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.)


  1. It should be said that not all bookbinding historians find Bennett’s argument totally persuasive. He argues, for example, that ‘at least 80% of the books offered by the trade [in this period] were sold bound’, but if this were true, then you’d expect to find a much greater uniformity of bindings, on different copies of the same book, than you do actually find in practice. Bennett is right, I think, that a customer could walk into a bookshop and buy a book ready-bound over the counter (‘one-stop shopping’ he calls it — meaning that the customer didn’t have to pay a separate visit to the binder to get the book bound), but the majority of copies would have been stored unbound in the bookseller’s warehouse until needed. Anyone who’s interested can find a fuller discussion of these issues in Nicholas Pickwoad’s review of the book (The Library, Dec. 2005, pp 464-5), Bennett’s response and Pickwoad’s rejoinder (The Library, June 2006, pp 199-200).

  2. We had long assumed that, for a variety of reasons, books were shipped and sold in sheets … But all of these were only assumptions, assumptions that had no real evidence to justify them.
    I don’t know about sold, but there is some evidence of shipping books in sheets being a common practice. An article by C.M. Walbiner describes the efforts of Meletius Karma, the Metropolitan of Aleppo (1572-1635), to have Arabic and Greek books (books of liturgy, the Arabic translation of the Bible and Ficino’s Lessico Greco-Latino) and printed in Rome and shipped. In his letter to the Pope, he lists various requirements (the paper should be white and heavy, the letters should not be small, but large, for the benefit of older members of the clergy), including the request to have the books bound. The final requirement is to send 1000 copies of each book ordered and then Karma begs the Pope once again – in Walbiner’s translation – “Und um Jesu willen: schick sie nicht ungebunden” (“And for Jesus’ sake, do not send them unbound”).
    Oh and by the way, the Holy See ignored his requests.

  3. This dispute threatens to become contentious. I pray that everyone espects the Languagehat tradition of civility.

  4. Arnold, bulbul: Thanks very much for the supplementary information! I think I learn more from the comments on this blog than I did my last year of grad school.
    John: Don’t give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

  5. One thing’s for sure: binding a book is a poor substitute for actually hearing how a Nenets word sounds.

  6. Does “bind” mean put a hard cover on the book or just stiching the sheets together?
    I ask ’cause I’ve always wondered why in France new books don’t come out in a hardcover edition, rather a format larger than the French paperback, but, still, with only a paper cover (though sturdier). I had always assumed they were merely continuing an older practice of selling books “unbound,” which I thought meant without a hardcover.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Before the advent of paperbacks, which were sold ready to read, most French books were sold not only unbound but uncut – everybody owned a paper-cutter (known as a letter-opener in English) for the purpose of cutting the pages from each other as you went. You knew that no one else had read your new book before you, and these books were much cheaper than if they had been bound. Then if you liked the book enough you could take it to a bookbinder and pay to have it bound to your own specifications. Sometimes you found a book in which only a few pages were cut – the reader had started the book but given up on reading it.
    Bound books for sale did exist, for instance textbooks for schoolchildren (who would otherwise have destroyed unbound books), or special collections, but the majority were sold unbound. When I first went to England I was surprised to find that all the books were bound. When I see all the remaindered bound books in bookstore bins, I think of the money that could have been saved by not binding them – maybe more of them would have been sold if they had been cheaper.

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