The city is doing construction on Clementina Street, but don’t be daunted: sidewalks are still open, and so is the Bookbinders Museum. Come visit!
The ABM will not be open tonight for Yerba Buena Third Thursday. Check back with us in April!
The history of unions in the US is firmly rooted in the much older Guild system that arose in medieval Europe (and which in turn may have sprung from the collegia of the Roman Empire). It’s easy to forget, with all the anti- and pro-union rhetoric that gets slung around in this day and age, what an astonishing and effective system the Guilds were. They were generally divided into three classes: merchant guilds, craft guilds, and service guilds. The merchant guilds were for… well, merchants, those who traded between cities and nations, as well as locally. They might sell raw materials to artisans, or sell an artisan’s product (wool, woven into cloth, for example) but they were not generally producers. Craft guilds, which included makers of all sorts, from victuallers (bakers, butchers, brewers) to printers, papermakers, and bookbinders, were focused on production. Lastly, there were service guilds, to which clerks, drivers, and barbers would have belonged (remember that barbers were dentists and surgeons as well as tonsorial experts).
It may not be the first thing we think of now, but guilds’ primary function was to serve “as mechanisms for organizing, managing, and financing the collective quest for eternal salvation”1 by enforcing routine participation in religious services, organizing alms and festivals on Holy Days, and providing burial, funeral masses, and distributing alms in the name of the deceased. Guilds required standards of piety in their members, in line with Christian values: honesty, chastity, respect for authority, rest on the Sabbath. Would the man-on-the-street in medieval Europe have been familiar with these standards? Of course. But the guilds reinforced them, essentially policing piety among members for their souls’ sakes.
Guilds also provided enforcement of professional standards. It was in the interest of all members that workmanship and merchandise be of the highest standard; to that end, some guilds sent out inspectors to check members’ products, even their homes and workshops, to ensure that all the guild rules were being met.2 If a member failed to keep his work to the guild’s standard he might be fined; if he continued to do so he could–and often was–expelled from the guild. This was no small matter: not only would he be barred from practicing his own trade, but the guild would cease involvement in the member’s religious life: no burial or masses provided, no alms distributed in his name. Members were, in fact, forbidden to pray for him.
Finally, guilds provided continuity of knowledge through the apprentice system.3 A boy, apprenticed to a master craftsman, would learn all parts of the master’s work and–hopefully–become first a journeyman (a skilled employee or day-laborer) and, then a master himself. In the wake of the Black Death the apprentice system became important as a way of creating an informal structure for both children and craftsmen who had lost some or all of their families, and assured that the skills and experience of one generation would not be lost to the next. However, the progression from apprentice to journeyman to master was not always so orderly. Some apprentices rebelled and ran away from their masters; some journeymen never had the ambition to become master themselves, or could not save enough money to set up a shop and create the “masterpiece” that would permit him entry into the guild (in London, in 1747, the cost to set up a bindery could be between £50-£100).4
Medieval guilds flourished, becoming the center of social, and of religious life in cities and towns, but with the advent of the Reformation their influence began to wane (not least because their primary religious function was out of step with new beliefs). In some nations guilds were suppressed; in others some guilds dwindled into “friendly societies,” where “it was the custom of many of the journeymen to meet in public houses adjoining their workshops, to drink ‘a social pint of porter.’”5 Sometimes–as in London in the 1780s–these societies grew into trade associations, journeymen banded together to negotiate, or force, better terms from the masters. These societies differed from the guilds because they were no longer groups that included all binders: they were meant specifically to advocate for the journeymen against the masters.
There we see the the genesis of the modern labor union. In the US, where the guild system was a remnant of the medieval system, “friendly societies” and “brotherhoods” became trade unions. In the UK, where guilds persisted, even co-existed with trade unions, they came to occupy a position of some civic power and a good deal of ceremonial pomp. It is doubtful a medieval apprentice, journeyman, or master would recognize the current incarnation of the guild.
Codex 2017 is part of the 6th Bienniel International Book Fair and Symposium at the Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbor Way South, in Richmond. The Book Fair is open to the public, and runs Sunday, February 5 through Wednesday, February 8. Multi-day tickets are $30; Single-day tickets are $10; Student tickets (with ID) are $5. The Codex Book Fair brings the “Best of the Best book artists and fine press printers from around the world to share their work, explore new and old concepts, and to start an on-going conversation about the fate and future of the book as an essential art form.”
