Pamela Birch, Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service
Ed. note: this paper re-creates a talk given during the ‘Stationery Bindings: History, Development and Treatment’ workshop, organised by the Icon B&PG Co-Operative Training Register and the Archives and Records Association, on 4 February 2013. It is the final talk in the series, following on from Arthur Green’s ‘Some Forwarding Techniques for Springback Bindings‘, Richard Nichols’ ‘Repair of Spring Back Account Book Bindings‘, Victoria Stevens’ ‘Based on Irreplaceable Evidence: the conservation of the University College Buttery Books‘ and Salvador Alcántara Peláez’ course review with bibliography.
This talk is not based on any in-depth academic research but purely on my observations of working with the sort of bindings you find in an English County Record Office – namely account books, ledgers, parish registers, etc., from about the 16th century until the moment when everything changed with the introduction of the spring back ledger.
My talk is based on bindings in the collections held by the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives Service. The references given enable identification of the original document within those collections.
Stationery bindings tend to be the plain side of bookbinding – not for them the fancy gold tooling, although as we will see they are not without decoration. These days computer software provides spreadsheets for our accounts, databases for our registers and word processing for our minutes; and the call for ledgers, daybooks, minute books has more or less disappeared, but before the advent of the PC stationery bindings were the workhorses of the business world.
Firstly, let’s get the definitions out of the way:
The original term for the much of the material I am going to focus on was ‘Vellum binding’ – the use of vellum (and/or parchment) for covering and for slips being so much a part of its construction. This term continued to be used well into the 20th century. However, these days the broader term ‘stationery binding’ is more commonly used. Alex Vaughan uses this term in Modern Bookbinding to “distinguish the production of account books, manifold books, notebooks and general office stationery from the production of letterpress bindings” and I too am going to use this more general term.
So let’s consider the way that these bindings seem to have developed. Before there were stationery bindings, rolls were the standard form of business document – think of the exchequer and pipe rolls at the National Archives and Manor Court Rolls and even Quarter Sessions rolls in the county record offices. But rolls are inconvenient and were generally superseded by books.
The story of the styles used in these bindings appears to be one of simplicity to complexity; of lightness of touch to heaviness of materials.
Let’s take a quick trip back to the 16th century. We all know that the letterpress books of the 16th century lack the finesse and delicacy of later centuries and this is true also of stationery bindings of this period. There were bindings that were carefully executed by trained binders, but many bindings were rough and ready and may have been put together by the clerks who would use them rather than by trained binders. This would certainly account for their simple and often roughshod construction.
The first mention of a bookbinder in Bedford comes from a deed of 1645 when Christopher Horwood is named as the occupier of a property on Bedford High Street. The first English parish records, which date from 1538, supply examples of this. Many bindings are either single sections or multiple sections held into a vellum cover by a simple long-stitch sewing. The covers are frequently cut flush to the book block or, if they have turn ins, these tend to be uneven and just whatever remained of the skin rather than showing any sign of having been cut or measured in any way.
Note in this picture that the cover wraps around the text block over the back cover and back to the front, but is cut flush at head and tail.
Several examples from Bedfordshire demonstrate the re-use of materials that, following the Reformation, were no longer needed in the church.
- P40/1/9 15th-century gradulate used as cover for register of 1560
- P10/5/1a 15th-century processional used as cover for churchwarden’s account book of 1563 (rebound by D Cockerell & Son in 1938)
- ABV2 14th-century antiphoner of Sarum used in the Archdeaconry court and visitation book of 1578 (probably rebound by Cockerell in 1922)
Others reuse old indentures or other documents.
It is possible that some of these bindings are showing later ‘repair’ by the clerk but this is not often the case.
By the second half of the 16th century, many of the parishes in Bedfordshire were buying books bound by professional binders although some clearly continued to do things their own way. The majority of these professional bindings follow the same pattern but with some variation. The style used is to sew on 4 or 5 vellum or alum-tawed slips depending on the size of the book. These slips are then laced through the vellum cover at the joint and laced back to the inside.
In the 16th century the turn ins are usually rough, as mentioned previously, and there are no boards and rarely any pastedowns even when the leaves of the volume are of paper rather than vellum.
