Classic rounded back binding is the epitome of a sturdy binding that holds up well against the ravages of time/use and will be the featured binding of this post. This post also marks the last installment of my series about examples of bindings found in Gleeson Library’s Rare Book Room. Thanks to John Hawk, Head of Special Collections, and Brianna Cockett-Mamiya, Reference Department Student Assistant, for helping make these photographs possible.
When discussing classic rounded back binding, there are three primary aspects of anatomy to be considered: its characteristic rounded spine, the way the boards (or covers) are laced in, and its dutiful and often ornate headbands and tailbands.
The spines of sewed books often swell due to the extra mass of thread and folded edge of the signatures, as well as the pressure from the boards being fitted into the joints and laced in. In these cases, it’s preferable for the swell to create a rounded spine with a concave fore edge because it takes pressure off the hinges and provides the joints in which to fit in the boards. This all leads to longevity. Around the year 1500, bookbinders realized this, and started to deliberately round spines, which is done by placing the sewn textblock in a metal press or vise and gradually pushing the spine into a rounded shape with a hammer. Once the rounding is completed, the spine is backed (often done to even out the valleys between the cords and produce a flat spine), which includes adhering a tube-like device that will allow a hollow of space between the spine and the spine cover, once it is covered.
As I mentioned, when the spine is rounded, it folds over on either edge just enough to create joints in which to insert the boards that make the covers. In this scenario, the hard case is not made separately and then glued in like in flat back hard case binding; each board has holes and grooves bored through it, and the cords around which the textblock are sewn are left long enough to be threaded through the holes/grooves, fanned out, and glued down on the inside of the board. The rounding, backing, and lacing in the boards is called forwarding—basically getting the book ready for its final covering and decoration.
After the book is forwarded, the headband and tailband are sewn in, which strengthens the sewing of the textblock, provides protection to the edges, and serves the aesthetic appeal of the book. Then the entire book—boards and spine—is covered with cloth or leather and the endsheets are pasted down, completing the binding. I invite you to read more about the process and its history on my blog.
Shakespeare’s sonnets. Introduced and edited by Helen Vendler; published by Arion Press (San Francisco)
Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there. By Lewis Carroll, with fifty illustrations by John Tenniel. First edition, 1872.
In case you missed my previous posts on styles of bindings found in the Rare Book Room, you can view them here. Are there styles of bindings about which you’re curious? If so, leave a comment and I’ll investigate for you.