For the Love of Books


Books were treasure when each tome was made in 28 separate stages. Hear how the trade is preserved by Master Bookbinder Bruce Plumley.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Books today are common enough – from nightstands to airplanes and beach vacations, we’re never far from a paperback. But in the 18th century the process of creating a book was much different. Bookbinder Bruce Plumley is our guest today to talk to us about his trade and its place in colonial America. Bruce, thank you for being here with us.

Bruce Plumley: You’re more than welcome.

Harmony: We’ve been going around and talking to a lot of the tradespeople here in Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City. In your trade as the bookbinder, you are housed and sort of joined with the printer’s trade. Talk to me about how your trade is distinct from and also related to the printer’s trade.

Bruce: Well the biggest majority of books that we did were not involving the printers because most, between 80 and 90 percent of the books that we did, were actually blank ledgers and account books for the business people on Duke of Gloucester Street. After all we were the capital and that’s the reason why we had to supply those businesses. We supplied obviously the seat of government, the House of Burgesses. You know they’re just at the end of the street. And we’ve got the Courthouse which needs blank books.

Churches are very good customers of ours too. You know they buy blank books for recording things like birth, death, baptisms, marriage, even an attendance record keeping book. Because if you don’t go at least once a month, or your name does not appear in that attendance book once a month, you’re going to get fined. So they’re very good customers of ours, churches. But we don’t do Bibles because that would be an imported book and it would take much too long for us to, you know, make it worth our while. It would take years, literally, to get the first book ready and we just would not be able to stand that, you know, economically.

Harmony: If blank books are 70-80 percent of the product that you create, what’s the other 20 percent?

Bruce: The other 20 percent would be pretty much self-help books, pamphlets, not bound, put together very, very simply just as we call them stitch books with a needle and linen thread and with no covering material on them whatsoever. So that would be things like a book on gardens we did. We did obviously the yearly almanac, the Virginia Almanac. We did things like “Every Man His Own Doctor,” or, “The Poor Planter’s Physician.” Things like that. Things that you could really associate with being practical, but not for reading pleasure.

Harmony: The bookbinder’s trade sounds like you put bindings on books. Is it really that simple? Is that the kernel of what you do as the bookbinder?

Bruce: Yes, it is, but there are 28 different stages the book has to go through, so it is a time consuming job. To do a large ledger for the seat of government or the courthouse it could take 25 hours for us to make just one book, but that would have to be spread over several days though. Probably a week on a large ledger like that. We have to wait for drying time of the pieces that we’re using.

Harmony: Twenty eight steps, you said. What are some of the stages that a book has to go through on its way to being shelf-ready?

Bruce: Well, the very first steps of the books’ production really is to fold the sheets. If they are printed they have to be folded into their correct sequence. If they’re blank, of course, we still fold it in the same way as we would a printed sheet because you cannot sew – and that’s what we use a needle and linen thread to put the book together when you’re binding it – you cannot do that with a single sheet, because there’s nowhere to be able to sew through. In other words we will sew through the fold of the section or considered a signature actually in the 18th century and even today that hasn’t changed. They’re still called signatures once they’re folded.

But then it has to go in a press for several days for curing, you know for flattening, then it can be taken to the sewing frame and sewn to cords. That would take as much as probably a couple of hours just to do stage four, which is the sewing. Then we would glue the spine to the book with an animal hide glue made from rabbit skins and the horse hooves and things like that. So it’s gelatin unrefined, but it is gelatin.

And then we go through a process of rounding and backing. That’s to be able to put the curve into the spine of the book. Then, of course, it needs to be trimmed because we had folded sections. Now they’re all joined together at this point. Well really at stage 12 we get around to actually trimming all three edges, so we’re making the book slightly smaller. And when you do that, you’re cutting the folds away.

Then we would decorate the edges of the pages. Now edge decoration can be done in a number of ways, but the most common way for us when we’re doing ledgers and account books would just be to sprinkle the edge of the book whilst its under pressure though, because obviously we’re going to use watercolors with a short bristle brush, dip it in the watercolor, turn it upside down, bristles facing upwards and you just flick it with your finger and you get a sprayed edge to it. It wouldn’t be a solid color, although you could do it with a solid color in which case you would use a sponge. But like I said, you’d have to have that under pressure. You don’t want that watercolor to soak in even the smallest amount into the book.

We would never do gold or gilt edge books. That would be an imported book. It did exist, of course, but that would be 24 carat gold and we’re certainly not going to put 24 carat gold on the edges of the pages of a ledger, but we still need to decorate it. The reason why we decorate even today, although if were to ask modern bookbinders why they decorate like a Bible for instance, well they would probably turn around and say, “Well, its traditional, they’ve always done that.” But the reason why is, a Bible is something that is in fairly constant use. A ledger is used on a daily basis. A diary is another book that would have a colored edge to it because you use it every day. So therefore, it’s going to get grubby if you leave it white. So the bookbinder decorates the edges of the pages to stop the dirt from showing. So, there’s a lot of practical things.

