Course review: ‘Stationery Bindings: History, Development and Treatment’ [with bibliography]

Salvador Alcántara PeláezIcon/HLF book conservation intern at The Wellcome Library, London

Coordinated by Victoria Stevens (Oxford Conservation Consortium) and Mark Furness (University of Manchester), the Icon Book and Paper Group CTR and the Archives and Records Association (ARA) Preservation and Conservation Section organized a joint training day on stationery bindings at the Staffordshire Record Office on 4 February 2013. The programme included talks on the history and development of stationery bindings, conservation case studies and practical demonstrations by experts to an attentive audience.

Stationery bookbinding in and outside Britain

Under the title “Function not Finery: Stationery Bindings 1500-1799”, Pamela Birch presented an illustrated summary of their historical development, based on her long experience as a conservator at the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives Service.

Although rolls were still produced in the 19th century, register books of parish records had existed since 1538. A 1597 ordinance established that they had to be made in parchment, which resulted in the rebinding of all record books from 1558 onwards. The extensive use of this material until the 20th century made “vellum books” synonymous with stationery bindings.

The earliest examples show a somewhat rough covering. Manuscript material was used for covers, cut flush with the book block or with untrimmed turn-ins. Other features included the lack of pastedowns, oblong formats, overbands and decorative lacing.

Long-stitch gave way to laced-in thongs and leather tackets. During the 17th century, boards and spine linings were introduced and grew progressively thicker, thus stiffer. Letterpress binding techniques were applied in the 18th century, as was the use of reverse leather. The old models were later produced in more solid materials, resulting in standardised bindings, and remained in use well into the following century. In 1799 John and Joseph William patented the spring-back binding method, which enjoyed immediate success.

Frederick Bearman’s keynote lecture centred on the history of the laced overband and expanded the chronological and geographical aspects of the previous presentation. Laced overbands are elements widely identified with stationery bindings and on which Fred has focused his research in recent years. They are usually strips of tanned leather that extend from cover to cover across the spine and are affixed to the sides with lacing of alum-tawed skin or parchment in a geometrical or decorative pattern. They are meant to provide a solid base for tacketing and an additional reinforcement of the joint area, as well as to help hold down the turn-ins on the inside of the cover.

The first surviving example of an account book with laced overbands known to Fred is a journal, now in The National Archives (E 101/127/10 Exchequer), which belonged to the Frescobaldi, an Italian family of internationally established merchant bankers. Their books became a property of the English Crown following their arrest by Edward II in Bordeaux in 1311. By then, the binding type was fully developed, its main specifications being: a non-adhesive limp parchment binding with cover made off the book, bypass-link stitch sewing on leather thongs with laced-in slits on the front cover and free back cover, secondary spine tackets, head and tailband tackets, saltire laced overbands, fore-edge flap, fastening strap and lug.

The regular trade between European states had started its recovery and definitive expansion two centuries before. The Italian models of account books enjoyed a wide success as demonstrated by the medieval examples preserved in libraries throughout the continent, even if the similarities between originals and replicas are only apparent in some cases. Other Italian innovations were the folded margin guide and the cut-in or thumb index. The variations in some geographical areas (e.g. 1470s Venice) reflected the different phases of the accounting practice with types such as the waste book (cash or memoranda), the journal and the ledger.

Outside the Italian sphere, local contributions included French limp hair vellum bindings in the pasted-in style, echoes of Islamic lacework decoration on Spanish covers, the “portfolio” or “Lyonese” bindings from 16th- to 18th-century France or the 18th-century British laced-case vellum bindings, which were to be superseded by the spring-back in the following century.

Laced overbands started to be referred to as “Russia bands” when the use of the same-name leather came into fashion. Even deprived of their structural function, they stayed as a leitmotiv of stationery bindings produced for accounting purposes well into the 20th century. The coming of computers in the nineteen-sixties somehow put an end to the technical development of the genre.

Fred accompanied his lecture with numerous on-screen photographs and diagrams and several models on display, including a complete reproduction of the Frescobaldi journal and of its book block, showing the sewing structure. He also provided a bibliography with a web source list for the attendants. The upcoming publication of Fred’s research, partially funded by the 2010 Clare Hampson Scholarship, will be undoubtedly most welcome.

Some outstanding books rebound

In 2010 Victoria Stevens and Celia Withycombe of the Oxford Conservation Consortium took charge of the conservation of four Buttery Books from the University College. These documents record the payments made by members of the college for food and drink, with entries dating back to March 1639. As Oxford remained a royalist stronghold during the Civil War, these books are a major source of information about, among other aspects, which members were present at the college during those years.

As heavily used working books, their condition was very poor when received in the studio. They had lost their covers, the spines were distorted and many of the page edges were in a very fragile state. Incunabula fragments had been used for endleaves. The watermarks suggested a French origin to the paper, whose size might have adapted well to the tall and narrow shape of the books. Iron gall ink, extensive dirt and water damage, with associated mould evidence, completed the diagnosis.

Two very interesting findings stood out during the examination of the volumes: some remnants of tanned hairside leather on the spine of two of the volumes and a large amount of wood chips scattered in the gutters, most likely to be whittlings from tally sticks.

