Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1930, source unknown. The world of John Sanders.
That’s All She Wrote
In 1941 Hannah Dustin French of the Wellesley College Library published an essay entitled “Early American Bookbinding by Hand.” In the essay, she makes mention of American’s first bookbinder:
Bookbinding was one of the very early crafts to be practiced in this country, but where the first book was bound and what it was like we do not know. A bookbinder, John Sanders by name, took the freeman’s oath in Boston in 1636 and purchased a shop for himself there in 1637.
French and other book historians drew their information from an exhibition catalogue published by the Grolier Club, a literary society in New York still in existence. In turn, the editor of that 1907 publication cites a much older work. Unfortunately, A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860, Volume I, gives no further source for the information.
Thus begins the frustrating search for the elusive Mr. Sanders. It is left to the armchair historian to head down rabbit holes, consult ancient texts and modern search engines, and extrapolate, conjecture, and theorize to come up with a portrait of the man and his work. In the process, she finds many tantalizing topics relating to publishing in early America, from the female owner of the first print shop in the Colonies, to the mass printing of “Indian Bibles” in the 1660s and the Native American called “James Printer” who helped with the translation and typesetting of that publication. She even stumbles upon a 20th century hoax involving a Puritan document and the first bookstore/coffee house in America.
The Freeman’s Oath
To understand a little bit about who John Sanders was, it is a good idea to start with the Freeman’s Oath. That testament was a declaration of loyalty to authority required by both the Plymouth Colony (founded 1620) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1630) to be eligible for public office or even to vote in town meetings. As the name makes apparent, the Freeman’s Oath was available only to free men and not to slaves, indentured servants, apprentices, or women. Even then, a man had to demonstrate that he was of “a quiet and peaceful manner” and be sponsored by other freemen.
The Oath read, in part,
I [NAME], being, by God’s providence, an inhabitant & freeman within the jurisdiccon of this comonweale, doe freely acknowledge my selfe to be subject to the govermt thereof, & therefore doe here sweare, by the greate & dreadfull name of the eurlyving God, that I will be true & faithfull to the same….
Spellings may vary!
There is no known extant copy of the broadside Freeman’s Oath printed by Stephen Daye in 1639. The document above, touted as a rare find in 1985, turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by infamous forger and murderer Mark Hoffman in a bizarre case in the annals of archival history. Hoffman is currently serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.
Signs of the Times
French tells us that Sanders took the Freeman’s Oath in Boston in 1836. This was only six years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of which Boston was the lead town. Although Massachusetts quickly grew to about 20,000 European inhabitants before 1840, it must have been a rough and ready community.
So, the question is begged: what was there to bind? In those days there would have been no book publishers, no newspapers, and no printing press! Indeed, the first printing press in Colonial America arrived by ship from England in 1638, a year after Sanders allegedly set up his bookbinding establishment. Venturing into conjecture now, it is possible his work consisted of repairing and rebinding bibles and hymnbooks for the good people of the colony. Perhaps there was also work binding personal correspondence, hand-written memoirs, and volumes of poetry.
All we don’t know
John Sanders left no signed work behind. Indeed, it would have been highly unusual if he had. Puritans generally frowned on prideful things. We do not know how long he was in the bookbinding trade. Without partnering with a printer, it is doubtful anyone could have made a living by bookbinding alone at that time. The first print shop was set up in Cambridge by the widow Glover and her employee, Stephen Day [or Daye] in 1638. Within three years the press had turned out a broadside of our Freeman’s Oath, an “Almanack,” and the Bay Psalm Book; however, there is no evidence that John Sanders or any other independent bookbinder was associated with this enterprise, which was the precursor to the Harvard University Press.
The history maven turns to online genealogical services in an attempt to find information on Mr. Sanders. Alas, the name Sanders or Saunders is quite common and there is no “match” for a bookbinder in Boston in 1637. It is tempting to identify our bookbinder in one John Saunders of Salem, Massachusetts, with the dates 1613 to 1643. Thanks to previous researchers there is a great deal of genealogical information on this man:
- John Saunders of Salem came to America as a teenager in about 1629, shortly before the official establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which, it should be noted, encompassed both Boston and Salem, 15 miles apart.
