We recently wrote about the tedious and arduous process of hand-sewn book binding and the hard work of the young women involved. But what about the book covers themselves? We thought it might be interesting to take a look at women’s role in crafting book covers. Early book covers were individually crafted when a book was purchased. In the 1830s case-binding started replacing most hand-crafted covers, and engravers and die-makers created the brass plates used to emboss the cases. With these changes, book production slowly increased as prices decreased. Towards the end of the 19th century, mass-produced books with book covers crafted by well-respected designers became both popular and relatively affordable.
Tiverton Tales, by Alice Brown. Cover designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman.
The height of book cover design may have been the late 19th century as publishers responded to increasing criticism of the “ugly” and “cheap” books they were producing, and the middle class began to read en masse. Books were symbols of education, and people began to purchase them as (relatively) affordable art objects. This shift also corresponded with the end of the Civil War and the increase in widowed, impoverished women. In the face of a growing number of families headed by women after the devastation of the Civil War, social reformers responded with offering educational and professional opportunities for women. This confluence of a rise in demand for trained book designers and a willingness to hire women contributed to what many believe is the pinnacle of artistic book cover design. Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961), Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944) and Sarah W. Whitman (1842-1904), are considered by some to be the best book cover designers of that era. The three worked to bring principles of good design to mass production. In many ways, these women were also instrumental in paving the way for women artists to gain professional status.
Whitman, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a wealthy, upper-class family, was one of the earliest and most influential book cover designers, creating her first design in 1884. She originally studied painting and then moved towards stained glass. Morse, born in Hammondsville, Ohio, was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. She studied art and design, specializing in drawing, in Manhattan at the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union, one of the only art schools at that time that was open for women. Cooper Union often placed its female students with manufacturers to help gain them employment. Armstrong was born into a wealthy family in New York City, began designing holiday cards in her teens, and eventually moved to book cover design.
Morse, like Whitman before her, began her career working with stained glass artist John La Farge and then became an employee for Louis C. Tiffany and a designer of stained glass windows (One of the windows in Beecher Memorial Church in Brooklyn was designed by Morse). Morse left her stained glass work after two years and began designing book covers in the 1890s. Whitman was commissioned to work in the Central Congregational Church in Worcester, MA on stained glass and opened her own studio and factory where she employed several artisans. Eventually, she was employed by Houghton Mifflin to oversee all their book cover designs. Armstrong skipped the stained glass phase, though her sister and father did work with Tiffany, and moved straight to book design. She was the primary designer for Harper Brothers and Scribner’s Sons, where she often worked with Morse.
Perhaps because of the attention being paid to social reform at this time, Morse and Whitman also encouraged the development of the arts for other women. In 1893, Morse chaired the Subcommittee on Book Covers, Wood Engraving, and Illustration of the Board of Women Managers for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. She also exhibited her own book covers and
Knoxboy Travellers, by Thomas W. Knox. Cover design by Alice Morse.
was awarded both a diploma and a gold medal. This exhibition had a significant impact on bringing women artists to the public eye and increasing their success in commercial art endeavors. Similarly, Whitman inaugurated the Boston Water Color Club for women in addition to working tirelessly to establish the women’s college of Radcliffe.
Morse was also active in supporting other women artists and worked for the New York Society of Decorative Arts from 1893-1895, an organization dedicated to helping women artists find training and employment. She believed, it is said, that women were the best designers because of an intuitive sense of beauty. There was a also a sense that the women designers contributed a “moral” value to the books. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the era was built on the ideas of design, morality, utility and beauty. Whitman, Morse, and to a lesser extent Armstrong, were influenced by this aesthetic sense and the idea that the middle class should have access to good design. It is worth noting, however, that there was some criticism of this mix of social reform with craft. Ellen Gates Starr (1860-1894), who established a bookbindery in the 1890s, eventually closed down shop because she realized that her books would only ever be purchased by the rich.
Morse’s standing in the book design community grew through the turn of the 19th century, and she created an estimated 83 covers, often for expensive publications and for a variety of types of books from poetry to travel literature. She also contributed in-text illustrations and borders. Whitman was incredibly prolific, producing at least 200 book covers with a minimalist design that was quite unusual for its time. Whitman was a highly sought after, and expensive, designer. Armstrong is often compared to Whitman though Armstrong, with 250 book covers to her name, is remembered for how distinctive her book cover
Days Off, by Henry Van Dyke. Cover design by Margaret Armstrong.
designs were and her book cover sets where she would design several works by one author using related designs across the books. Some of Armstrong’s work is signed with a small MA on the cover.
Morse began her book designing years with a focus on classical ornament from Roman and Renaissance art but began to broaden out to encompass a variety of design styles from Celtic to Gothic, Rococo to Arts and Crafts. Her versatile designs tended to be highly stylized patterns of organic forms as she attempted to depict the book’s main ideas in her art. In contrast, Whitman’s illustrations emphasized the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic as well but she had an almost radical minimalism with an unusual emphasis on negative space that ended up influencing later artists to develop a more minimal and less decorative approach to book covers. Armstrong favored the Art Nouveau style with bold colors, stylized plants and often asymmetrical designs.
