The above write-up treats books as concepts. Let me get a little more detailed about the history of books as physical objects. The paperbacks and hardbacks we are so familiar with today are the product of evolutionary change, fads and fashions, and the random mixing of cultural influences. The history of the modern book is primarily a European one, though many of the techniques and materials were invented elsewhere.
Evolution of the Codex
In ancient Greece and Rome, literature was stored in scrolls. Today, we tend to picture scrolls as unrolling from top to bottom, with the text in a continuous line. Like this.
/ \ \
| | | |
| \ / /
| writing writing |
| writing writing |
| writing writing |
| writing writing |
| / \ \
| |__| |
\ / /
That's not the way it worked. Rather, scrolls were held horizontally, and rolled up on the left as they were unrolled on the right. Text was written in blocks separated by columns of white space. Although this method wasted a little papyrus, it was much easier to write on and read from a scroll that wasn't unravelling on one's lap.
/ \ / \
| |_____________________________| |
| | | |
| | one block of a second blo | |
| | writing one ck of writin | |
| | block of wri g a second b | |
| | ting one blo lock of writ | |
| __ | ck of writin ing a second | __ |
|/| \| g one block block of wri |/ |\|
| |_/ of writing.. ting........ \_| |
Scrolls are hard to store - they squash easily. When you put them in tubes to stop that, the resultant cylinders were a pain to stack. Sometime in the first century after Christ, someone had the brilliant idea of folding the scrolls in the white margins. Fan-folding a scroll makes a rectangular block, which almost invites stitching along one side.
The next development was to write on both sides of each page, and fold it into signatures for stitching. The advantage of that approach was that they needed smaller pieces of whatever material they made the books out of. This meant that rather than importing expensive papyrus from Egypt, they could use parchment from a nearby sheep. This was the classic first-century codex, the ancestor of every book on your shelves.
Books Through the Centuries
Book design took centuries to change from the codex form into something more familiar. Bookbinders tend to be conservative even now - in medieval times, they were even more wary of new techniques which might threaten the sacred duty of the preservation of knowledge. Different geographical areas tried things out at different times, and practices tended to spread slowly from centres of innovation. Still, a general summary of European book design in each century shows the slow evolution of the modern book. (All dates are AD.)
- First - Third Centuries
No books remain from this period, and descriptions are rare, so we have no idea how long the idea of the codex took to spread through the Roman Empire.
- Fourth Century
The Coptic form was well-established, with signatures joined by rows of chain-stitching and connected to wooden boards. As more books were made of parchment or vellum, which tend to cockle and buckle, the wooden covers became more important for large books (smaller ones were bound into limp bookbindings). Ties were often fastened to the heads and tails of the covers to hold the book closed when unused. Author and title information was recorded on the covers of books, and on the fore edges of pages. Books were stored lying flat, or fore-edge out on shelves.
The first use of colour on the edges of the pages occurred in the fourth century. The technique is still in use today.
- Fifth - Eighth Centuries
Books were covered in vellum, leather, or tawed skins (skins treated with alum and salt rather than tanned). No attempt was made to stick the covering material to the spines of the books. Leather thongs or other materials were often glued to the boards before covering, so that the final surface was moulded over the raised portions. All animal surfaces (leather, vellum, and tawed skins) were decorated by blind tooling, a technique that is still in use now.
- Ninth Century
The first major innovation in bookbinding arose - sewing on exposed cords, where signatures were attached to leather thongs or cords rather than simply chain-stiched together. Wooden covers were laced onto the books with the ends of the thongs.
- 10th CenturyTenth - Eleventh Centuries
Sewing on cords was made easier by the invention of the sewing frame, which tensioned the thongs before the signatures were attached. This made for even book blocks.
- Twelfth Century
The 1100's saw the pace of change in bookbinding increase. Italian binders began working with a new material whose manufacture had just arrived from China - paper. The new material was easier to work with and cheaper than parchment, but it was also more fragile. Binders began to make header tape to protect the tops of the pages at the spine, stitching it into the signatures.
