Once there was a book…

This is Spinal Tap

What makes a book? Beyond the author’s writing, plotting, and even their very idea for the story, what really makes a book exist? Ignoring the text within, you’re left with the skeleton of the book, the bare bones that hold it together and support the story inside. These bones, or elements, can tell us a lot about when the book was made and what sorts of materials were around for the bookbinder to use, especially when what is called ‘binder’s waste’ becomes visible. Binder’s waste is the leftover or repurposed material from broken or discarded books that bookbinder’s use to make new ones.

Spine with rip on lower half.

Spine with rip on lower half.

Mrs. Gatty’s Legendary Tales by Mrs. Alfred Gatty. 1858, London: Bell and Daldy. 23h8345


Take, for instance, this copy of Mrs. Gatty’s Legendary Tales by Mrs. Alfred Gatty that was published in 1858. As you can see, the spine is made out of pressed cloth that has been embellished with gilt, a style that was popular during the 19th century. The spine, however, has been torn slightly away from the rest of the book so when you lift the flap you can see what materials the bookbinder used when binding the leaves of Mrs. Gatty’s Legendary Tales together.

Binder's waste visible once the spine is exposed.

Binder’s waste visible once the spine is exposed.

Mrs. Gatty’s Legendary Tales by Mrs. Alfred Gatty. 1858, London: Bell and Daldy. 23h8345


Look at the paper that lines the inside of the flap. It appears to be a page from another text that seems to be outlining symptoms for a health malady as well as possible treatments. This is neat and scholars love to study what was considered book waste by binders and re-used to glue together another book. It’s not every day you get to see how people might have treated (what I’m guessing is) night terrors in the 1850s! Besides the fun glimpse into the past, this book also has another instance of binder’s waste that can be seen on the exposed spine that is an even cooler find. This warped piece of paper could have possibly been a part of an advertisement or catalog for clothing and linens as seen by the various blurbs about “Yacht jackets,” “has been manufactured…pocket,” “this is really an in-,”and “pillows.” There is also an illustration of a hat and a man wearing a different style hat. You can just imagine men and women from the 19th century leafing through this catalog, maybe looking for a new coat or hat for the winter.

This material culture of the book is extremely important not only for teaching purposes, but also because it shows the organic nature of the book and how it was created. Paratextual elements like these help bring the past to life and allows us a better understanding of the world this book existed in.

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One comment on “This is Spinal Tap

  1. Pingback: Keep it in the Family? | Once there was a book...

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2014 by in Children's Literature, Paratexts and tagged , , .
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