The 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be at the Oakland Marriott City Center, 1001 Broadway, Oakland, from Friday, February 10 through Sunday, February 12. The Fair allows attendees an incredible opportunity to browse and buy books from nearly 200 booksellers from around the world.
In addition to booksellers, the Antiquarian Book Fair features special exhibits, seminars, and presentations, all of which are free to the public with a paid admission. Look for a special group of “book arts” related exhibitors–including The American Bookbinders Museum, displaying binding, letterpress printing, calligraphy, and ephemera. Tickets are $23 for a three-day pass and $13 for a Saturday-Sunday pass; with Student ID a three-day pass is $20, and Saturday-Sunday is $10.
If you thought you missed the Books and Mud exhibit at the Bookbinders Museum, there’s still time. The exhibit has been extended through February 18.
“Books and Mud: the drowned libraries of Florence,” examines and commemorates the 1966 Florence Flood, the international corps of volunteer “Mud Angels” who came to help, and the tools and techniques that were created to reclaim and restore hundreds of thousands of books and documents devastated by the flood. The flood marks the birth of the modern conservation and restoration movement.
Now, more than ever, the lessons of Florence can not be ignored.
In over a year of giving tours at the American Bookbinders Museum, I have spoken about the women in mid-19th-century binderies who sewed books, day in and day out. Speed was of the essence: By the mid-1800s many of the time-consuming processes of binding had been mechanized, increasing production capacity hugely. The bottleneck? Sewing. So compromises were made in the way books were sewn in order to move that process along faster. A skilled worker on the sewing floor was expected to sew 200 books a day.
Think about that. In a ten hour day, that’s twenty books an hour.
In order to do that, the sturdy practice of sewing around cords was replaced with sewing past them: notches were cut in the spines of books and the book-sewer ran the thread into a signature, out the notch, in back of the cord, back into the notch, and so on. When pulled tight, the thread pulled the cords into the notches. The rub, in terms of quality, was that there was nothing to hold the cord there; if a thread broke, the cord could pop out and the book fall apart. Still, it was fast. Twenty-books-an-hour fast.
Which is where I come in. For five days this fall (spread out over five weekends), as a way of piquing interest in the history of binding and in the ABM, I appeared at San Francisco’s Dickens Christmas Fair in the role of one of those workers. My first conclusion: If paid by the piece–which one often was–I might have starved to death before I reached any decent speed. Even with five days of working at my new skill, I was unable to do more than eight books an hour. As with many hand skills, the process is much more complex than it looks, and attempting to do it properly takes focus.
Focus comes hard when you’re sitting on a busy by-way, talking about binding to everyone who comes by. Parents with children–especially very small children–would stop to watch. A startling number of people who took bookbinding in middle-school (who knew?) came by to reminisce. Older kids sometimes seemed jaded about the process until I pointed out that, because of the “new-fangled machinery,” books were becoming inexpensive enough that even a poor Factory Girl like me could own one. Some people just wanted to sit on a nearby bench and watch for a while. Many people took photos or video, some asked me about the paper and thread I was using, or thought I might be tatting. In character as Annie, an Irish bindery worker, I answered all the questions I could, and steered people to the ABM brochures you can see in the basket on the left.
Staying in character and yet trying to give some of the background on where sunken-cord sewing fit into the history of 19th century binding, I sometimes had to resort to my character’s Celtic second-sight: Dickens Fair is set sometime around the 1850s, and the first successful book sewing machine would not be patented until 1871. “This is the only way it’s done now, but in a decade or two, you wait. They’ll find a way to build a machine to do the sewing too.”
In order to conserve materials, I would wait until I had used up all my signatures, then pull them off the cords, cut the threads, and start all over again. Even for that I had a story: “We’ve a new girl at the bindery, just learning the work, and sometimes I have to take her books apart and sew ’em again.”
It’s not often you get to be the problem and the solution.
Planning on visiting the Bookbinders Museum over the holidays? Please note the ABM will be closed:
Saturday, December 24 through Monday, December 26
Saturday, December 31 through Monday, January 2
All other days we’ll be open for business and giving tours at 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm.
Looking forward to meeting you!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.