History of Bookbinding

First Books

The first books known to man were clay tablets of the Babylon era, dating around 3800 BC. They were usually scribed with a blunt instrument while the clay was moist and then left to dry in the sun and harden.

Palm Books

The First true books, that we would recognise as such, were of oriental origin. They were made from narrow strips of palm leaves or strips of bark. The writing was then scratched on the surface and then filled with lamp black to make the characters stand out. In order to keep the leaves flat it would then be common to place pieces of wood either side of the pile of the palm leaves.

To hold the pieces of wood and palm leaves together holes would be bored through the back and a cord or leather throng woven through. Sometimes the cover would be decorated with an extremely complex design using gold and silver with elaborate carvings and intricate inlay work. However, it is unlikely that the book that we are use to would have descended directly from this route.


Following to the clay tablets the next major type of book is the scroll or papyrus roll. The basic material would have been made by slitting the plant stems and cutting them into fibrous strips. These strips would then have been laid out side by side and further layer placed at right angles. These would have been soaked in the 'magic waters' of the Nile and then left to dry in the sun. When dry they would have been hammered into sheets and polished with ivory to make a smooth writing surface.

These sheets would then have been joined together and rolled for a more convenient method of handling. To illustrate the prolific use of this type of binding is is estimated that the famous library of Alexandria had over 700,000 volumes. That was a large library even by today's standards especially when you consider that every roll had to be written by hand!

The library was destroyed in 640 AD by the Arabs, who according to history, were able to keep 4,000 baths hot for 6 months by burning all the volumes.

The problem with papyrus is that it is very brittle and could only be stored in roll form.

Conventional books

Modern day bookbinding began with the change from the continuous roll, to the book made up from separate sheets. Early books were composed of single sheets of vellum, followed by paper, folded over and collected into sections of suitable size. The leaves were held together in the correct order by sewing through the centre fold onto flexible bands held at right angles to the back.

To keep the leaves flat and undamaged, early books were placed between wooden boards. Later it was found convenient to join those boards and leaves together and leather was eventually wrapped round to form the type of book that today we are all familiar with.

As early as the 6th Century, Monks had taken the art of binding manuscripts to a very high standard. Unfortunately most of these books were destroyed for their gems that were supposed to be hidden in their thick wooden boards. Between the 10th and 14th Century, English Monks having copied and improved the design of books brought from the East became the foremost binders of Europe.

However it took 2 major inventions to produce book in large quantities:


Paper was first invented by the Chinese around 200 years BC with the actual manufacture process kept a closely guarded secret. However in 750AD the Arabs captured some prisoners amongst whom were skilled Chinese paper makers and so the secret got out. It took some 800 years for the techniques to be adopted by the Moors in Spain with the first paper mill in England probably being established near Stevenage about 1496. All previous supplies of paper were imported from Spain or Germany.

Movable Type

It took a German printer in 1456 named Johann Gutenburg to come up with the idea of making each letter into a small block so that each line of text and page could be assembled from these little letters. These could the be broken down and reused time and time again. And yes he was the printer of the Bible bearing his name.

The first printer in England was William Caxton who in 1474 printed the 'Game and Play of the Chess'

The introduction of printing in the 15th Century gave a great impetus to bookbinding.As the number of books increased so the occupation of printer and binder became separate. With the introduction of goldleaf from the East into Venice and the use of fine delicate tools for impressing the gold designs and different colour leathers for onlays and inlays on the covers the foundation was made of an exquisite art for decorating binding. The early 16th Century one of the finest periods in the history of decorative bookbinding.

At about this time Morocco (goat) leather was first used to supplement the previously used calf leather.

Jean Grolier commissioned many stunning bindings from the best craftsmen at the time and was was one of the first collectors to have the titles of his books lettered on their spines. Previously books were usually shelved with their spines innermost and the titles lettered in ink on the fore-edges.

Because of the very high cost of production books were so valuable that they were often chained to the bookshelves to prevent them being stolen.

The French School of binders in the 16th, 17th and 18th Century followed the impulse given by Grolier and was unrivalled until the end of the 18th Century. In Germany, books were usually bound in pigskin, vellum or calf. The latter being preferred for its soft, smooth surface and its great advantages for blind tooling.

With the exception of a few binders, notably Samuel Mearne, binder to Charles II, who originated the cottage style of ornamentation, England suffered a gradual decline until the end of the 18th Century. Roger Payne restored English binding with his fine small tools and original designs finishing his bindings in accordance with the character of the book.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, inspiration was led by William Morris who interested T.S. Cobden-Sanderson, a Lawyer, in changing careers and take up binding. He set up the Doves Bindery and his most successful pupil was Douglas Cockerell. From their lead, the modern school of binding was formed and with the formation in the '50's of the Society called "The Designer Bookbinders", the current state of the craft is very healthy.

We are very interested to hear of any Book binding history or any anecdotes/stories on books or bookbinding.

Please, please, please contact us with any information or titbits so that we can update this page. Thanks

Does a repair effect the value of an antiquarian book?

Yes it does.

Usually if a book requires re binding or repairs then it has probably reached a tatty stage. Yes?

So its value has been greatly reduced. Yes

If we then simpathetically repair the book its value should increase from its tatty stage. But it will not achieve the value of a book in an original (un repaired) but similar condition. Obviously if the book costs 50 in good condition and you have paid 30 for it in tatty condition then there is no point in spending 25 to have it repaired UNLESS it is for sentimental reasons.


Bookbinding, Specials, Repairs, History, Hot news, Bindery range, Finishes, Contents/Index

Wayte Binding, 6 Chalklin Business park, Longfield Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN2 3UG, England

Telephone (0044)1892 511 955 Fax (0044)1892 513 911