By Alicia Bessette
Clicking and scrolling: It’s how many of us access information today, and we marvel at the speed and ease the Internet provides.
But there is something about an antique, leather-bound book—its dusty smell, its stiff weight and the cracking of old glue as you open it—that is mystifying, gratifying in a way a computer screen is not. To hold an old book is to hold history in your hands, not only in the words on the pages but in the book itself.
No one can tell you about this better than Willman Spawn. The honorary curator of bookbinding for Bryn Mawr’s rare book collection in Canaday Library, Spawn has made a career recording and studying the nuances of American bookbinding from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As a result he has identified the works of more than 100 different binders throughout history.
One of BMC’s most bookish characters
Spawn’s office at the end of a hallway in Canaday’s basement is testimony to this lifelong enterprise: his three tiny rooms, fit for a wizard, are stuffed from floor to ceiling with files, boxes, stacks of papers, cabinets, shelves, and of course, books. He can retrieve one specific piece of paper among thousands in a few seconds.
For him, bookbinding research is not only a career but a calling he has answered since his teen-age years in the ’30s. “The Smithsonian bindery,” says Spawn, “was located at the Washington Zoo, which was very close to my high school. So on my way home from school I used to stop at the zoo and talk to the binder there. He’s the man who taught me about bookbinding. He was a hand binder, and he used to say that he could pick up any book in the Smithsonian collection and know who the binder was by the way it was bound.”
Spawn has followed in his mentor’s footsteps. From the time he began his career as a full-time bookbinder in 1948, he’s kept a record of every book he found of interest—thousands of them. “And as you see,” Spawn says, “they’re all in files here, here and all along there—three rooms all filled. I’ve got 20,000 records. I just went on and on.”
And he’s still going on and on, although he will tell you he retired in 1985 when he left his 37-year post as a book restorer and paper conservator at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. He came to Bryn Mawr shortly after, in search “of a place to hang my hat.” His first curatorial assignment was the Maser Collection, an assemblage of American books from the 19th century. His most recent assignment was curating the exhibition, “It’s the Ticket: Nineteenth-Century Bookbindings in the British Isles and the United States,” on display in the Rare Book Room in Canaday this year.
In bookbinding, “ticket” refers to a label stamped or pasted on the inside cover, often of a bright color, identifying the shop that bound the book. Tickets allow bookbinding researchers like Spawn to link books to their binders; in Spawn’s words, a ticket lets you “zero in” on a book’s past. But many books—especially early American books, Spawn’s specialty—are not ticketed. In such cases researchers are forced to link books to their binders by recording, studying and eventually identifying cover designs commonly used in certain shops and locations, an involved and scholarly process Spawn likens to “a detective game.”
Research an art in itself
Many books from the 18th and 19th centuries were bound in leather, sheep being the most common kind. Patterns on covers and spines were created when binders pressed hot metal tools onto damp leather, where they left their impressions in reverse. Rolls, brass wheels mounted on long wooden handles, created continuous patterns such as vines, flowers, lines, ribbons, or Greek keys as they revolved. Stamps, single designs engraved on the base of a small brass shank attached to a wooden handle, were used to decorate corners, the centers of covers, and spines.
Rolls and stamps were produced by the thousands, each hand-cut and thus as unique as a fingerprint. Spawn in a 1983 essay* declared, “One of my favorite stamps is the late eighteenth-century design I call the ‘Bird in the Bush,’ cut in two versions. In one the tail goes up, in the other the tail goes down. Would that all tools were as easy to distinguish from each other as these!” Indeed, in “It’s the ticket,” pages from tool catalogues demonstrate these barely perceptible differences. Some designs look so similar that the only way to determine how they differ is to use a 10-unit divider, a special ruler that measures in miniscule units.
Rubbing through history
The impressions that rolls and stamps left on bindings created a topography that, just like gravestones, lends itself to rubbings. Rubbing is an ancient art first developed in China. Museums often preserve rubbings of gravestones and other stone carvings, and many books have been published on the art of making rubbings. Rubbings of bindings are no less artistically valuable. Done with a graphite or carbon wax pencil on very thin paper, the impressed designs appear blank while the rest of the raised surface of the leather appears black. Under glass, rubbings of old bindings like the ones in “It’s the Ticket” have an eerie quality of movement, like the surface of still water at night, moonlight through branches in winter or shadows on snow.