While less expensive than individually tooled books, the book design process was labor intensive. The artist would design two or three different sketches for each book, and the publisher would select the cover depending on issues of cost and availability of materials. The book cover designer would then prepare a finished colored drawing of the selected design. Books were bound using “case binding” where the books are manufactured separately from the text blocks. The covers require transferring the hand drawn designs to brass stamps, one for each color required in the design.
As printing technologies advanced at the turn of the century, the demand for the labor-intensive and expensively-designed cloth bound books and covers of individual designers declined with the rise of paper book jackets. The art of book design became more commercial and inexpensive, a boon for book buyers because of the decline in cost but a loss to those who admired the unique and beautiful designs.
Sarah Wyman Whitman died in 1904 before the shift away from artist designed book covers. With the loss of the book design business, Alice Cordelia Morse turned to teaching and became a public school teacher in Scranton PA, where she made a better living than she ever could as a designer. Margaret Neilson Armstrong turned to writing her own books on wild flowers to support herself and wrote several mystery novels in her seventies. Still, Morse, Whitman and Armstrong’s talent and activism stand out as an excellent example of the art of book design and also marks progress that women were making into the book arts and the commercial world.
Dr. Mary Vasudeva has a PhD in English and currently teaches writing and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College. She is also studying for her Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. Recent publications include a book review of Overcoming Information Poverty, by Anthony McKeown and selected writing sections for the textbook, Asking the Right Questions, in the forthcoming 12th edition.
This past autumn I had the opportunity to take Bookbinding Level II through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CCBAG). During level two one of the things we learned was how to do sewn endbands. Previously in level one we had done endbands made from cord and cloth wrapped around it. These are known as “stuck on endbands” and they have been used as far back as the 1800s. I recently bought some prior to level two; they come in useful for a quick work!
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
Above is a picture of what they can look like. As you can see, all a binder would need to do is snip the endband to the correct size and stick it on with a bit of glue to the spine of the book at the head and tail.
Just to note, I’ve used the term endband to imply both bands at either head or tail of the book. Specifically, the band at the head is called a headband and the band at the tail is called an endband, however many people use either term to refer generically to both head and tail and often don’t specify. During class we called them endbands and so in this post I will refer to them as endbands.
Endbands are decorative and structural in function. The endbands can add strength and support to a binding. Sewn endbands consist of a core with either silk or linen thread wrapped around it. A core for an endband can be made from: cord, rolled paper, rolled leather, or a combination of leather and vellum. The core is generally thin, though you can create more elaborate endbands from double cores. In level two I learned how to do a two-color endband and a foundation endband. You can see these below. The two-color endband is number seven and the foundation endband (also called conservation endband) is number one.
Image credit: http://www.artesdellibro.com
Endbands can get even more creative and artistic than the variety shown here. Here are some found on the web:
Image credit: lilbookbinder.wordpress.com
Another style of endband is the Coptic endband. This endband has the weave going continuously from board across textblock and back to other board.
Image credit: henryhebert.net
Learning the endbands wasn’t as difficult as I imagined it might be, though it did take practice! We worked with silk thread and went around cord. The thread was probably the hardest to manage, being silk. Keeping the tension tight for the length of the endband was also something that required practice. In order to learn Dan (our teacher) had us practice on old telephone books. This allowed us to work with a larger cord and a larger textblock. Below is an photo of the two-color endband that we learned.
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
The endbands get sewn into the textblock and when working on a telephone book that proved to be tricky. Often times pliers were needed to help the needle along through the thickness of the book, when it came time to sew our actual textblocks it was much easier. As a result, the back of the phone book looks a bit messy from lots of practice attempts. Looking online though one can see many examples of sewn endbands that look very neat and uniform on the spine! Below is an image of the formation endband.
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
I find sewing endbands to be rather relaxing, other binders find it tedious. It certainly adds to the appeal of a book, I think. It’s certainly something that requires a bit of practice to get them really looking nice, and with so many styles to learn there is a lot to practice!
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
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’.
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.
They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
Books of magic and magical books are staples in fantasy and horror literature. With no physical laws to inhibit them, what flights of fancy may authors not conjure up to enchant us?
Have you ever wondered what advice to give young people about to get married? In the second half of the sixteenth century, the book market abounded with guidebooks about how to live – how to travel, how to write about travel, how to be a prince, how to be a good father – and even how to die. (more…)
I was looking for someone, and I had been here before.
Staring down the long aisle, I blinked hard, and looked at the slip of paper in my hand. A bunch of letters and numbers, written in pencil. A call number. I squinted at my own jagged vertical printing. “Is that an S, or a 5?” I thought. Was this even going to work? Last time, I came up empty. What was I doing?