A rare find…

Repairing a book involves necessary ‘intervention’ – removing previous repair material or degraded original materials. This exposes the underlying materials – linings, tapes, cords, or the boards themselves.

I am currently re-backing a small leather-bound book of heraldry published in 1682 in Oxford. As is usually the case, the boards were detached and the spine leather completely perished. To attach the boards the old spine leather is removed and a strip of fine fabric is glued directly on to the back, wide enough to glue down on to the boards and under the cover leather. That requires a strip of the cover leather at the hinge edge (which is usually pretty degraded anyway) to be removed so the new fabric hinge can be glued to a sound surface – the board itself.

When I did that on the present book I was very surprised to find that the covers were not the usual pasteboard but wooden; very thin sheets of softwood. I have never come across this before on a 17th century book.

Front board with edge strip removed to give firm attachment for new fabric hinge
Inside of the board shows the wooden core has split along the grain
Detail showing clearly the softwood board

Now, I had read about ‘scaleboard’ or ‘scabboard’ in Edith Diehl’s magisterial work on Bookbinding (vol 1, page 153) as an American alternative to pasteboard, which was not available due a shortage of paper until at least 1690 when the first American paper mill was established. But I had never come across similar use of thin wooden boards in the UK. However, the equally magisterial work on English bookbinding by Bernard Middleton does have a brief mention in a footnote on page 63 (A History of English Bookbinding Technique, 2nd edition, 1978): ‘very thin (boards) are to be found more rarely in small retail bindings… notably at Oxford…’. Middleton also refers to a 1690 book bound in Oxford in this way, but suggests that it is possible that example was bound in America.

So I’ll tell the client when I return the re-backed book to him that he has something quite rare, though by then he won’t be able to see it.

4 thoughts on “A rare find…

  1. Could you post a photo of the book when you have completed it. Thanks so much for all your blogs, I really enjoy reading them, I learn a little each time I read one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a tasty find.

    There are some folio service book at Wary Church in Cumbria – mid to late 19C but fully bound in wood, including the spine.

    One is damaged and this reveals that the spine – boards attachment is by brass piano hinges!

    I wrote to the church PCC to ask if they knew who had executed the binding but never received a reply. One of these days when the church has an open day with attendant officers I shall visit again and see if I can learn mor.

    Yours aye



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