A Factory Girl at The Dickens Fair

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.




Apprentices Out of Order

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’.


American Publishers’ Bindings at the Rare Book School

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?


Bookbinders Soup-No Bookbinders Required

SnapperSoupGoogling for something entirely different, we came upon the words “Bookbinders Soup.” Well, that was arresting.  It was with a mix of relief and disappointment that we learned no bookbinders are harmed in the making of this soup: the name comes from Bookbinders Restaurant in Philadelphia, where it was originally served. Confusingly, if you go to Old Original Bookbinders Restaurant the soup will be listed as “snapper soup.” It is only other restaurants that call it Bookbinders Soup in deference to its place of origin. Old Original Bookbinders Restaurant (now The Olde Bar at Bookbinders) was started in 1898 by Samuel Bookbinder, a Dutch immigrant. We may assume that there were bookbinders in his family tree, but have been unable to discover them. Still, a soup which has been celebrated for over 100 years must be worth trying, whatever its antecedents. This version of Bookbinders Soup comes from


The Clash of Man and Master

James Fraser

From Bookbinding in the British Isles. Fraser holds a paper titled “Plan for Reconciling the difference between the Masters & Journeymen Bookbinders.”

In 1740, when James Fraser (seen left) was born, the route to being a master bookbinder was clear, if not necessarily easy. Start in your mid-teens as an apprentice, survive apprenticeship and receive your journeyman papers, and finally–with luck–become a master. Apprenticeship, during which time a youth was trained (and educated), and worked for the master without payment, generally lasted 7 to 9 years. Once the worker reached journeyman status he worked for others, for wages, growing in skill until he was able to provide proof of his technical competence: his masterpiece. Once he had risen to the guild status of Master he could take on apprentices of his own, set up his own business, employ journeymen binders. Not every journeyman would become a master–some hadn’t the ambition, others never progressed to that level of skill.


Don’t Cross a Bookbinder – A Bookbinder’s Curse

bookbinder 2In honor of National Poetry Month, a bookbinder’s curse in 10 stanzas. One wonders what “Particular Occasion” caused Mr. “Burnisher” to vent such spleen.

Solemn Curse Pronounced by Ben Burnisher upon a Master Bookbinder upon a Particular Occasion

May rats and mice devour your paste,
Your paper, and your leather.
May your hand letters be defaced,
Your types all mixed together. (more…)

Bookbinding and the Working Woman

Factory GirlOne of the by-products of the Industrial Revolution was a change in the status of women working outside the home. Working from home–doing piece work in and around all the other jobs that were part of running a home, or being part of the “seasonal work force” for her husband’s business–had been part of women’s lot for centuries. But as industrialization moved manufacturing out of the home and the workshop and into the factories, women as well as men followed.

Who Wrote the Book of Trades?

One of our favorite illustrations at the American Bookbinders Museum is an engraving from 1694 done by the Dutch artist Jan Luyken (or Luiken). Seen at left, “De Boeckbinder” (The Bookbinder), is one of a hundred trades detailed in Luyken’s
Het Menslyk Bedryft (The Book of Trades). (more…)

How Would They Look if They Weren’t Well Bound? – A Bookbinders Song

Woman at Frame

The Bookbinder’s Song
“Be man’s peculiar work his sole delight.”–Minstrel, Book 1
Air: “Johnny Lump’s Visit to Somerset House”

Ere Printing began the dark ages to mend,
On volumes of parchment their writings were penned.
Now fine printed books in abundance are found,
But how would they look if they weren’t well bound?
Fall de ral la, &c. (more…)

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