Returning the books to a safe usable state required extensive benchwork based on a challenging process of decision-making in which archivist Dr Darwall-Smith greatly helped. Paper repair was required on virtually every page and was complicated by the metallic nature of the inks; a resizing solution of MHPC in IMS/water was applied to strengthen softened areas where the paper structure had broken down and this treatment had the dual function of also easing out creases in affected areas. IMS was also used on the adhesive on the remoistenable mending tissue where this method of repair was used. The sewing on alum-tawed supports had stood in a reasonably sound state in all cases, which allowed for the reshaping of the spine rather than pulling the book blocks apart. Linen braiding and aero cotton lining were added for extra support for the spine and board attachment.

For the substitution of new covers, the decision was made to rebind the books in quarter leather with sized flax fibre paper for the sides. The above-mentioned evidence was considered strong enough to choose a tanned goatskin, despite being an extremely rare covering material for stationery bindings of the period if compared to parchment or even reverse skin.

Sonja Schwoll, independent ACR, presented her research and conservation treatment of the first minute book (1557-1606) of the Commission of Sewers of Surrey and Kent (London Metropolitan Archives, SKCS 018). The project was funded by a grant received from the National Manuscript Conservation Trust in 2006.

Due to the rebinding and extensive repair that it had undergone in the last two centuries, this oversized volume appeared seriously damaged and its access had been restricted, which meant having a historically important document unavailable to researchers. The corrosion caused by the iron gall inks used to write the minutes added to the poor condition of the object.

After examination, an extensive intervention which involved taking down and repairing the whole book block was deemed necessary. Old repairs and added guards and linings had to be removed, extensive paper treatment was undertaken only relieved by the possibility of resizing instead of repairing a number of weak leaf edges. Dyed Japanese papers and goldbeater’s skin were used to mend the paper and parchment leaves respectively. The ink-corroded areas were supported with remoistenable tissue coated with methyl cellulose and wheat starch paste reactivated with an 80/20 ethanol/water solution.

Research into the technical specifications found in oversized, parchment-covered stationery bindings of the late 16th century and early 17th century produced in the London area provided the clues to devise a suitable “in-style” binding for the volume. Its main characteristics are: text block sewn on three tapes made of three layers of vellum and one of alum-tawed skin (the latter providing the slits to be laced into the boards), spine lined with kozo paper, no endbands, paste boards, four vellum tackets for each sewing station threaded through the centrefold and a vellum stub guard, a spine card, cover and blocks made of dyed alum-tawed skin and lined with vellum, alum-tawed skin tackets close to the joints and alum-tawed fore-edge ties.

Sonja kindly provided a handout containing a summary of the historical background and her conservation rebinding of the book. Further information about this project can be found in the proceedings of the eleventh seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts held at the Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen, in 2008.

Hands on the spring-back

Arthur Green, book conservator at the Bodleian Libraries, shared his experience on spring-back making, which he decided to take up when faced with the fact that these bindings were a seriously endangered species. Working in Oxford has allowed him to conduct extensive research on the subject. During his talk, Arthur went through all the steps of the forwarding process, offering valuable tips on techniques and most suitable materials. He also gave out a printed breakdown of procedures, and we were able to handle several specimens which definitely helped clarify the structural principles behind this bookbinding method.

Arthur has published a detailed and well illustrated step-by-step tutorial in volume 25 (2011) of Bookbinder, the journal of the Society of Bookbinders. Among the available literature he especially recommended the manuals by Alex J. Vaughan, John Mason and J. Monk – W.F. Lawrence.

Finally, the time came to actually get hands-on with Richard Nichols’ demonstration on the making and substitution of a spring-back hollow. Richard is senior book conservator at the Staffordshire Record Office. His talk and demonstration showed the confidence gained during years of craft practice. He pointed out two typical related problems that compromise the durability of a spring-back book: a lever which is too close to the spine and the spine detachment itself.

For the spine replacement exercise, Richard chose a piece of 650-micron archival folding boxboard as the core material which he wrapped in one strip of kraft paper using a protein-based glue as adhesive. He then rolled the piece around a cylindrical tube with a diameter matching the width of the book spine. The tube had a piece of Tyvek attached, meant to be wrapped around the spring to help keep it in place while being vigorously rubbed with a bonefolder. Once it was unwrapped, Richard bent with his fingers approximately a quarter inch on each side of the spring inwards to shape the edges that clamp over the joints. Once the desired form was achieved, the piece was left to dry between weighted boards. On the inside of a previously prepared spring, Richard had glued the aero linen flange to be inserted into the split boards and adhered onto the lever. To form the headcaps, he suggested that the excess in the spring length be cut curved rather than straight to leave some extra material to be tapped down with the brim of one of the shears’ eye rings. Richard completed the operations preceding covering by back-cornering the spring.

From the point of view of someone with a limited previous knowledge of the subject, the course was extremely informative. The more experienced professionals might have found little new material in the programme, although the experience of the speakers and the quality of their presentations was beyond par. The course, wide in scope as it was, could not cover all possible aspects related to stationery bindings, a branch of the bookbinding trade which offers an inexhaustible wealth of possibilities for research and inspiration. On the whole, the impression was that all of us who attended the course found the travel to Stafford very worthwhile. It was a day of intense training run in one room that was just right for the requirements of the event and the number of attendants. The refreshments provided were also much appreciated.

The end of the course was not the end of the day, though, as some of us shared company with colleagues around a pint in a nearby pub before returning on the 17:54 train to London Euston.

Stationery Binding Training Day Bibliography

(Note: an abridged version of this article appeared in the May 2013 issue of ‘Icon News’)

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