Having a hard time finding a gift for the book lover in your life? Why not do some of your holiday shopping in our bookstore? After all, we’re offering 10% off all bookstore purchases on the two remaining pre-Christmas Saturdays! Here are some recommendations from ABM staff members.
Madeleine says: My daughter is planning on traveling this spring, and asked for a nice journal for Christmas. Clearly she came to the right parent: In the ABM bookstore we have a number of lined blank books with facsimile covers of early, famous bindings, and others that mimic the style of bindings from a variety of times and places. But which to choose? I looked through them all — 19th century and 15th century, Middle Eastern, French and British. Finally I went with my gut.
I am partial to the Middle Eastern designs, and settled, after an extensive and deeply conflicted survey of the ABM’s bookstore stock, on Paperblanks’ Safavid Ultra, a nice-sized journal with a wrap-around magnetic cover and really gorgeous detail. With what I have learned about embossing and gilding books since coming to the ABM, I am astonished by the skill, patience, and steady hands it would have taken to create such an object. Add in the lacquer-work which gives the cover its jewel-like color, and it’s rather heart-stopping.
When you’re sending a beloved child off to have adventures, it’s nice to give them a talisman of sorts. May she rejoice in its beauty, and fill it full.
Lest you think that this journal owes all its charm to modern mechanical techniques, here’s a Savafid-era book cover, which would have been created entirely by hand. The sheer volume of detail is amazing.
Madeleine says: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
Not only is that a brilliant opening line, but to anyone who loves books, it is a genuinely chilling one. The bookstore at the American Bookbinders Museum has a lot of fascinating non-fiction works about the technique and history of binding and related trades, and about books themselves. Fahrenheit 451, a work of fiction, is one that talks about what books are for: mementos of people gone before, vehicles for carrying wisdom from one time to the next, from one place to another. In Ray Bradbury’s bleak future, books are burned when they are discovered, lest the information, the stories, the heart they contain, awaken a populace with a short attention span and a willingness to be controlled. It’s a beautifully written book, curiously timeless and yet timely. If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in years, may I recommend Fahrenheit 451?
Elspeth says: I loved my history of the book classes in grad school, and still can’t get enough of the topic. I’m currently reading one of the books from our store called The Book: A Global History. While I loved history of the book classes, they were almost invariably Western-focused, and this book is truly global. It’s a dense and fascinating read that explains everything from the development of written language to the impact of the digital book. A fantastic choice for the cultural history nerd in your circle.
Stephanie says: One of our fabulous volunteers, Velia Villa, made Johannes Gutenberg magnets! Makes a great stocking stuffer.
Looking for the perfect gift for the book-lovers on your list? Look no further! The ABM Bookstore has books (of course), apparel, and other gift items ready for purchase. Buy a hoodie, an ABM mug, books on letterpress, binding, book history of various kinds, or one of our limited edition letterpress posters for “Books and Mud,” the Bookbinders Museum’s exhibit on the Florence Flood.
As an extra incentive, Saturdays in December everything in the bookstore is 10% off!
Are you a librarian, archivist, museum specialist, or other kind of information professional? On Tuesday, November 29, from 6-8pm, The American Bookbinders Museum is having a reception just for you in order to share our exhibit on the Florence Flood of 1966, entitled BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE.
Come join us – check out the new exhibit and schmooze with your colleagues!
I recently took part in a course through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CBBAG). This course is one of the many they offer, and is a prelude to their level three bookbinding course, in which students learn to bind in leather. Our instructor was Dan Mezza, a well known and highly sought-after bookbinder in the London, Ontario area. Taking lessons with Dan is always a pleasure as he truly knows the topic! Dan was a paper maker before he became a bookbinder.
Our introduction to leather was a three-day long course spanning a weekend. In this course we learned a bit about the history of leather, the types of leather used in bookbinding and how to properly pare leather and apply it to the board. We made a plaquette in the end for demonstration purposes.
Before we got started, we discussed what leather was, and the process used to make the leather we use for binding books. I’ll share a little of that here.