I don’t know if you ever noticed the head and tail bands. They’re the fancy little thing that you see right at the very head of the spine, usually multicolored, sometimes can be done in silk. Most of ours, because they were ledgers would have been done in linen, but it’s always at least two colors, but that’s actually sewn to the book as it’s being woven. Now we wouldn’t go to so much trouble – because that is going to take us a little while to put that on there – if it was just on there for decoration. It’s on there for a reason. It’s a very important part of the book’s structure, because when you go to take a book from the book shelf you usually put your finger, and you can’t take the book from the book shelf under normal conditions. You usually put your finger in the top of the book and then pull it out so you can get both, or at least one hand on the spine of the book. And that is where we need that strength because it prevents you from splitting the leather down both sides and then the spine of the book is then flapping off, so we put those on there for that reason. And when you pull on the top, what it’s doing is tilting on to the bottom of the spine which means that when you take it off the bookshelf you’re probably going to drag it instead of lifting it before you pull it off the book shelf so it reinforces everything there so it’s a very important part of the book structure.

Harmony: Such a level of engineering.

Bruce: Yes. Today they’re just stuck on with glue so there’s really no strength there anymore.

Harmony: And all this happens before there’s a cover on the book?

Bruce: Yes, yes. I mean the boards are actually laced on with the cords that we sew the book to, so it actually forms the hinge for our cover boards, but then of course once it’s eventually got the boards on it then we need to put the leather on. To do the leather work it usually takes us about an hour to do the prep to the leather. In other words we have to thin it down on the edges at least and down the spine area, because we do what is known as a tight backed book.

Modern books, when you open them, you can actually see daylight down the spine. On ours you cannot do that because it is a tight back book: the leather is actually stuck to the spine. So it has to be thin there in order for the book to function correctly. Skins that we use; normally calf and sheep. That would be of course animals that are bred for food, for meats, so therefore their skins were always available to us. Calf and sheep being the most prominent. Now and again you might see a book being bound in deerskin, but that’s not an animal that we breed for food. Have you ever heard of Moroccan leather?

Harmony: Sure.

Bruce: Moroccan leather is actually a goatskin, which comes from Morocco. And, of course, what do you eat in Morocco or what do they eat in Morocco? They eat goats. They breed goats and that means that’s where the leather is coming from. Very easily identified. Usually Moroccan leather was always dyed. So for instance, if you went to church on a Sunday with a Bible that was done in colored leather, that was Moroccan leather. And of course if you can afford that leather too, it is the most expensive leather, and you can afford the dying then probably you could afford 24-carat gold decoration on it as well. So that becomes a real status symbol.

Harmony: Speaking of affording things and status symbols, the trade as you’ve described it includes such a level of artistry and skill and thought and engineering for daily use. Could the everyday Williamsburg resident have afforded to buy a book from the bookbinder, or is this something that your customer might have been somebody who was financially more well off?

Bruce: Yes, financially more well off really. I mean I’m not saying that the ordinary person couldn’t have a book, but it would be such a mammoth amount of money for an ordinary family, like working in the tobacco plantations. To buy a book could cost as much as, well, a nicely bound Bible could cost with the goat skin and 24-carat gold on it it could cost as much as six months wages of an ordinary family. So you can understand why the family Bible was handed down through the generations too: because of its sheer cost.

We’re so use to buying books today for next to nothing. We don’t regard them as treasures, but back then they certainly were. And back before our time in the 1700s, if you went back earlier than that, then they were extremely like treasures. After all, monks and monasteries were the original scribes, they were the original bookbinders as well so actually book binding is a far, far more ancient trade than printing is.

Harmony: It’s kind of bittersweet to think about the idea of a treasure being separated from the idea of book, but books now are nearly disposable and in a lot of cases they’re electronic now. As you practice the bookbinding trade, and people come by and visit you in the shop do you feel like you’re able to restore some of that idea, that sense of books being treasure?

Bruce: I think that’s one of our main objectives, really, is for people to walk away thinking a little differently to how you look upon books today. They really were treasures in the 18th century. If you owned books you were obviously fairly wealthy.

Harmony: I hope that all of our listeners get a chance to come by and see you in the Bookbinders Shop with your co-workers. Where can they find you and what days are you open?

Bruce: We’re open every day of the year, 365 days. We’re open normally during the afternoon hours. The printers are normally open during the morning hours. They’re just across the courtyard from us so if you…the change over period is usually 1:00 p.m.

Harmony: It’s been a pleasure having you today. Thank you for being here.

Bruce: It’s been a pleasure.