A Brief Primer on Bookmaking: With an Emphasis on 19th Century Advancements

19th century publishers sought new ways to make their books distinctive from others, yet uniform in style and production, and cost effective for the publisher and buyer. Developing new binding and decorating styles contributed to the advancement of book production, while appealing to Victorian sensibilities, attracting a diverse readership.

Printing the Book
Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a printing press, to allow many copies to be produced at a time.  Movable type is set and inked, and as paper passes through the press, creates an impression. Letterpress printing can be done with metal type, wood type, stereotypes and electrotypes.

Manual typesetting requires each page be set by hand.  Each symbol, called a “sort,” was composed into words, then lines, then paragraphs, then pages of text placed together to make a “form,” with all letter faces at the same height, to create an even surface of type.

Stereotype and Electrotype
Stereotypes are thin metal plates cast from regular type. A plaster cast is made from a set page of metal type, and hot metal is poured in the mold, creating a printable plane.

Electrotyping is similar to stereotyping, using a mold of standing type for generating a replica plate. A soft mold of wax is made from the relief surface of the type metal, coated in graphite and submerged in a bath with a copper rod. When the bath is electrified, the copper is attracted to the graphite surface of the mold, creating a hardened surface of copper, which is then reinforced with type metal.

Illustrating the Book
Illustrated books were extremely popular throughout the 19th century. Artists and printers revived and refined illustration techniques and developed new methods for producing prints. There were three processes that defined the period: wood engraving, steel engraving, and lithography. New processes and improved techniques allowed illustrations to be produced faster and in greater numbers.


Engraving of Frederick Douglass by Auburn artist J. Chester Buttre




Binding the Book
Prior to the 19th century, books were bound by lacing the text block to a front and back board, then covered with leather, cloth, or paper. Decoration could only be completed once the book had been bound. Some early books were sold without covers, and the purchaser could take it to his personal binder to have it match his collection.

In the 19th century, binders looked to mechanization to streamline the process. Binders developed case bindings, a complete front and back cover united by a spine, into which the text block could be glued. Case bindings could be decorated prior to attachment, speeding up the process of binding. Books began to be sold with the covers already bound on.

For much of the history of books, paper had been the limiting factor in production. Paper was expensive to produce from linen and cotton rags, and had to be made one sheet at a time using a hand-held paper mold.

Papermakers in the 19th century tackled these problems with two different innovations: papermaking machines and wood-pulp paper. Machines replaced the paper mold as the primary technology for producing paper, allowing large, continuous rolls of paper to be produced in a process that was almost entirely automated. Paper could be made faster, and at larger sizes than ever before.

The use of wood, straw and other materials in paper pulp significantly reduced the cost of making paper. Presses became larger and more automated as the century went on, and advancements in steam power made possible presses capable of mass production.