Leather is skin, common to all animals. Dan even showed us a book from fish skin and kangaroo skin. Leather is created by removing the hair, hair root and epidermis (surface layer of hard dead cells). These three layers are removed in tanning and the following are kept for leather: grain (outer layer from surface to hair root), corium (large fibre bundles interwoven at a higher angle towards the surface), and the junction of the grain and corium (this is different for each animal and the size of hair in an animal determines the strength of the leather).
A cross section of cowhide to give you a better idea of the layers (Image credits: vanderburghhumidors.com)
There are two different processes we discussed for how leather is treated: tanning and tawing. There is also the process of turning skin into vellum/parchment.
It is important to note that tawing is not tanning and the hides are treated differently. For tawing, the hides are treated with aluminum salts plus egg yolk, flour, and other ingredients. This technique was used in Egypt before it became widespread in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. It has good handling properties, and is generally left white. This is where the term “White Library” is from, as before the 1500s everything was bound in tawed leather. “Brown Library” came after when tanned leather began to replace tawed. If the tawed leather gets wet it turns into rawhide, so as long as they don’t get wet, the bindings in tawed leather can last hundreds of years.
Example of alum tawed (image credit: https://guildofbookworkers.org)
The tanning process is rather different; Dan argues that the best leathers are from the early 1800s, as anything after the Industrial Revolution begins to face deteriorating problems. Before the 19th century most leather was tanned with oak or other vegetable tannin. From the 1850s to the 1920s cheaper catechol (no longer vegetable oil, but chemicals) tanned leathers began to be produced which resulted in the problem of red rot.
Traditional tanning follows these steps: limed and dehaired, delimed, drenched in bran and citric acid, placed in a vat with tannin in it while progressively upping the strength of the tannin, dried, split and then finished. Modern methods of tanning are less time consuming. They involve stronger liquor (chemical in the vat), mechanical action to speed tanning, pH control, and a precise control of acids and salts.
Tanning is subdivided into vegetable tanned (used in historical and traditional work) and chemical tanned (often called chrome tanned and used in clothing), and then combination tanned (provides the flexibility of vegetable tanning and the longevity of chemical). The objective of tanning is to render the hides and skins resistant to decomposition or bacterial decay and to provide it with tensile strength, flexibility and abrasion resistance.
As for vellum and parchment, it is a semantic nightmare. The meaning of the word can vary with country origin, language, period in which the term was used, the animal it comes from, the usage to which it is being put, or a combination of any of those! In the European continent, the term parchment, according to Dan, is used as a generic term for any skin processed in a manner for binding. Whereas the term vellum, which comes from old French, may indicate thin material finished on both sides and used for writing.
In England specifically though, vellum refers to skin that is finished on one side only and used for binding, and parchment is finished on both sides and used for writing.
Both vellum and parchment are made by stretching skin and scraping it over and over again. Vellum is very stable: it’s almost a neutral pH level. Often times the term “limp vellum bindings” is heard and this refers to an old form of binding used to make the cheap “paperbacks” of medieval times – it’s very durable though!
It does caulk easily with water, so relative humidity effects it a lot.
Example of limp vellum bindings (image credit: andrewhuot.com)
This was just the beginning of information we received at the workshop. We also covered what makes leather quality good, how to tell goat skin from pig or calf, and what type of leather is good for bookbinding. It was a very informative workshop and provided a good introduction to leather and to leather-working as we also covered paring knives and how to pare the leather.
Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com
At the turn of 1636, Sir John Lambe was presented with a series of complaints by a group of journeyman printers. Lambe was serving as a member of the Court of High Commission, an ecclesiastical court set up by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, whose duties included some degree of oversight of the early modern book trade. It was in this capacity that Lambe found himself weighing in on a list of what the bibliographer W. W. Greg pithily summarised as ‘Apprentices Out of Order’.
Fifty years ago last night, the Arno River in Florence burst its banks and flooded the city, reaching depths of 18-22 feet. Water raged through the streets at some 30-40 miles per hour, tumbling cars and even newsstands as easily as if they were children’s toys. Shops on the famous bridges of the Arno looked as though they had been hit by bombs. Basement furnaces leaked and exploded, and the pressure of the water blew out the sewers. When the waters receded after a few days, the city was covered in a thick, foul slime of mud, sewage, oil, and waterlogged detritus.