- John Saunders of Salem became a “freeman” (i.e. took the Freeman’s Oath) in 1836, the same year as John Sanders the bookbinder. In fact, in a 1906 compilation of freemen in the colony, there is only one John Sanders listed for that year. (List of Freemen, Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1691, Exira Printing Company, 1906)
- John Sanders of Salem became a freeman approximately seven years after arriving from England; could it be that he came as an indentured servant and, having completed his service in Salem, hied himself to the big city to try his hand at business?
It is here that the researcher finds herself falling down a rabbit hole lined with the proceedings of various obscure historical societies and hopes for a soft landing, particular after reading the following from a meticulously researched work by a 19th century Saunders:
During the years 1635-38 there were so many of the name of Sanders who came to the new settlement, their advent so united, their means so liberal, and their ability so acknowledged, that one can but infer they were members of one family. (The Founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sarah Saunders Smith, 1897)
Tools of the Trade
Conjecture is a dangerous business. Better that we use our imagination to picture the establishment of Mr. Sanders. It would likely have been a modest workshop adjoining living quarters. Mr. Sanders no doubt employed the basic tools of the trade: sewing frame, glue pot, beating hammer, and plough. If he did more than simple repairs of existing bindings, he would likely have employed sheep or calf skin over oak or birch boards, using materials readily available in the colony. (A tannery was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s.) He would likely have manufactured his own tools or employed the services of a carpenter. If he ventured into ornamentation at all, it would have consisted of blind tooling leather covers with simple geometric or natural imagery. There would have been no thought of gilt.
We do not know how long Mr. Sanders remained in business. The historian Hugh Amory, writing in the 1990s, goes one step farther than other writers and states that John Saunders worked until 1651, but, he provides no citation for this assertion. If, in fact, Bookbinder Saunders continued in work through the 1640s he might have found work with the printer of the Bay Psalm Book, then located at Harvard College. If he endured into the 1660s, he might have been involved in the production of the Eliot Indian Bible. In that huge undertaking, he would have had competition from other bookbinders, including one John Ratliffe (or Racliffe).
But all that is a story for another decade.
Not a forgery: The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in America. Whether John Sanders might have had a hand in binding the work is unknown.
- Leander Bishop, M.D., A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860, Volume I, 1861, available through Google Books.
Hannah Dustin French, “Early American Bookbinding by Hand,” in Bookbinding in America: Three Essays, 1941.
Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer, 1931.
The Grolier Club, The Grolier Catalogue of Ornamental Bookbindings Executed in America before 1850, 1907, available through Google Books.
Hugh Amory, Bibliography and the Book Trades: Studies in the Print Culture of Early New England, essays edited by David D. Hall, 2013.
ABM Guest Blogger Eleanor Boba is a public historian who blogs about historic places off the beaten path and other curious matters. She lives in Seattle.
Many of us have personal libraries, and within those libraries the chance that we own a standard hardcover book is high. Modern case bindings (also known as hardcovers) are everywhere. These bindings are constructed from paper boards covered by a sturdy cloth or decorated paper, and the cover is generally made separately from the text block and attached later by endpapers.
Case bindings are made the same way now as they were made in the 1800s, and so often the problems I see with older books are the same problems that will eventually happen to the new book sitting on your shelf. In fact, it even happened to a friend’s copy of a recently bought Game of Thrones book!
Some mechanical problems that are frequently met in case bindings:
- Before the text block is out of the case you may find that the joints are loose and simply need to be tightened (I will cover this in more detail further down).
- The text block falls out of the case but the entire case is intact. This will require that the text block will need to be rehung in the case.
- If the text block has separated from the case, you could have text block problems or spine problems, and this will require re-backing the text block and possibly re-sewing.
- Damaged and weak corners on the board.
- The case is falling apart (as when the spine of the case has come away from the boards leaving the boards attached to the text block but the spine missing).
The most issue common with case bindings is joint problems. If you’re able to catch it in time, a little bit of PVA glue to tighten up the joints will go a long way in preserving your books and preventing them from falling apart.
Since the covers and text block are often held together only by endpapers, joint problems are the biggest issue we run into with standard hardcover books. There is little that can be done to prevent it: it’s simply going to happen eventually. Because the weight of the text block when the book is standing pulls downward on the spine and over time the end paper cannot hold it.
In the photograph below you can see the looseness of the joints. This, as I mentioned before, is an easy fix. It requires taking a skinny metal rod (perhaps cut from a clothes hanger), dipping the rod in PVA glue and then sliding it into the joint where the paper is coming loose. Once you’ve applied glue to the joints that need it, from the top and bottom if necessary, you press the book for a minute or so until the PVA is dry.
