April 29

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (April 29, 1769).

“He also carries on the BOOK-BINDING Business.”

Edward Jones took out an advertisement in the Providence Gazette on April 29, 1769. His advertisement was for “A VARIETY of useful and entertaining BOOKS” as well as his specialty in bookbinding. Bookbinding was a very interesting career choice because it was far from a simple job. In order to become a practicing bookbinder Jones had to go through years of apprenticeship that required “hard work, dexterity, attention to detail, and a willingness and ability to handle painstaking tasks,” according to Ed Crews. However, it was a great trade to have because books were so popular and seen as a status item since they were typically expensive and demonstrated that the owner was wealthy and educated. Yet there was one book that many colonists owned that would go through quite a bit of wear and tear, the Bible. It is likely that there was a large demand for repairing bibles, as they were used frequently.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

When customers purchased many of Jones’s “useful and entertaining BOOKS,” they likely did not acquire items that consumers would recognize as books today. In many cases they did not buy bound volumes but instead purchased books still in sheets. They then delivered those sheets to a bookbinder’s shop, where they could make decisions about the binding to fit their tastes and budget. In other words, customers who purchased Brady’s Psalms or Watts’s Hymns did not end up with matching volumes in their homes. They did purchase the same printed material, but their own decisions about binding resulted in different final products.

Ed Crews describes assembling books as akin to “constructing a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.” Broadly speaking, the process required two steps: forwarding and finishing. Forwarding, Crews explains, “generally involved arranging pages so they could be turned and examined.” Recall that customers purchased books in sheets. That meant that many pages were printed out of order on each side of large sheet that, when folded, ended up with the pages in the correct order. Once the pages had been folded in these closed signatures, bookbinders stitched them together and then “put a protective cover on them, typically fashioned of leather from calves, sheep or deer. At this point, the signatures (or folded pages) were cut open so readers could view every page. Already the decisions about the leather cover produced different appearances for volumes that contained the same text, but the decoration that comprised the finishing further distinguished them from each other. Finishing “could include lettering as well as design work” created with heated tools that stamped or imprinted designs into the leather covers. Bookbinders had a lot of responsibility. Not only did their work require artistry, it also required that they produce durable products. Crews notes the many ways that colonists handled their books: the structure “had to allow for repeated openings and closings, page fanning and tugging, falls to the floor, and being pulled from a shelf by a finger hooked on a spine.”

Today most consumers put little thought into the bindings of most books they buy, beyond choosing between hardcover and paperback editions. Colonial consumers, however, faced far more choices. They interacted not only with booksellers but also often with bookbinders who transformed the printed sheets they purchased into unique volumes according to consumers’ wishes.