bookbinding. Handwritten Bibles were extremely valuable, and the proper form of binding could extend the life of one of these precious manuscripts by years. English monks gradually refined the book binding process, and by the 14th century, they were the best binders in Europe, using leather and calfskin to bind books and adorning covers with a gold leaf.

Movable type was invented in 1456, and the first paper mill in England was built in Stevanage around 1496. These two events led to the mass production of Bibles and books (albeit on a much smaller scale than those of us in modern times would call "mass"). Most modern bound books follow the methods developed after this point, with flat lettered spines and evenly cut pages, although calfskin and leather bindings are commonly used only for special editions.

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