Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Suave Mechanicals, Volume 1: Essays on the History of Bookbinding

Julia Miller (Editor). Suave Mechanicals, Volume 1: Essays on the History of BookbindingAnn Arbor, Michigan: Legacy Press, 2013-. ISBN  0979797454 9780979797453. 538 pages + DVD. $85.00.

Reviewed by Deborah Howe

Picking up the volume of Suave Mechanicals is serious business. Not only is it robust and heavy in physical weight, a well-rounded three and a half pounds, but it contains nine densely academic book history essays which take the reader into a detailed appreciation of what books can tell us when we pay attention and listen. Being a practitioner and not a scholar, I was a bit intimidated to agree to write this review (I thank Peter Verheyen for that), but none the less I was challenged and invigorated by the ways in which this volume creates new pathways and foundational research into our field of book history.

The title of this book is taken from the exhibition of the same name, Suave Mechanicals, held at the University of Michigan in 2003 and curated by the author. In Barlett's review of the exhibit posted 5/1/2003 she says:
The exhibit title is Julia Miller's riff on Shakespeare's characterization of the amateur actors in A Midsummer Night's Dream as "rude mechanicals." It sums up her view of these books as information machines with moving parts that are also objects of sophisticated beauty – that are "suave" – like Cary Grant... with a little age, a little patina, a real character of beauty.
Each chapter in Millers book represents a "Mechanical," with a unique story. Yet much of the research intersects, producing a multi-faceted narrative, many of the stories supporting each other in tangent fashion. Seven of the nine essays concern investigations into a specific collection of books; Evyn Kropf, Sylvie L. Merian, Consuela (Chela) Metzger, Julia Miller, Martha E. Romero, Jennifer W. Rosner and John Townsend, the other two essays, Robert J. Milevski and Jeffrey S. Peachey, focus on a part of book history production.

Reading the table of contents, it appears that the chapters were ordered as an alphabetical list by author and I read them as such. But by the conclusion of the book I think it would better serve the reader to arrange them in a thematic fashion, ordering them so that essays that pair well together would be read succinctly. The similarities would have a continuous reflective flow and would give the book a more united cohesiveness by the conclusion.

In reviewing these essays I have associated them into my own sub groups as I saw parallels, overlaps and associations.

Three of the essays focus on collections that are outside of the American tradition.

Islamic, Armenian and Mexican:

In her essay Kropf focuses on the repair of the books as opposed to how they were bound. Her scholarly approach to the 245 items examined from a collection of 1,090 illustrates the “phenomena observed” in the repair techniques of her study group. The books are from the Islamic manuscript collection at the University of Michigan dating from the ninth to twentieth century CE with texts primarily in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. It is one of the largest collections of such material in North America. The current ongoing cataloging of this collection includes notes stating the types of repair and whether or not it was performed by a craftsman or layperson from the Islamic tradition. Kropf emphasizes the various nuances in describing this new nomenclature; such as the difference between an original wrapper made for an unsewn text block versus a previous cover being reused for a wrapper for a text block that has come unsewn. She references the use of Martha Little's "Evidence of Structure and Procedure in Books: Selected Examples of Potential Clues" as a helpful resource when trying to decode, record and establish the history of a book through physical evidence. This level of description is a valuable reinforcement of how important this detailed information is to the development and comprehension of the history of the book. Kropf and the cataloging team have approached this project in all the right ways.

For a student of Islamic studies or someone with a cursory knowledge of Islamic history, Kropf’s writing will be a delightful read; she highlights vocabulary for specific Arabic words often giving the English/Arabic equivalents such as: Mudarris, meaning teacher and a particular type of paper, Talhi, made in Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, named after a ruler of the time. These details enrich the essay and help establish the foundation on which her research is predicated.

A refrain that is reiterated throughout this volume is the awareness for the necessity of more research, continuing on the efforts presented here. Kropf solicits suggestions for new venues of research based on her preliminary findings. For the new generations of conservator/scholars or for those of us mature practitioners, who are so inclined, this direct call to duty is stimulating and reminds us of our critical role in perceiving and recording these clues to the past.

Merian’s article focuses on the unusual additions to the covers of Armenian bindings often found between the 17th and 19th century on Christian religious texts which were often gospels. She then explores the history, cultural background, and modern significance of these books. Then systematically illustrates examples of all the different shapes of amulets she has found such as: oval shapes, like that of an "evil eye," hands, faces, coins and engraved seal stones. As she goes through each type of amulet she vividly describes the text and books on which they are mounted, often connecting together the content of the books with why they may have certain types of amulets attached to them. We are familiar with crosses being attached to bindings but as Merian states, these are used as a decorative component. The items she is studying are inferred to be a form of votive offering, placed randomly over the covers, which makes these bindings so interesting.

