A Drunken Bookbinder in the Stacks?

Title page of Alexander Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale. Morris DA145.G66 1726 Oversize

This post was written by Henry Raine, Director of Digital Programs and Library Technical Services

Contrary to popular belief, previously unknown treasures rarely turn up in the stacks of a great research library. Most collections are cataloged, and even if they aren’t, curators, librarians and archivists tend to know what they have in their collections. The discovery of a treasure of great intrinsic value is rare, but catalogers sometimes do discover items that hold our attention for other reasons.

A recently-cataloged copy of Alexander Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale: or, A Journey Thro’ Most of the Counties of Scotland, and Those In the North of England (London, 1726) in the New-York Historical Society’s collection is a good example of one such item.

Although issued nearly three centuries ago, this isn’t a particularly rare book. The English Short Title Catalog records over 50 known copies of the book in the British Isles and North America, making it fairly common by rare book standards. It does have an interesting provenance, however: a bookplate, and a signature on the title page of the book indicate that it belonged to Lewis Morris (1698-1762), a judge and a wealthy landowner whose estate, Morrisania Manor, later became the present-day Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx. He owned a library of books that was donated to the Society by a family member in 1866.

Inscription on p. 5 at end of Itinerarium Septentrionale

But what makes this copy of the book even more interesting is an inscription in Morris’s handwriting on the last leaf, which states:“The plates in this book are in great disorder and put by a drunken workman as follows, viz …”

This inscription seems hilarious to us, but it would have been less so to the man who bought the book and who would have been understandably irritated to find out that his new purchase was defective.

Who could blame Morris for rushing to judgment? But the inscription also tells us something about how books were produced in the hand-press period, the centuries before book production became almost entirely mechanized.

Thomas McIlworth, portrait of Lewis Morris (1698-1762), oil on canvas, 1845.2

In the hand-press period, several different trades were involved in making a book. The type founder cast metal type from which the text was printed. The papermaker cut up linen rags, pounded them into a pulp, and used a mold to make paper for the book, one sheet at a time. The author or the publisher financed the printing of the book. The printer bought type and paper, and printed the book on a printing press. If the book was to be illustrated, the publisher commissioned an artist and an engraver to create the illustrations. The publisher was also involved in the book’s distribution through a network of booksellers.

Engraved illustrations were often printed separately on sheets of paper that were then bound as plates within the book, interspersed with the text. Booksellers usually sold books in sheets, unbound, so that buyers could take them to their favorite binders to have them bound in whatever way they wished, from the very simplest bindings using cheap materials to elaborate and costly leather bindings with gold tooling and marbled endpapers. Morris had his copy of Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale bound in calf with some gold tooling on the spine, but it is a fairly run-of-the-mill binding by eighteenth-century standards.

The Itinerarium Septentrionale readily demonstrates the various aspects of book production in the hand-press period that I described above. The imprint on the title page states “Printed for the Author,” indicating that in this case the author took on the role of the publisher. It continues, “and sold by G. Strahan, at the Golden-Ball, in Cornhill; J. Woodman, in Russel Street, Covent Garden; W. and J. Innys, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard; and T. Woodward, at the Half-Moon, near Temple-Bar,” which shows that the book was distributed by several booksellers in different locations in London.

Close-up of imprint on title page of Itinerarium Septentrionale

The title page also states: “The whole illustrated with sixty-six copper plates,” which means that an engraver was commissioned to print 66 illustrations on a special press used for copper plate engravings. This indicates that the Itinerarium Septentrionale was a fairly high-end book: it was a large book (about 10 x 14 ½”), in an era when paper was expensive, and it was profusely illustrated with engravings that would have cost a considerable amount of money to produce. Each illustrated plate in the book meant that an individual sheet of copper had to be engraved by hand using special tools. Each copper plate was inked, and the image was printed using a special rolling press that applied great pressure to force the ink from the grooves in the copper plate to the sheet of paper. Printing the illustrations was a completely separate operation from printing the text, and added greatly to the expense of producing the book. The cost was ultimately passed on to the customer, and in fact, Morris wrote on the title page that he paid £1.5.0 for the book, which would have been a lot of money in 1726, the equivalent of several weeks’ wages for a worker at the time.

Ownership inscription of Lewis Morris, with price paid, on title page

Returning to Morris’s inscription about the drunken workman for a moment, one has to remember that Morris would likely have bought the book unbound, as a stack of sheets of text and plates, and taken it to his favorite binder to be bound. Folding the sheets and making sure that the text read in the right order was a particular challenge for binders, many of whom barely knew how to read, so printers developed a system to ensure that everything ended up in the right sequence. Each sheet of text was printed with a letter of the alphabet called a signature; if the binder folded the sheets in a consistent way, and if he or she arranged the resulting folded sheets alphabetically according to the signatures, everything would fall in the right place.

Plate 32 of Itinerarium Septentrionale

However, for an illustrated book such as the Itinerarium Septentrionale, inserting the plates in the right location within the book further complicated the binder’s job.  The engraver sometimes numbered the plates to make the work of arranging them in the proper sequence easier, or sometimes indicated on each plate where in the book it should be inserted.  In the case of the Itinerarium Septentrionalis, the engraver numbered the plates, as you can see here in the upper right-hand corner of plate 32.

But wait; leafing through this book, an inattentive reader might think that something went terribly wrong: the plates aren’t arranged in numerical order after all, but rather, seem to be arranged in some inexplicably random order.  It would be easy to conclude, as Morris did, that they were bound in the wrong place, and that a drunken workman in the binding workshop was to blame.

So was the poor binder drunk, and was he to blame for the confusing arrangement? Apparently not; although drunken revelries in the bindery are fun to contemplate (and they may well have occurred in some workshops), closer inspection of the volume reveals that the fault actually lies with the numbering of the plates, which gives the impression that they are out of correct sequence. And why is the numbering of the plates wrong? The plates were most likely numbered sequentially and correctly at the time they were engraved, according to instructions from the author, but then the author must have changed his mind about their placement relative to the text after they were printed, when it was too late to change the numbers, with the result that the numbering ended up not being sequential.

To help the unfortunate binders who would be faced with this problem when customers brought in their books to be bound, the printer of the text added a leaf at the end of the book that listed all the plates by number, with their correct location.

List of plates, p. 5 at end of Itinerarium Septentrionale

By following the list of plates, and matching it up with the plates in the book, it’s clear that every illustration except one is actually bound in the right place in the book. Morris was mistaken in thinking that something was wrong with his copy of the book, and he ascribed blame to the wrong person. And who was this bookbinder, unfairly accused of drunkenness by Lewis Morris? We simply don’t know. Binders began to sign their work in the nineteenth century, but prior to that, most bindings were anonymous, and the names of individual binders remain lost to history.

People study old books for a variety of reasons: they may be interested in what the author wrote, but sometimes, as in this case, the annotations of a former owner and the physical structure of the book tell a more compelling story. Looking at eighteenth-century books as objects rather than simply as the containers of text and images opens our eyes to the intriguing world of printers, engravers, publishers, booksellers, bookbinders, customers, and the nature of book production in the hand-press period, so different from the way books are made in our age of e-publishing and cheap paperbacks.


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