Our exhibit, BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE looks at the damage and recovery effort in a single library in Florence, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, in which nearly 100,000 precious early modern volumes were left waterlogged and mud-caked. It has been up for two weeks, and many of the visitors who have come to see it have some memory to share of the 1966 flood. Some remember hearing about it and wishing they had gone to help, while others tell us a bit about being on the scene.
The technical achievement of the restoration workers is, of course, vitally important and interesting to study. The methods the skilled men and women who saved the books developed informs much of the way water-damaged books are managed even today.
That said, the part of the story that seems to lie at the heart of everyone’s memory of the Florence flood of 1966 is the part where thousands of young people came from all over Italy, Europe, and many parts of the world to volunteer their time and labor as angeli del tango: mud angels. They formed lines to the basements of museums, libraries, and palaces, passing books, artwork, and other treasures one at a time to the fresh air and the hands of the professional restorers. They took shovels and buckets and dug mud out of stores, homes, and streets.
The raw film footage and photographs of these mud angels, most of whom remain unidentified in these visual records, is moving and heartwarming. It is beautiful to see the way they move through the streets, filthy and tired, doing what they can to restore the everyday life and priceless treasures of Florence. In the well-worn phrase, it gives one faith in humanity.
As I write this, Italy is once again dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. In the past few months, nearly 250 medium-strength or greater earthquakes have rocked the country. Nearly 300 people died as a result of the August 24 earthquake around the town of Amatrice. The town of Arquata del Tronto has been more or less destroyed. Those wishing to aid the relief efforts can donate here. The Italian Cultural Institute here in San Francisco is also offering the chance to donate via an artist’s exhibit and auction. The auction will take place at the Institute on December 8, 2016, from 6-9pm.
We have also kept track of floods in 2016 as part of the exhibit, or at least, as many floods as we’ve been able to track down. We have a world map on display with color-coded pins indicating flood frequency and severity, and it is updated daily.
Recent major flooding in the United States has of course caught our attention. West Virginia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas have been particularly affected recently, and all have put out appeals for help in rebuilding the public library collections and those of the public schools. Baton Rouge school librarian Trey Veazey’s blog post on the subject spread around social media, but aid is needed all over the affected areas. Most have lost most or all of their collections, and rebuilding is expensive and necessary. Veazey writes:
We are relocating. We’ve been ushered over to a building that was built in 1937. That means my new school is the same age as And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It also means that, in my first year as a librarian, I have a library without any books.
Access to books is the key to educational success. Our library doesn’t have books. Our classrooms don’t have books. Many of the homes of our students don’t have books. Like the tears that rolled down our faces both in silent & violent measures, they became a part of the flood before being swept away as we looked toward rebuilding & recovery.
Most of us can’t go dig these places out of the mud and sweep away the flood waters, but other ways you can help may be found here:
On Friday, October 28, conservators, librarians, historians, and friends of the American Bookbinders Museum joined us for a reception to mark the opening of Books and Mud: the drowned libraries of Florence.
The exhibit runs through January 20, 2017 and is open to the public. We hope you’ll join us too.
Until relatively recently in human history, books and documents were valued both for their contents and for the prodigious effort involved in their creation. Book production in a pre-computer age required a high level of literacy, as well as many hours of monotonous labor, whether that of a stoneworker, metal engraver, scribe or printer’s devil.
It was the custom in some cultures to protect precious works by whatever means available: many medieval libraries chained books their shelves to prevent theft,** private collectors might keep their most valued books in locked chests. Especially rare, illustrated tomes might be bound with their own locking clasps to prevent sticky fingers from helping themselves to a page or two.
An additional layer of protection was afforded by the book curse. There are examples of book curses appended to written records from ancient times. They flourished in medieval Europe where scribes, typically monks, were eager to protect the product of their labor. And they can still be found today!
We all know about the curses of Ancient Egypt. Most good mummy movies (and all of the bad ones) feature dire epigraphs warning against the desecration of temple and tomb. The same principle was applied to valuable documents. A Babylonian king placed a curse on a set of clay tablets back in the 7th century B.C.:
Whosover shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe hisname on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.***
The above is taken from the definitive work on book curses: Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Allanheld & Schram, 1983), by Marc Drogin. Drogin finds additional examples from classical Greece, written on parchment. But he devotes the bulk of his study to medieval book curses.
