Thread, paper, needle
When early Jesuits such as Father Claude Dablon and Father Claude-Jean Allouez travelled to what is now Michigan, they recorded their journeys in hand bound books.
These journals recorded their observations and encounters during their travels, enough for Dablon to produce many reports in “Jesuit Relations,” a yearly publication that chronicled the Jesuit missionaries’ work in New France.
Along with religious texts, the French missionaries could have been carrying quite an armful of bound books as a primary part of their luggage.
Although we refer to the early history of our region being recorded in books, the structure and form of those actual volumes is largely ignored. How were these early volumes bound? What materials were used?
Someone made the journals that the Jesuits were traveling with in the 1600s; no ready-made version was available to them yet. A book would have to be sturdy to avoid quick ruin if dropped from a canoe, packed carelessly, or stepped on.
Well known for their fastidious keeping of records while traveling, young Jesuit priests would hope for a volume of strong yet thin flax paper pages, folded and sewn in groupings called signatures. The signatures’ sewn side became the spine side of a text block, then bound into the case of leather spine and covers.
To have a book bound, not merely cased in with hide glue, the covers would need to be attached to linen tapes that are sewed to the folded signatures of the journal, ensuring its strength.
Thousands of repeated openings and closings of a book require a secure yet comfortably roomy sewing style, achieved by becoming familiar with the materials in use.
Linen bookbinding thread, flax pages, and a leather cover either soft or hard bound, can last for many lifetimes.
The Jesuit writers valued these hand bound volumes, especially those they used in their everyday scholarship and shared with their fellow society.
This is laid out in a palm sized book, “Rules of Society of Jesus,” published 1863. Rule number eight states “No one must have books without leave; and in those which he has for his use, he must not write anything or make any mark.”
Differentiated so from their journals or diaries, these published books were tools for their learning and teaching and treated essentially as art, and cared for in this fashion.
At the history center, we have just enjoyed a summer long exhibit of heritage arts. This exhibit included many hand bound books. Among a crude scrapbook with a wooden cover and an impeccable letterpress limited edition volume made with custom handmade paper covers and inset artwork, we also displayed modern book art pieces. These were created by local book binding artists Amber Edmondson and Raja Howe as well as by myself.
Edmondson hand prints her own paper with unique designs before using it for the covers of her Drum Leaf Binding books, or her Reverse Piano Hinge bound volumes. The seemingly endless variations of bookbinding structures determine how a book functions in hand or on the desk.
When working the Heritage Crafts Exhibit it was fascinating to see that young children, while intrigued by the modern books, were drawn to the oldest book in the display.
The structure of this book is in terrible shape visually, yet it still has a good amount of structural integrity, holding the pages together well when opened and closed.
The oldest book in our library collection, titled “La beata incoronata del mutio justinopolitano,” this Italian book in its original binding dates to 1585.
It very well could have been the shrinking vellum cover that attracted the young folks viewing this exhibit. The unsized lamb or calf skin is curled and buckled, giving a certain animal quality to this volume.
The anonymous bookbinder that bound this artifact 430 years ago created a piece that curiously ended up in the minds of many visitors this summer.
If you have a curiosity about how pages are sewn into covers, whether you expect that book to go on a canoe journey or end up in a museum, look into one of our last two Heritage Crafts Series workshops this week.
I will teach Exposed Stitch Bookbinding, covering two structures, on Saturday at the Marquette Regional History Center.
For more information call 906-226-3571 or visit www.marquettehistory.org.