Many of the mounted objects are in the shape of an eye, "the evil eye" that Merian explains extensively by delving into the Armenian culture and the significance of what it is to have "the evil eye;" it’s not something I would have expected to read in a book about books but it does provide a refreshing diversion to the focused and concentrated study of the books themselves.

She incorporates surveys done by doctors and ethnographers to ascertain current beliefs in the evil eye and reveals how these soldiers of power have been decorated to protect and fortress homes, bodies and even towns and are considered as talisman. The Red Gospels, Karmir Awedaran, hold special power and are thought to work miracles. One of my favorite notes of interest was an example of giving human attributions to these books in the form of kidnappings and then being held for ransom – if a book was kidnapped it was recorded in the colophon.

What I wish to know more about is where or who would have made these objects, and where one might have purchased or obtained them. Merian suggests that for the most part these are only appearing on bindings but could they have also been attached to other items that had power or reverence within the family or church. Some of the images reminded me of the Mexican Milagros found attached to altars to aid in healing.

Since I was not familiar with these types of bindings before, I found the accompanying photos rich in detail. They covered all aspects of her research, even showing these books in the hands of current owners. The footnotes are more than citations and provide the reader with additional relevant information and fascinating details of these amazing books.

In Romero’s chapter we learn that Mexico was the first location of a printing press on the American continent in 1539 with the aim to accelerate the evangelization of the indigenous people. Drawing on a collection of 47 books, printed in Mexico and located in a variety of collections, Romero forms a vision of what publishing and book production was like at the cusp of printing in the "New Spain."

She brings the reader into the streets and the times, where the mix of cultures blended and different races existed side by side, where all text printed had to be approved by the ecclesiastical and vice-regal authorities and every detail of commerce was recorded by the Casa de Contratacion, the agency that kept tight records on what was being imported. This useful information is critical for her study, as she can conclude from it what types of supplies were being shipped. This included types of books, details on how they were bound or not bound, paper coming from Italy and France, these supply inventories reflected what was needed in the new society. They establish what was cheaper to import versus making products from raw materials and considers the question whether or not there was available skilled labor to even produce products. Perhaps these accounts and supply inventories are recorded in ledger or account books which we learn about later in Metzger’s chapter, were they bound in Mexico or shipped over already bound? Once again these types of connections between the essays enrich and create a new broader understanding of the commerce and economic development of the book trade on the American continent.

It is assumed that a book carrying the Mexico imprint was also bound in Mexico. But not many books survived, since they would have been in high demand and received heavy use. Romero breaks the process of binding down step by step, so a reader only somewhat familiar with the binding processes will be able to follow along. The folding of signatures, beating (which we can reference Peachey), endsheet construction, sewing and then lacing on the covers with the variant patterns, all of this she examines with detail and links it with possible European influences, trying to decipher fact with what may be conjecture. Many of the books in the study group are limp vellum showing various styles of lacing techniques, which can help determine the different European influences. The techniques of binding were carried over on the ships by binders and publishers but since New Spain was a mix of all types of peoples there were varied influences on the bindings being produced. Once the book trade established itself in New Spain, there was a need for more bookbinders, this in turn allowed for more adaptations and permutation of technique as the new Mexican binders developed their own styles.

I think as more books are discovered that have been bound in Mexico at this time, Romero, or other scholars, will be able to form more conclusive and definitive facts on how this new society absorbed or rejected those traditions which were carried over from the establishing cultures. We see this same type of dynamic in Metzger, Miller and Townsend, where the examination of Colonial development in America reflects the development of the book trade, such as how printers had to play more than one role and were often the binders and sales men and how local materials were adapted (scaleboard bindings: Miller and Townsend) because other materials were costly to import. What is insightful is that Romero’s study puts Mexico on the map in the history of bookbinding development and is pivotal in examining how a new society grew and developed in regards to its book production.

The American Way:

The next group of essays focuses on book production in America, although there is ample background discussion on the traditions in London and Europe and how they swayed and influenced binding in America. The books examined in this group range from what I would call the street urchins of the time, (Metzger, Miller and Townsend) to the luxury elite society bindings of  papier-mâché or mother of pearl, (Rosner).

The unique world of account books is discussed by Metzger, who examined 63 account books from the Winterthur Library that were produced pre-1800. The beginning of the essay takes us on a brief journey into the history of accounting, where the significant influence of single or double entry or "In the Italian Fashion," was critical in how account books were designed and issued. Book keeping was an elementary aspect of the basic teaching principles, like that of reading and writing. Metzger does a meticulous job in describing the realm of blank book and stationers shops versus the industry of publishing. She uses and refers to standard references of definitions and defines these usages for the reader such as: a blank book is one intended to be written in. The overall sensation and essence of the climate in which these account books were bought, used, and passed on is aptly relayed to the reader through Metzger’s descriptions.