On this subject, Drogin goes to some length to explain how books were made in the era of monastic scribes, illuminated manuscripts, and parchment. With all the resources required to create a single volume, it is no wonder the scribes and their masters were inclined to take drastic measures to protect them. Book curses appeared frequently, generally on the first or last page of a volume as part of the colophon.
Being of a religious bent, these men (and some women) tended to call down the wrath of God on miscreants.
This book is one,
And God’s curse is another;
They that take the one
God give them the other.+
Excommunication from the (Catholic) Church, with the implication of eternal damnation, was an especially popular threat. However, the good brothers were not beyond calling for more earthly torments for those who might undermine their work:
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ‘bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.++
Whether in good Church Latin or in the vernacular of the land, medieval scribes did not hesitate to execrate!
Once Gutenberg’s printing press and its descendants got rolling, books and copies of books became more readily available. Still, the work of setting up type, incising illustrations into metal plates, and manually “pulling” sheet after sheet of paper off a wooden press was no mean feat. Book collectors still sought to protect their acquisitions; by no coincidence, about this time hand-written book curses evolved into printed bookplates.
Bookplates, typically pasted into the front cover of a volume and always incorporating the name of the owner, have remained popular to this day due to their limitless design possibilities. A bookplate may be a simple black and white rectangle proclaiming
Ex-libris John Smith.
Or it may be a more original and ornate design incorporating heraldry, block prints, whimsy, and printed or hand-tinted color.
The central purpose of the bookplate remains the same as that of the book curse: protect the book from theft or unauthorized borrowing! To this end, many folks have designed their bookplates to include a warning to malefactors – with words, images, or both. The warning may be subtle, or more direct:+++
A Word about Cursed Books
Note that the second book plate above subtly references the Necronomican, H.P. Lovecraft’s “dreaded volume.” The Necronomicon is a cursed book in the sense that anyone who messes with it is pretty much guaranteed to get into trouble. While a book curse offers protection against theft, a cursed book brings calamity to anyone who dares open it.
While we cannot attest to any real cursed books, they abound in literature. Harry Potter and his friends encounter one in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – a diary containing the malevolent spirit of a young you-know-who. An unsuspecting Harry is warned by the worldly wise Ron of the possibilities inherent in a strange book:
“Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing. “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed.”
When it comes to book curses or cursed books, the lesson is “Borrower Beware!”
Not too much about book history can be considered ghastly or morbid. But as you gear up for Halloween this year, don’t disregard the rumors lurking in the stacks: Some books throughout history were bound in human flesh. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, the academic term for books bound in human skin, fascinates many students and researchers around the world. There are a handful of books living in universities, museums, and private collections across the globe with these rumors attached, and to the excitement of some — and the horror of others — several have been scientifically proven true: they are indeed bound in the flesh of humans.
Many questions arise when one is told a book they’re holding is bound in human flesh. Who created these books and why did they choose such a material? Who was the willing (or unwilling) donor? What kind of text has been fated to wear a shroud of human skin for the rest of its days? And lastly: Do I want to put this book down or dive into its curious past?
Throughout the middle ages and popularized more in the 1800s, books have been bound in human skin for a variety of reasons. In tales that can rival the best works of horror, mystery, and crime, the owners of these skins include medical patients, secret admirers, criminals, enemies, and more. Whether from the behest of the donor before death or at the strange obsession of a doctor or even at the bidding of the law — several of these tomes have survived the test of time.
Harvard and Des Destinees de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul)
Harvard’s Houghton Library boasts a single proven anthropodermic binding: Des Destinees de l’Ame by French writer Arsène Houssaye, bound in the mid-1880s. This volume, presented by the author himself to his friend Dr. Bouland who completed the binding, is a meditation on the soul and contains an inscription by Bouland detailing the origins of its binding:
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” (Source)
In 2014, testing by Bill Lane, the director of theHarvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Dr. Daniel Kirby of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies confirmed with 99% surety that the binding came from a human. With this inscription, we are left wondering who this woman was and why history remembers her skin but not her name; however, we are also given quite a poetic motive for its binding. Several other rumored bindings in Harvard’s collections were tested as well, yet proven to be bound in sheepskin.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Stockton Hough Collection
The Historical Medical Library (HML), located within the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, proclaims to house the largest collection of confirmed anthropodermic bindings in the United States. In March of 2015, the HML invited Dr. Richard Hark of Juniata College to take samples of their five rumored anthropodermic books and Dr. Daniel Kirby confirmed that they are, in fact, bound in human skin. Through inscriptions and historical documentation, we know that three of the five books share a mysterious past: all bound at the hands of Dr. John Stockton Hough, and all bound in the skin Mary Lynch, a tuberculosis patient at the Philadelphia General Hospital, who died in 1869.