When making a rubbing, Spawn demonstrates the same intensity and concentration a sculptor does when molding a shape. His arms form a protective circle above the book. His nose is inches from the tissue paper, his fingers are poised, and his legs are shoulder-width apart. “The most important thing is to not let the paper slip. It’s not as important to color in everything nicely as it is to keep your pressure even.” He changes his direction often, angling his body around the paper.
Artistry aside, rubbings have unequivocal historic value. They are the only way to accurately reproduce a binding, its actual size and its surface condition. Spawn has arranged over four decades of rubbings chronologically and by location. He’s done rubbings in 126 libraries in the U.S. alone. “Once you get a specific rubbing, you document the library, the date, all the necessary information—who owned it, the date of ownership, the imprint, the title. You abbreviate because you’re anxious to take as little time as necessary to make the record.” He then fills individual notebooks with magnified photocopies of parts of the rubbings: spines, corners, covers, edges. These blown-up details are suitable for flipping through binders quickly when searching for a match to a particular design or tool.
Keeping such diligent records has allowed Spawn not only to trace books to their binders but to conjecture about life in the 18th century. In a paper*, he noted that his Philadelphia records for the early part of the 18th century were a third the size of his Boston records from the same period: Early Boston printing is full of catechisms, psalm books, church platforms and convenants, and sermons, all the apparatus of established religion. It seems clear that the Massachusetts theocracy depended on the printed word to inform, educate and ultimately control its adherents. In contrast, the Quaker theocracy was anti-establishment, depending on religious enthusiasm and oral witnessing. The tight control by the committee of overseers of the press, the only press in the colony, must have discouraged publishing. Until the addition of a second press in 1723, there cannot have been any ‘freedom of the press’ as we understand the term.
Binderies themselves adhered to the traditional master/journeyman/apprentice custom. In the colonies, the standard shop consisted of a master, his family and an indentured servant who apprenticed for seven years or until he turned 21. When business was good, journeymen binders were hired to work for wages.
Binding by Mawrters
It seems that not many women were binding books in their own shops in the early colonies, although according to Spawn “there was a great interest in bookbinding at the turn of the 20th century, and we have some very fine examples of binding done by Bryn Mawrters.” Elizabeth M. Utley Thomas ’03, for instance, bound books professionally from 1904-1907. Several titles, including her edition of Marcus Aurelius’s writings, have been carefully preserved and boxed on a shelf in the basement of Canaday. Though almost 100 years old, these books appear to have never been opened. Her most remarkable book is bound in white and silver silk and features handmade paper. Such painstaking handiwork, however, is no longer necessary in the bookbinding industry: The binding of books has been mechanized. Says Spawn, “there are books that are printed, bound and wrapped without ever being touched by a human hand. ” He laments the loss of the skills that used to be required to bind and decorate books, the skills that technology has replaced. He wrote in 1983*: We are so accustomed—may I say inured—to technological change that it seems incredible to contemplate a craft in which for hundreds of years no change at all took place. It is almost soothing to consider the continuous flow of binders from one shop to another.
Technology has also affected bookbinding research. In a roundtable discussion last fall Spawn’s colleague Thomas Kinsella, assistant professor of British literature at Stockton College in New Jersey, discussed how digital cameras and the internet provide researchers with a “more gentle” way of conducting their business: Researchers can examine photos of bindings and tickets that have been posted on the web instead of handling—and thus possibly altering—old books themselves.
According to Kinsella, Bryn Mawr’s rare book collection houses enough information on bookbinding to have many more exhibits. But with the end of “It’s the Ticket,” he and Spawn are turning their focus, appropriately, towards publishing that information. “Willman has all this knowledge in his head,” says Kinsella, “and we need to get it out onto paper.”
* “The Evolution of American Binding Styles in the Eighteenth Century,” Bookbinding in America: 1680-1910, Bryn Mawr College Library, 1983.
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