- Thirteenth Century
Italian papermakers continued to innovate, adding designs to their deckles to create watermarks. Binders refined the flexible style, attaching the covering material to spines for the first time. They used a technique of tying up to emphasise the leather thongs.
In the Islamic world, gold tooling was introduced to decorate covers.
- Fourteenth Century
Designs on the edges of pages became more elaborate, with ornamentation added to the titles on fore edges. Toward the end of the century, leather began to replace other materials as the standard covering. Cut leather designs began to gain popularity, particularly in Germany.
- Fifteenth Century
By this time, leather was well-established as the normal covering material for books, though fabric was increasingly common in fancy bindings. It was still cut, moulded, and blind tooled, but could also be stamped to impress a design on it. In the 1460's, Italian binders began gilding the edges of the pages to protect them from dust damage. Within a generation, the gilded edges were being gauffered, stamped and ornamented with heated tools, and binders began to experiment with gold tooling.
- Sixteenth Century
This was when it all happened. The Renaissance and Gutenberg had a tremendous impact, as did the patronage of royalty, who set a fashion of large and elaborate libraries. King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I both had extensive book collections (Elizabeth's were all bound in coloured velvet, which was apparently quite a sight).
The structural changes to books were profound in this century. Sewing on sunken cords became popular, though false bands were often added to look like the book was still sewn on thongs. Books were rounded and backed, making them much more suitable to stand on shelves. They started to be stored spines out rather than fore edge out, and header tape, now manufactured separately, was in vogue. And wood was replaced with pasteboard in covers for the first time.
Decoration changed as well. The fashion for cut leather faded, and stamping became increasingly popular. Endpapers were introduced, either of marbeled paper or paste papers (particularly in Germany, which was known for its red and blue papers). But the largest change was the ubiquity of gold tooling (sometimes to an excess that we find tasteless now).
- Seventeenth Century
As books were stored spine-out, titling on spines began to appear. Gold tooling became more elaborate, on spines and covers. There was a fad for edge paintings, visible only when the pages of the book were fanned out slightly.
- Eighteenth Century
This century was dominated more by consolidation of techniques than by innovation. Wove paper, without the lines of laid paper, was introduced. At the end of the century, binders in France introduced the hollow back book, where the spine cover moves separately from the book spine itself.
- Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century saw Great Britain's binding industry catch up with, and eventually pass, the rest of the world. British binders adopted the hollow back book and abandoned wooden boards entirely. Apart from a brief fad for moulded papier mache, covers were exclusively pasteboard. The Victorian passion for invention saw the guilloutine introduced to trim pages faster than the traditional plough, and the patenting of the first form of perfect binding. Half binding and quarter binding became common to feed the growing market for books.
The late Nineteenth century saw a nostalgic trend in fine binding, led by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. The Arts and Crafts ideas of simplicity and handcrafting led to a re-introduction of flexible bindings, combined with delicate gold tooling and colourful marbeled papers.
- Twentieth Century
Twentieth-century books can be divided into two classes, mass-market bindings and fine bindings. Mass-market volumes were generally entirely machine-made. After the 1930's, paperbacks were commonly manufactured with perfect bindings, whose adhesives improved steadily after World War II. Hardcover books were either perfect bound or signature sewn, with hollow backs and French grooves.
In fine binding, which was done exclusively by hand, the last century saw the introduction of contemporary artistic trends into binding styles for the first time. Previously, binders had lagged about half a century behind painters, but most modern artistic schools have been immediately reflected in binding. This is probably a result of the increasing rise of amateur binders, who don't have to play it safe to make money. Except for very thick volumes (where a hollow back was necessary), professional fine bindings generally used the flexible style with raised cords and tight joints. Amateurs were much more experimental, using a variety of styles.
Source: The British Library Guide to Bookbinding, by PJM Marks, The British Library Press, 1998.