Today, the title of a bookbinding is almost certain to be found on its spine, it may also find its way onto the front cover and of course on its dust jacket, if it has one.
But it wasn’t always so. Early examples of bookbinding, from the 15th & 16th centuries, were not always designed to sit on a book shelf in the manner we see today, often they were placed on their sides with the front edge (foredge) facing out, and in these instances the title, and perhaps the incipit (opening lines), were written or painted directly onto the foredge of the bookbinding.
The use of gold leaf in bookbinding emerged from 15th century Italy and titling in gold leaf soon became the norm for books bound in leather.
Early titling was carried out by means of individual letters cut in brass or iron, and mounted onto a wooden handle, these “handle letters” are still made today for those involved in bookbinding.
Each letter of the title was sighted and impressed into the leather one at a time, and it is very common to find titles that are uneven.
There are two aspects of bookbinding titling using this method that make this process superior.
Firstly, titling using genuine gold leaf results in an image which is will not tarnish or degrade over time. Secondly because each letter is impressed into the leather, the surface of the gold leaf is protected from wear through abrasion.
Many a bookbinding had labels instead of being titled directly onto the spine, which is acceptable provided the label is mounted and glued to the spine, and the titling carried out directly onto the label.
However today, and in the past, it was found to be quicker to title the labels and then mount and glue them to the spine, this proved to be bad practice, as in rubbing the label down when mounting onto the spine, the impression gets flattened out, and then the title is subject to wear through abrasion.
Titling using handle letters was found to be very time consuming, quite who it was who invented the “type holder” we will probably never know, but they were being widely used in 19th century binderies, the earliest example I know of is on display at the People’s Story Museum, Canongate, Edinburgh.
A type holder is a metal box like compartment set on the end of a short wooden handle. Used for holding separate type sufficient to make up a few words. There is a thumb-screw for holding letters securely in the box.
This device enabled the binder to impress one or more words at a time, and with its use, gone were the days of the uneven title, of course if the binder got it wrong, the whole line of the title would be out of square.
Today, a bookbinding which has been mass produced would be titled by machine using gold foil, which, though it has none of the virtues of gold leaf, does enable very rapid titling of books.
Gold foil is also used with the type holder in craft bookbinding, when titling inexpensive books.
By Richard Norman
write by Oralie