This spring I had the good fortune to participate in a North Bennet Street School workshop in Boston on scaleboard bindings taught by Julia Miller, as well as attend the accompanying lecture, co-sponsored by North Bennet and the New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers.
Julia Miller’s book, Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings (The Legacy Press, 2010) covered her research on historic bookbindings, including scaleboard. She is currently working on a typology of scaleboard bindings, collecting evidence on its technique and use through her examination of hundreds of these volumes.
Scaleboard is very thin wood, used as boards in the bindings of smaller books particularly in America from about the late 17th to early 19th century. Sometimes these texts were sewn onto supports, and other times the pages were stabbed together. In Julia’s research, the supports were most often tawed skin, with a leather thong or cloth tape also used in some volumes. She found a few occasions where both sewing and stabbing occurred in a single volume, however as this was unusual she believes it to be the result of a repair, rather than original binding work. Notching of the spine (in preparation for sewing) was widely noted in the volumes even when books were stabbed, indicating books were likely prepped for sewing prior to a final decision on the binding method. Covering material pasted over the boards could be paper, or leather, or a combination of the two, in quarter-style for example. Blue or marbled paper was common. In the books examined by Julia, those in the earlier period (1680s through 1740s) were all in full leather, usually sheepskin, though sometimes goatskin.
|In the workshop we constructed two models: a stabbed quarter leather model (left) and a full leather cover sewn on tawed cords (right).|
On each of my models I left half of a board pastedown unattached, to be able to view the construction and materials.
|The full leather model was sewn on tawed thongs, which on the front were then brought to the cover and pasted down. The notches are visible here, particularly at the head.|
|On the back of the full leather model, a piece of paper waste was used as a board liner and the boards were laced in.|
Besides the construction of models, a hands-on exercise on identification, and an examination of numerous examples of scaleboard bindings, our workshop group also discussed conservation issues surrounding these books. Since there were a number of conservators, helpful suggestions were put forward. In some collections conservators are boxing these books, making very minimal repairs (the consolidation of torn papers or stabilization of broken or weak hinges for example) if any, in order to retain as much of the original binding as possible.
One approach to repairing a loose or broken board, shared by both Julia and by Irina Gorstein, and attributed to Pam Spitzmueller, was to use Ramieband as a support and attachment. Weaving this very thin tape through the stabbed slits and then pasting them onto the interior of the boards can reattach a broken board or strengthen a weak joint. This interested me greatly, as I had a book back at the lab with this problem!
|Our volume (pictured from the front).|
The title page reads:
AMERICAN COOKERY: OR, THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY, AND VEGETABLES. AND THE BEST MODE OF MAKING PUFF PASTES, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS AND PRESERVES. AND ALL KINDS OF CAKES, FROM TRE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKE. Adapted to this country and all grades of life. BY AN AMERICAN ORPHAN, Walpole, NH, Printed for Elijah Brooks, 1812.
(Amelia Simmons is the “American Orphan” according to the cataloging information.)
|This small volume’s back board was completely off, as pictured here.|
The front board was hanging on by the upper thong only. This book was bound with full marbled paper over scaleboards and two leather thongs attaching the text together. Whether there is any sewing in addition to the stabbed thongs is unclear from my examination. It looks like there is a notch on the spine toward the head of the volume, which may indicate a kettle stitch, but I can’t be sure. I learned that often the texts were notched regardless if these holes were used for sewing.
Gently probing with my tiny Casselli knife, I discovered the stabbed slits were open all the way through the text block and boards. This meant I could weave Ramieband through them to stabilize the covers.
|Here is the lower stabbing on the front of the book where I have inserted a piece of Ramieband. The top tape piece will be moved under the board (where there is a break) to the inside of the cover.|
After inserting the new tapes, I trimmed and splayed out the ends, attaching them with paste to the inside of the boards. On the front board, I could insert the ends under a loose pastedown. On the back, the pastedown was well secured to the board, so I chose to attach the new tape directly on top of the pastedown. While the repair is visible there, it blends in somewhat, and I didn’t risk causing any new damage.
|The interior of the back board after attachment.|
Now both boards function as they should, in addition to protecting the textblock. This treatment repaired the board attachment and added strength, while what existed of the original binding remains. The exterior looks just as it did before treatment, except the boards are now secured.
It’s very satisfying to put into practice a new technique immediately after being introduced to it. I suspect more scaleboard bindings will some day make their way through the conservation lab here, due to the history of the binding and the makeup of our collections. When they do, we’ll be ready!
 This section is based on workshop notes and an e-mail from Julia Miller in May of 2012. I am grateful for her work on scaleboard bindings, and thank her for sharing that research and clarifying my understanding.
Written by Stephanie Wolff.