It’s week two of our Social Life of Books class, and the university’s archives were calling once again. This time, we were on a mission; having covered a brief introduction to bibliography, everyone in the class was asked to identify certain traits of a book’s beginnings and figure out the format in which it was made. With that goal in mind, my partner Mary Haynes and I each grabbed a book and went to work.

I decided to use the oldest book in the Montevallo archives, which we identified last week:  The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 3rd ed. with sculptures. Published 1702. You can read more about this book in my first post here.



The first thing I noticed was the surpisingly recent binding for such an old book. I quickly discovered that this book was rebound by C.F. Rothweiler Bookbinding in Zion, Illinois, but the original binding can be seen attached to the new binding. When rebound, the title from the original binding was glued onto the new spine, something common for older books that have been rebound.

Because they simply covered the old binding, there was no effect on the page margins which can often be cut off when the original is not kept. Although it is unfortunate that the original binding fell apart, because it happened I was able to clearly see the 5-stitch bindings. I was interested in how exactly the falling apart; upon further inspection is appeared to have split in three even sections, but there was evidence of smaller spitting happening as well. Mary Haynes and I came to the conclusion that this book was probably bound in smaller sections that were put into three bigger sections, and then finally bound together as a whole.



Right off the bat knew that the paper is laid, not wove. We can tell because with laid paper, you can see the impression of what are called “chainlines”, the wires that this style of paper is pressed against to be formed. Of the visible chainlines, there were mostly horizontal but on pages with images added the vertical wires can be seen as well (see left versus right images below). All of the pages are opened and are trimmed, meaning the edges are cleanly cut without jagged or still folded ends. Unfortunately, I could not find a printer’s watermark despite looking for quite a while.





This is where, in my opinion, things got interesting. Signature are signals that tell printers how the large pages that are all printed at once are supposed to be folded. There were signatures at the bottom of the pages in groups of four. They were denoted by letters of the alphabet, starting with A, and continued until they had to start over with Aa. The interesting part about it was that the signatures were four on, four off. As you can see in the pictures, the pages followed an A1, A2, A3, A4 pattern but then followed by 4 pages without a signature. This has to do with the ultimate format of the book.



Based on the evidence we found (and a little origami on my part), I’ve come to the conclusion that this book was created using an octavo format. Octavo means that, when compiled to be printed, there were 8 “leaves” (front and back pages) formatted per large sheet that went through the printing press. The biggest indicator of this was the signatures and their sets of four. As stated, signatures are used to keep track of how the sheet needs to be folded in order to keep the book pages in order, so it is safe to also assume that each new set of signatures means a new set of pages. If this is the case, that means there would be 8 leaves and 16 pages, hence, octavo format.



When counting pages for format, you cannot include illustrations when it comes to early versions of printing. This is because illustrations were often lino-types or woodcuts and had to be printed on different types of paper and added later. In this book, there were full page illustrations, generally with a blank page on the opposing side. This told me that the illustrations were in fact printed separately and then bound together with the rest of the pages. Unfortunately, it slipped my mind to snap a picture of a whole illustration, but in this picture you can see part of one next to title page.



What caught my attention the most from examining the book was the way the typesetting worked. I knew in theory how it worked, but once I got to see the books up close it was then that the idea of hand-laying each letter became most evident and impressive. The first thing I noticed was actually a misprint in one of the signature series, as you can see in the pictures below.

After that I started looking for mistakes, but then stumbled upon something much more telling of the handmade nature of the book. Apparently when a page used too much of a single letter and the printer would run out, they would substitute other letters to make it work, usually with W’s and V’s as you can also see in the pictures.

Out of everything I found, I think my favorite was something that is a product of the time this book was written. I kept finding all of these works with seemingly random f’s where one would assume s’s would go. Having seen these before but never getting an explanation, we asked the archivist and discovered that back then, the f indicated a long s as opposed to a short s sound.


Overall, this visit was one of my favorite learning experiences that involved a lot of self-discovery. I had no idea that the structure of a book could be so fascinating, and I have a feeling I will never look at book bindings the same again. (Nor will my friends, because I’m a sharer when it comes to fun facts like this.)