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C. Starr Roller Backing Machine, American, ca. 1856

Charles Starr

As the structure of the book changed from single-folded folio to multiple signatures sewn together at the spine, bookbinders had to deal with swell, the thickness that accumulates at the spine in a stack of folded and sewn signatures. Swell can create a spine that is wider than the text block, make it difficult to open the bound book, or cause the spine to buckle. To avoid this, binders accommodate the swell from paper and thread by rounding the spine. To round manually, the binder uses light blows from a rounding hammer to push the outer edges of the spine down, creating a spine with a rounded shape. This forces the fore edge into a concave shape . Once the spine is rounded, the binder backs the text block by hammering the edges of the first and last signatures outward to form a ridge or shoulder under which the book’s boards, or covers, can be fitted.(1) 

A rounded and backed book can be opened flat. More than that, a rounded spine makes it easier for the book to stand upright. Early books were generally stored lying flat on a shelf, but by the seventeenth century, books were shelved the way they are today with their spines facing outward. The names of authors and titles began to appear on these rounded and backed spines. (2)

In the nineteenth century, inventors began to design machines that would make handwork in the bindery a thing of the past. By 1859, eight patents had been granted in the United States for machines to round and back books. But workers were far from willing to put aside their rounding and backing hammers for the machine. They feared that the craft of bookbinding would be broken down into discrete tasks that anyone could perform who could operate a machine.

Although most backing machines derive from John Elder’s patent of 1853, Charles Starr’s roller-backer, which we see here (3), was patented in 1851. Its purpose was limited to forming the text block’s shoulders after it had been rounded. Starr explained that his patent was for an innovation in the design of the machine: Other backing machines fixed the text block in position under the roller, which pressed on it to shape the shoulders. Starr’s machine swung the text block back and forth under the roller to ensure that pressure was applied equally across the surface of the spine.( ) This roller-backer and other machines like it became a fixture in the bindery; it was considered one of the greatest labor saving devices of all. 

Charles Starr’s roller-backer was shown and demonstrated in 1851 at the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in London. It was also shown at the New York Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations in 1853–1854.

Several patents were issued for rounders and combined rounder-backers in the 1850s, but rounding proved harder to mechanize than backing and none were successful. The “Sanborn” backer was accepted, but slowly, and the crumpled gutter of poor hand backing can still be seen in some edition-bound books of the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1891 Crawley’s power rounder-backer, capable of 450-700 books per hour, superseded hand rounding and the roller backer for large edition work, though both hand backing and the roller backer remained in use for short runs.(5)

U.S. Patents for Book Rounders and Backers, 1820-1870:

  • #3380, January 10, 1845. “Machine for Backing Books.” William Laighton of Portsmouth, N.H. [Length-acting backer.]
  • #7,911, January 21, 1851. “Tool for Embossing Backs of Books.” Charles Starr of New York, N.Y. [Special roller for Starr backer, to be used for gold-tooling (finishing) covered spines.]
  • #8,179, June 24, 1851. “Machine for Finishing the Backs of Books.” Chas. Starr of New York, NY. [Basic patent on the Starr backer.]
  • #9,886, July 26, 1853. “Curving the Backs of Books.” John A. Elder of Westbrook, Cumberland County, Maine.
  • #12,026, December 5, 1854. “Machine for Rounding the Backs of Books.” Leonard F. Markham of Cambridgeport, Middlesex County, Mass.[Simple flat-table rounder.]
  • #15,282, July 8, 1856. “Machine for Rounding and Backing Books.” John E. Coffin of Westbrook, Maine. [Bottom-push rounder and hammer-based backer.]
  • #17,480, June 9, 1857. “Machine for Rounding and Backing Books.” Theodore Bergner of Philadelphia. [Bottom-push rounder.]
  • #24,425, June 14, 1859. “Machine for Shaping the Backs of Books.” John E. Coffin of Portland, Maine, assigned to A.F. Gerrish of the same place; witnesses include John A. Elder. [length-acting rounder-backer.]
  • #25,548, September 20, 1859. “Machine for Shaping and Finishing the Backs of Books.” H. Sanborn of Boston, Mass. and John E. Coffin of Portland, Maine. [split-roll backer.]


1) For a somewhat later discussion of rounding and backing, chapters XII and XIII of Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinidng: A Practical Treatise with plates and diagrams (1890) are of particular interest. Also informative is Zaehnsdorf’s historical survey in the introduction. A Practical Treatise can be found here

2)In his article “Libraries Used to Chain Their Books to Shelves, With the Spines Hidden Away” in the September 6, 2013, issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, Colin Schultz gives a thumbnail sketch of how books have been stored in the last five hundred years. See here.

3)The museum’s Starr Roller-Backer was bought at auction in 2010.

4)A complete description and diagram of the Starr roller-backer can be found under no. 8,179 in the archives of the United States Patent and Trademark Office here.

5) Comparato, Frank. Books For The Millions. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole, 1971, p. 114.

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