The second part of her essay summarizes comprehensive observations of a select few from the 63, introducing us to the owners and what they wrote, along with descriptions of unique physical attributes from the bindings themselves. These are divided into two groups: "bound in England or in America with the English technique" and the second group, those "likely to be bound in the Colonies." Metzger like Romero is developing the research and background on a pivotal point in the development of the book trade and commerce by studying books bound at this time. It is exactly this type of investigation that is needed to establish important contexts and connections in book history.

The descriptions are intimate, Metzger’s passion and admiration for these books is tangible giving the reader an opportunity to discover a new appreciation of these well-loved and used bindings. She gives as much detail to the contents and owners as to the bindings. Account books were often used for writing personal information, and through Metzger’s eye we see the beauty and grace of each binding and how it bears witness to its time and place. The fact that an account book may travel though many generations of a family and what that family did, as illustrated by Preserved Pierce, who had a boat selling house hold wares, stimulates the reader whereby they might be inclined to take a closer look and find out more about the people within the pages.

Miller and Townsend go hand in hand in describing the setting of the times and reviewing the style of books we know as scaleboard bindings. These are simple no frills simple bindings, using wood for the boards, often covered in plain, sometimes blue paper with very little decoration. These rough bindings have gone unnoticed in the past, not drawing too much attention to themselves. Miller has taken the initiative and has recognized the significance of these, true Sauve Mechanicals, and has brought them out into the limelight to expose their intrinsic value and role in the development of our culture. Describing the various nuances and styles she finds throughout her survey group of 858 books, which derive from six collections, she concludes that perhaps these bindings were mainly produced in Boston and then sent out to the surrounding environs. The number of accompanying photos is extensive and compliments her narrative. Within her essay she compiles a list of firsts; these citations earmark the first date of an example of a particular element, such as: stuck on end bands or gold tooling. There is also a "Scaleboard Binding Typology Survey Form" (long). This is not only practical as a reference guide but it is a tool which can be immediately incorporated into a conservator’s repertoire of documentation.

She acknowledges and evaluates the lack of truly important scholarly work that focuses on the aspect of bindings rather than the history of the decorations. In order to enforce these aspects she says "the history of the book trade in any country is of importance – what people read, what they wanted to read, what they were allowed to read – all enter into the development not only of the reading culture of a particular country but also the social cultural and political life and development of that country." Her goal is to teach and inform us and she asks the reader: "Do you know more about scaleboard binding than you did when you began reading?" I would emphatically say yes, and therefore am fulfilling her first goal.

Townsend’s study group is a narrow one, examining six bindings of the same imprint of the Mohawk Prayer Book, 1715, printed by William Bradford. He is able to establish provenance of some of the copies and comes to conclusions that these are original bindings done by the printer himself, William Bradford. Townsend's echoes much of Miller's descriptive narrative, but he examines some aspects in more detail such as how the boards were fashioned. (with help from Peachey’s research). What he brings to this study by examining such a defined group is the opportunity to really scrutinize a very particular moment in history. His writing is fluid and conversational; it’s easy to follow along his journey in tracking down and examining his books. He is pragmatic and yet engages the reader on a level that is both enjoyable and inquisitive; it’s a bit like solving a mystery.

From the plain everyday simple domestic life of the colonial books, in Rosner’s essay we are transported forward in time into the bustling streets of New York and Philadelphia, where the middle class is tantalized daily with exquisite imports and shimmering objects. These bindings are all about show and finesse. Rosner, started seeing these bindings at the Library Company, where she is the conservator, and realized not much had been written about them. Her essay gives us a thorough background into the development of these book covers, the companies which produced them and how they transformed from an object product to book covers. These could be considered gaudy by some, but I find them beautiful and the vast array of photos only reinforces their splendor. This is an essay about a very select type of binding that was produced for a very short time in the 1850’s for a targeted audience. Rosner takes her study a step further by producing a set of covers herself. Following instructions intended for "ladies" of the time, she explains step by step her experiences and shares the resulting papier-mâché covers. This particular aspect of her essay I find refreshing as it is something that I could envision trying myself and by doing so I would experience firsthand the complexities of such an item that is part of our historical story.