Evidently, Dr. Stockton Hough collected a sample of Mary’s skin before her burial in 1869 and kept it for several decades before binding these books in the 1880s. We may never know his motives for doing so. The books themselves? Historical texts on female health and reproduction.
Medical Historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris talks about three primary reasons that a book might be bound in human skin: as a passion for collecting odd items which are in turn viewed as valuable, to memorialize the dead, and finally, as a lasting punishment for a criminal. Check out this fascinating video of Dr. Fitzharris speaking on the history of anthropodermic bibliopegy in episode five of her video series “Under the Knife” (7:18), which includes the gruesome tale of execution of William Burke, a criminal, whose remains were used to create the “Burke’s Skin Pocket Book.”
How does one determine if a book is truly bound in human skin or if it is actually a more common leather taken from sheep, goat, cow, or pig? Des Destinees de l’Ame and the Stockton Hough Collection were scientifically tested using the same method: through a process called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF). PMF uses very minute samples from the book’s binding and tests for specific amino acid sequencing, comparing the results to what is known to occur in various mammals.
The Anthropodermic Book Project has made it its goal to investigate claims of human skin bookbindings. So far, they have tested 30 books claimed to be bound in human skin using the Peptide Mass Fingerprinting method, with 18 positive results and 12 books determined to be fakes. No published lists of results exists, as many institutions wish to remain private on the status of their materials. For a complete description of Peptide Mass Fingerprinting, including a comparison to DNA analysis, visit: Analyzing Alleged Human Skin Books Via Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.
In 2014, anthropodermic bibliopegy became popular in the media after Harvard declared that one of their rumored books was actually bound with sheepskin, rather than human flesh. We can be grateful for this resurgence in interest, lest many bibliophiles or fans of the macabre would have never known about this eerie past lurking in the archives of the world.
ABM Guest Blogger Sherry Lochhaas is a librarian by trade and enjoys exploring the odd & fantastical side of life. She lives in Oakland, California.
View from the Museum entry, as the cases are assembled.
After months of planning, the staff of the Bookbinders Museum–and the curators of Books and Mud: the drowned libraries of Florence–arrived at this week barely believing that the time had come to put everything–the text, the photos, the special materials–together.
Working with exhibit curators Tom Conroy and Elizabeth Ryan, ABM librarian Elspeth Olson (with the able assistance of library volunteers George Carlson and Mara Crovello, and all-hands help from museum staffers Stephanie Stokes and Madeleine Robins) assembled the many parts–over 100 photos; books, magazines and maps–in an attempt to evoke the essence of the 1966 Florence flood, its aftermath, and its lasting effect on book conservation and restoration.
Practically speaking, this involved the use of ladders, duct tape, the Museum’s Hickok board shear, 133.3 square feet of mat board (white and cocoa brown), burnishers, vinyl lettering, and an extendable pole (for hanging fishing line strung with folios). As the photos seen here attest, it was a slow, deliberate process.
Quotation over the entrance to the exhibit room.
We hope that visitors to the exhibition will be struck, not only by the world response to flood and its threat to world treasures in 1966, but by the relevance of the subject fifty years later. In a world where countless floods have threatened libraries, museums, and collections world wide, the lessons of Florence are more important than ever.
Tape climbs the wall to show the depth of Florence floods of various years; the 1966 flood reached a depth of 22 feet–taller than the ABM ceiling.
Cases in position for the exhibit opening.
Books and Mud: the drowned libraries of Florence, runs October 20, 2016 through January 20, 2016 at the American Bookbinders Museum, 355 Clementina Street, in San Francisco. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am – 4pm. Admission to the exhibit is free.