Michael Ryan’s review of Stuart Bennett’s Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660–1800 passes on this tidbit, which I pass on to you: contrary to what has long been thought, people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not routinely buy books in sheets and have them bound afterwards.
“We” had long assumed that those rows of leather bindings, many humble and unadorned, in our stacks were the results of negotiations between book buyers and bookbinders. The more ornate and embellished the binding, the more assured its bespoke creation. We had long assumed that, for a variety of reasons, books were shipped and sold in sheets, especially books headed from Britain to North America in the eighteenth century. Whether overland or by sea, sending books in sheets seemed a better business plan than sending them bound. But all of these were only assumptions, assumptions that had no real evidence to justify them. Bennett has now set the record straight, and in doing so has opened some new portals for curators and historians of the book alike.
When we think of publishers’ bindings or trade bindings, we think of large runs of uniformly bound copies of the same book, the model that came into practice in the earlier nineteenth century and persists to the present. However, that is only one model of trade bindings. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had another, more interesting, more variegated model that could fill booksellers’ shops with arrays of bound volumes designed to appeal to the economic and aesthetic range of their client base. British book buyers may well have customized their bindings, but they did so like Samuel Pepys: after they had bought the volume bound from their local merchant. Often books would be bound by publishers or by syndicates of booksellers with copyrights; sometimes they would be bound or customized by the bookseller functioning only as retailer and responding to local tastes and requirements. Either way, British book buyers in the eighteenth century had long since grown accustomed to acquiring their tomes “ready to use” since the sixteenth, if not the fifteenth, century, according to Bennett. The varieties and generic similarities across these bindings reflect both the economics of publishing and the evolving tastes of the times. Binders were at the bottom of the food chain, and the publishers and booksellers who controlled the ebb and flow of their work made sure that wages remained low throughout the period.
I always enjoy having my preconceptions overturned. (Via Pepys Diary.)