Process and Labels:

I had never really considered the beating process, one of the "three formative elements of bookbinding" until I took Peachey’s class on “Late 18th Century French Binding Structure" taught at the Paper and Book Intensive in 2010. We see the evidence of hammering and beating illustrated in the many images of historical binderies, which Peachey aptly shows us in his many photos, but this process is not taught anymore. The essay does an excellent job in portraying the history and reasoning behind this process, from the first days of hammering to the last days of pressing and rolling, he highlights in details all aspects of this critical process in our book production history. If you are already familiar with his blog, http://jeffpeachey.wordpress.com, you will know that he is our leading expert in all ways of the tools of our trade and his research on them has been an enormous contribution to the surrounding history and development of the book trade.

His descriptions are so vivid that after reading this essay I felt tired from imagining the amount of force and arm strength required to produce the required compression of signatures. As book conservators we are trained to handle these books with care and a gentle touch and yet knowing how they were produced under such harsh circumstances one gets a very new perspective. After doing this myself, it is amazing the difference in the feel of a text block after it has been beaten, I think we feel this intuitively because of all the books we handle, but to actually go through the process is to know it, and understand and see the affects it has on the finished product.

I think everyone interested in the production of books should try beating, as far I am aware it’s not taught anymore and I’m not sure why not. Perhaps my colleagues at North Bennet Street School may be able to change that!

What I enjoyed about Rosner’s and Peachey’s essays was the practical side of them. Each author took the time to investigate actually performing the task at hand.

The last essay to discuss is "A Primer on Signed Bindings" by Milevski. This topic explores naming proprietorship of the binder of the book. The beginning outlines bindings that are signed directly into the cover; it takes a good eye to find the often hidden, signed stamp and Milevski shows us with detailed blow ups where these signatures are. As he moves forward in time he describes how these "signed" bindings become labels often used as advertising, and referred to as binders tickets. One significant binding ticket was found under a paste down and Milevski states this is one of the earliest known binder’s labels. He goes into detail of the many types of tickets with brief summaries of who the binders were and how the labels were produced. The many variations are wonderful to look at including his selection of foreign binders’ tickets. The more interesting labels are those which are quite explicit in an advertising sense, describing different services offered or "Likewise Books Bound after what manner you please."

Each chapter in this volume stands alone, however as a whole they complement each other so well that the cumulative information casts a wide and deep net. The chapters tie together within each topic and yet the cross over is thought-provoking and informative, going from beating books in Mexico (Romero), to the history of this step (Peachey,), both Metzger and Milevski use the same binder ticket image, and Townsend quotes research done by Miller and Peachey. What the reader takes away from this collection is so much more than what is detailed in each essay. It is the collection together with all the various background information and detailed supportive evidence, not only derived from the books themselves but from the times in which they lived and were produced. We are taken down the main streets of the topics at hand but we are then diverted down the side streets and back alleys to the nitty-gritty.

This book highlights the need for further and continued research in these subjects. Some of the research in this volume is predicated on previous established research, especially that of Szirmai, French, Spawn, and work done by Pickwoad that is referred to often, yet in this current generation there is a pressing need to establish new research. Drawing upon the practical knowledge of conservators and practitioners who have a trained eye into the observation of these books is critical to the advancement of our understanding and comprehension of how the book shaped who we were and now, as we face a new brink of changing book distribution and production it is even more critical to reflect on past historical knowledge. This book raises the level of investigative research with an eye towards merging related topics and opening up new ones. This book is definitely a critical addition to anyone’s collection, be it that of a scholar, conservator, or a student of book history.

Townsend summarizes it well as he states at the end of his essay:
"Perhaps the best way to pursue such investigations is to forget what we know, or think we know, and approach the evidence – documentary, bibliographic, physical or cultural – with a critical eye to gain a fresh look that may lead to new conclusions."
I have a great affinity and admiration for many of these authors, as they have become my close colleagues and friends over the years, generously sharing their expertise, knowledge and good will. With their practiced insight and professional standing they have brought new discoveries and awareness to the arena of book history. This book could be used as a quick reference or as a required text in a History of Book class. It establishes a new level of scholarly research and invites each one of us to become more astute and insightful when conserving and or observing these rough jewels.

Deborah Howe is the Collections Conservator at Dartmouth College Library. Previously, she headed the conservation lab at Northwestern University Library. In addition to her conservation work she has been actively involved in teaching book arts. She has taught at Columbia Center for Paper and Book, the Newberry Library, the Paper and Book Intensive and currently binding classes at the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth. She is a long-standing member of the Guild of Book Workers and is on the board of directors of the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio.


  1. Thanks for soliciting the review Peter, and thanks to Deborah for her really useful comments on how the essays relate, and what further work is to be done!

  2. pretty suave review! Sarah E Shapleigh

  3. This is a terrific written and very well-thought out review. Thank you Deborah for your many helpful insights. While I knew I wanted the book already, now I can't wait to get a copy!