Photo credit: Arielle VanderSchans
Once the joints are tightened you can see that the paper now fits snuggly against the boards.
Photo credit: Arielle VanderSchans
This repair is quick and easy, and will help the book last longer, as you’re catching the joint problem before the paper can tear away from the boards completely (which would leave you with a detached text block!).
Another problem that can occur with case bindings is that if the end pages tear, the text block can come completely out of the case, or the spine of the case can tear and come completely off but the boards remain attached to the text block. Below is a photo that shows a text block detached from the case. This text block also had to be resewn.
Photo credit: Arielle VanderSchans
These fixes require a bit more work, from resewing the spine to re-backing and attaching a hollow tube on the text block. If your book reaches this state, consult a professional who can determine what steps are needed to repair the book.
Other common issues to look out for in book preservation are:
Mold can develop on any book and the risk of mold comes in areas of high humidity. If you’re worried about mold growing on your books, try to lower the humidity of the room to make the mold inactive. If you do find mold on one of your books, take it off the shelf and let the mold dry up. Small amounts of mold can be vacuumed up using the upholstery attachment of your vacuum. You can also wipe the bindings and text block edges with cheesecloth dipped in 70% alcohol and wrung out very well!
Dirt & Soot
A book can be easily cleaned of dirt, soot and dust by wiping it gently with a dry-cleaning sponge. You can also vacuum the book with the upholstery attachment. Start with the top of your book and wipe from the back of the book to the front, or the spine to the edge of the text block.
Keep an eye out for bugs like silverfish that commonly live in homes. Store your books off the floor to keep them away from silverfish that might live in the carpets. A few other tips for storiage to keep in mind:
- Store books that are the similar heights together; if they are 15 inches or less in height and of medium thickness store them standing upright but if they are taller or thicker lay them on their sides.
- Leather-covered books shouldn’t be stored next to cloth- or paper-covered books because the leather may stain the other books.
- Give your books room to breathe: don’t shelve them tightly together or it may cause distortion– but keep them close enough together so that they support each other.
These are just some of the things to keep in mind when working with hardcover books! Store them properly, take care of them, try to catch joint problems early on and your case binding will last a long time!
Brown, Michele. Preserving Books in Your Home Library. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, PDF.
CBBAG: Repair & Restoration Workshop. Dan Mezza, London ON. January 2017.
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
This post is the second of a series of features written by our archivist, Jae Mauthe, exploring the development of charitable organizations devoted to social services for bookbinders.
The industrial revolution brought about many changes to the worklife of bookbinders. Bookbinder John Jaffery sought social reform in Victorian London through the London Working Men’s Association, which was established in 1836. Jaffery fought to improve the situation of workers and to provide aid to those in need. (As described in the previous installment of this series.) Industrialization created a shift from life in the countryside towards the development of cities and towns, which led to rapid population growth, unemployment, and increased poverty. This cycle eventually led to the foundation of the country’s poor laws in 1834. These had a huge impact on bookbindery workers because of the itinerant nature of their work. Many workers seasonally found themselves out of work and in need of assistance. (more…)
This post is the first of a series of features written by our archivist, Jae Mauthe, exploring the development of charitable organizations devoted to social services for bookbinders.
I read a moving post on the British Library’s “Untold Lives” blog a couple years back. It was about an 18th century London bookbinder named Richard Smith. Smith was failing at his trade and a prisoner for debt within liberties to the King’s bench. The Poor Laws had failed him, the Parish workhouses couldn’t help and after paying his landlord what he could, Smith and his wife killed their two year old daughter then hung themselves. This act of total desperation seemed the only way out for the Smith family at the time. I was struck by the level despair and “inveterate hatred for poverty and rags” this man had: he had tried everything and, yet, the series of events that caused this debt convinced him he would forever live a life of ‘numbing poverty’ with no way of seeing his way clear. (more…)
Bookbinding is not for the timid of hand or heart.
- courtesy of Dan Goldberg
Risk of stab by needle, loss of fingers by guillotine: these are the few perils that bookbinders face every day in their field of work. There is even one recorded case of death by beating books.
- courtesy of Syracuse University Libraries
Books and binding materials must face the elements: aging with time, rough handling, water damage, mold, fire, light, gravity – not to mention censorship! (more…)