The foredge is often held closed by two sets of ties either of alum-tawed leather or cloth ribbon but sometimes there is a flap coming either from the back to the front or from the front to the back – this may just depend on which way the clerk opened it first – and may be closed by a buckle or tie.
The same simplicity is also seen in volumes used for purposes other than the church. The Bedford Borough archives include a run of court books from the 15th century to 1798, which allows us to see a progression in the binding styles used. The first five volumes all show a very simple long-stitch construction in a limp parchment cover that is just roughly turned in. This one is number 6 and dates from 1512. It shows the first signs of sewing on slips.
As you can see, the slips are laced through the cover and knotted together and this seems typical of the sort of improvised structure that takes us on from the simple long stitch but it is still someway from what we might expect from a professional binder.
So let’s step forward a little. By the time we get to the tenth volume in the court book series, which dates from 1603, we find a book that may show a binder at work. Here the cover is held to the bookblock by tackets worked through thick pieces of leather that even show blind-ruled decoration.
The use of tackets to hold the cover to the text block had been in use for some time. This is a Manor Court book for Tilsworth dating from 1528.
Bedford Borough volumes after 1603 follow the same sort of structure as that seen in the parish records. However, like the parish records of this slightly later period, we now see pastedowns of paper to hold the slips in place.
Like most of the books in this series that were made in this way, it has become misshapen – a fate that didn’t happen in quite the same way to the volume with the tackets, and which rarely happened to the parish records possibly because they are much thinner and have more sections. In his article in The New Bookbinder, vol. 1, Robert Espinosa quotes research [Gnirrep, Szirmair and Spines] that found that tacketed spines have often developed concave spines and although the covers are not restricted in opening, the stiffness of the spine can inhibit the opening of the bookblock.
Therefore, the next step was to stiffen things up by introducing boards and spine linings. At first these were usually quite light, and over the years have become quite flexible and floppy as the laminated sheets from which they are made have delaminated. But the boards got thicker and firmer as time went on (see The New Bookbinder, vol. 22, Peter Bower’s history of board making).
Here are some typical examples and one from the top end of the market (I think at this time Wrest Park belonged to the 11th Earl of Kent and his wife Baroness Lucas of Crudwell, the baroness’ father having died in 1671; but either way we are probably talking a London binder at the high end of the market):
- L31/194 Wrest Park
- Household Accounts
By the mid-17th century parish registers were becoming standardised. Some variation still existed and there is still evidence of the amateur at work.
This is the register of Dunton, near Biggleswade dating from 1651, which seems to show someone trying to copy bindings they have seen without really understanding them. At first glance it looks like other bindings – the vellum cover, the ties at the fore-edge and the rough turn-ins.
However, we soon notice some curious things about it. The ‘cover’ is held onto the bookblock by blanket stitch sewing – the vellum doesn’t go across the spine at all but is made up of separate pieces although the blanket stitch is not the sewing that holds the sections together, as we can see other sewing under the blanket stitch. Closer inspection of the elaborate sewing holding the turn-ins in place reveals that they are not turn-ins at all but separate pieces. Either the binder thought that books should have extra pieces on the inside but wasn’t really sure how or why – or perhaps he only had a few odd bits of parchment!
However, as stated, standardisation of registers was coming in and professional binders had turned from vellum as a covering material to binding in a similar way to letterpress bindings; generally sewn-on raised cords laced into the boards, covered in reversed calf and with blind-tooled decoration. This trend continued throughout the 18th century.
Following the act to prevent clandestine marriages, pre-printed marriage registers were published to ensure that all the required information was recorded. Most of these volumes would have been bought from London stationers.
But parishes needed books other than registers for their churchwarden’s accounts, overseers of the poor accounts, etc. and these continued to be in the vellum tradition with slips through the cover rather than the board.
As we have seen, by the 18th century the style of slips being threaded through the vellum cover at the joint was very well established, but now the boards are firm and neat and the vellum is becoming more pale and the whole thing generally neat and tidy.
Now it is more common to find the vellum on which the document was sewn being wide at the sewing station, rather like a tape but then cut to form either one or two thin pieces to be threaded through the cover, although this was far from being a new idea. This style continued into the 19th century.