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The 18th Century, Thomas Jefferson and Book Binding

“I am not so regular in my sleep as the Doctor (Rush) says he was, devoting to it from five to eight hours, according as my company or the book I am reading interests me; and I never go to bed without an hour or half an hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.” (Jefferson, quoted in Boutell, 1891.)

Thomas Jefferson is known primarily as the Father of the Constitution and the third President, but he was also an ardent supporter, admirer, and reader of books. To him, books were far more than a pastime; they contributed to both a moral and democratic education. And Jefferson liked to read the classics in their original form, “in all the beauties of their originals” (Boutell, 1891, p. 40).  It was Jefferson’s library of 6,487 works that replaced the Congressional Library when it was burned by the British in 1814 (for which he was paid $23,950), arguably making Jefferson also the Father of the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has gathered together many of these original books (see also this video).

Jefferson carefully collected and curated his library, spending a summer or two in Parisian bookstores “turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America. . .” (Boutell, 1891, p. 42). Given the expense and effort required to develop a book collection, Jefferson’s was notable, and thought by many to be one of the largest in the country. We can imagine what Jefferson’s library might have looked like. Jefferson notes that “nearly the whole are well-bound” (p. 43). Jefferson’s library would have probably contained a combination of leather bound books with gold tooling; books still in their original plain paper wrappers temporarily sewn together until Jefferson could take them to his own binder; and books bound with stiff covers with adverts printed on them. One list of Jefferson’s books indicates that some were purchased “bound” while others had a “fancy binding” and still others were in “Boards” (Jefferson, 2011).  A letter from Jefferson to Robert Skipwith tells of the books needed to put together a beginning library, and mentions that the binding of the books will result in varying costs. “These books if bound quite plain will cost the prices affixed in this catalogue. If bound elegantly, gilt, lettered, and marbled on the leaves, they will cost 20.p. Cent more. If bound by Bumgarden in fine Marbled bindings, they will cost 50.p. Cent more” (Boyd, 1950).

Jefferson engaged in some bookbinding of his own. In 1819 he created what has come to be known as the “Jefferson Bible”. He did not use the usual bookbinding strategies; instead he carefully removed pages from the Gospels in four languages (English, Latin, French and Greek) and glued them to paper. The 86-page presentation presents a multi-lingual history of Jesus’ life from an enlightenment perspective (no miracles, angels, saints or other-worldly contents were included). He sent his handmade creation on to Frederick August Mayo to be bound. A facsimile copy of the Bible was produced in 1902 and was presented to Senators on the day they took office until the copies ran out in 1957.

Bookbinding was clearly important to Jefferson in building his own collection, and it has also played an important role in preserving his works. His 1783 Book Catalog was bound and is preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 2000 the Society disbound, cleaned, deacidified, and repaired the volume using Japanese tissue paper and wheat paste, returning it to its original bound condition. The volume was also digitized at this time. The Government printing office rebinds Jefferson’s Manual for House of Representatives Procedures every two years, using some traditional methods, including marbling the manual’s edges, assembling leather covers, and gold stamping them. A recent bookbinding exhibit featured Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks, a book of Jefferson’s sketches and commentary, together with modern photographs, which was especially bound for the exhibit using traditional methods.

As we celebrate Jefferson’s 274th birthday, we can appreciate his passionate appreciation of books–and bookbinding. Binding provided the tools for projects like the Jefferson Bible, and the bound record of his large book collection. The utility of binding has preserved his work; the beauty of bindings delighted his eye–and ours.


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.

Works Consulted

Boutell, L. (1891). Thomas Jefferson, the man of letters. Chicago: Press of S. Thompson & Co. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/boutelljefferson00lewirich

Boyd, J. ed (1950). From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, with a List of Books for a Private Library, 3 August 1771,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0056. Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 76–81.

Jefferson, T., & Looney, J. J. (2011). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series: Volume 7: 28 November 1813 to 30 September 1814. Princeton University Press.

Martin, R. (1988), Jefferson’s Bookmarks. Monticello Research Department. Retrieved from https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-bookmarks

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