Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

The Evolution of the Book

by Bill Johns

The book in its modern form - separate sheets bound along one edge and encased between protective covers - is a development of the middle ages. In that dark age, every book was a valuable work of art, individually copied and illuminated by hand, then bound between boards encrusted with precious metals and jewels. The cost and time involved in producing each copy allowed only the wealthiest and most powerful to possess them. Gradually, as the Middle Ages lightened, an entrepreneurial class emerged with wealth enough to educate their children and to seek the luxuries and amenities of the ruling nobility. By 1450 there existed a larger market for books than hand copyists could fulfill.

The First Printed Books

Demand creates supply so some ingenious printer (maybe Gutenberg, maybe not) invented moveable type. Printing presses already existed. Whole sheet woodcut prints of images and even text were being sold by itinerant street peddlers. But until moveable type was developed, the task of printing an entire book - of laboriously carving the text of every page onto wood blocks - was even more expensive than hand copying. Moveable (and therefore, reusable) type made it possible to set up a page, print it, then reuse the type to set up another page. And that made possible an explosion in the number of books that existed in Europe. It also made possible the broad dissemination of knowledge and political thought which produced the democratic revolution and our popular mass culture of today. If Gutenberg is the Father of Printing, we can also consider him the Great Great ... Grandfather of Democracy.


Books printed from about 1450 to 1500, are referred to as "Incunabula" from the Latin for "cradle." During this period about 35,000 different titles were published! Despite their venerable age, most of them have much less value than you might expect. They deal primarily with obscure theological topics and are written in Latin by even more obscure theologians. Theology is not a hot collecting field, regardless of age. Many Incunabula can be had for a few hundred dollars or even less. This sad fact has led to the heinous crime of "tearorism" - the destruction of books by individuals who sell the separate pages for $50 or $100 each to naive collectors dazzled by the age of the leaf and ignorant of its true value.

The 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries

Printing quickly spread across Europe. By 1500, presses had been established in every major country. By 1530, the first press in the New World was operating in Mexico City. The first American press was established at Cambridge, Massachusetts about 1630.

The early printers were also the publisher of the books they printed. Marketing consisted of word of mouth and an occasional ad in the local newspaper announcing that the pages were available at the print shop. If you appeared at the shop to purchase the book, you were handed a bundle of loose sheets which you took up the street to the Bookbinder. The loose pages came complete with binding instructions but the binder sometimes ignored them, leading to all kinds of interesting variations. All the pictures might be bound at the front before the title page; the table of contents might be bound at the back of the book; the binding instructions might even be bound in. Each buyer specified the type of binding and the decorations to be used so the same book will be found in many different bindings. They were almost always bound in leather with hand-tooled gold leaf decorations along the spine and edges of the boards. The title and author are hand punched onto leather strips, usually of a contrasting color, and glued to the spine. The hand work is apparent - sometimes painfully so. I have a nice book with a spine that reads "the Livs of the Presidents."

The 19th Century - Development Of The Mass Market

From the 15th to 18th centuries, books remained relatively expensive. Gradually, as literacy spread, the demand for books spread too. By the beginning of the 19th century, the demand for books was again outstripping supply. Steam powered presses replaced hand presses making it possible to print hundreds, then thousands of sheets per minute. Machine binding replaced book binders. Mechanical processes replaced hand type setting. All of this drove down the cost of books, making them ever more accessible to the ever growing educated population of America and Europe.

By the 1830s there were newspapers in every town, there were dozens of national circulation periodicals, and a robust book publishing industry. Books from this pre-civil war period are usually machine bound with cloth covers instead of leather with the title printed onto the binding. The boards often have very elaborate florid impressed decorative patterns, highlighted with gold. At this time, book publishers could be found in every significant town. Kingston, Hudson, Albany, Auburn and many other places were major publishing centers.

By the 1860s, bindings had become much plainer, usually cloth, usually gray, sometimes green, with more restrained geometric impressed decoration.

The 1870s saw the introduction of elaborate pictorial images impressed into the boards and spines, usually with gilt highlights.

The 1880s saw many bindings take on an "Eastlake" look to mirror the fashion in furniture and home furnishings. Elaborate floral and geometric designs fill the covers and spines of this era. We also continue to find many pictorial boards.

The 1890s saw a return toward simplicity in binding with simple cloth covers in various subdued colors. You can, without much difficulty, date most books by their covers.

The production of paper to supply the exploding demand for printed material became increasingly difficult. From the earliest days of printing, paper had been produced from vegetable fibers such as linen, cotton, hemp, and flax. Plant fiber was collected from textile mills and from recycled paper and fabric. By the 1860s paper manufacturers began to introduce wood fiber into the process. By the 1880s, most paper was composed almost entirely of wood pulp. Unfortunately, wood pulp, unlike plant fibers, contains acids which, over decades, eat away at the paper, turning it brown and brittle and eventually leaving it a mass of powder. You can pick up an Incunabula from 1470 or a newspaper from 1830 and find the paper as supple and strong as the day it was made. But if you pick up an 1881 newspaper, be prepared to have it disintegrate in your hands. The deterioration can be minimized by keep your books cool and dry. Never store your books and paper in the attic or the basement, and keep them out of direct sunlight.

Wood pulp paper is a disaster for the twenty-first century but it was a miracle for the nineteenth. The price of paper plummeted. Therefore the price of books, magazines, newspapers also plummeted. The price of a newspaper dropped from a nickel to a penny, spawning the "Penny Press." The "Dime Novel" emerged as a wildly popular form of entertainment. Reprint publishers churned out millions of copies of classic (and not so classic) works - "The Alva Editions" for example - which constitute the paperbacks of their era. Don't be fooled by their age and distinguished authors. These reprint editions are, today, virtually worthless.

The 20th Century

This century opened with a booming publishing industry. The focus was no longer on a small educated elite but rather on the great masses. This "popular culture" produced a whole new category of magazine. Frank Munsey, a marginally successful publisher of a mainstream general interest magazine, decided to shift to all fiction, eliminate the elaborate photography, use cheap wood pulp paper, and cut his price from a quarter to a dime. The result was an immediate success. Thus began the era of the "pulp" magazines.

The turn of the century also saw another innovation - the dust jacket. At first the "dj" was printed on plain paper and intended simply to keep the cloth cover from getting damaged before you put the book on your shelf. People threw them out as soon as they got the books home. Soon, publishers realized the marketing potential of the dj and began to print full color pictures on the jacket. By the 1930s, the jacket had become a major art work in its own right. Book collectors today place a very high value on a pristine dj.

1939 saw another revolution in publishing. Ten best sellers were printed in a small format that would fit into your pocket or purse. They had paper covers and were priced at a quarter each. The print runs were small, 2,500 copies of each title and they were sold at stores such as Macy's in NYC during the Christmas season. They sold out almost instantly, and the "Pocket Book" was born. (Today, individual copies of these first ten books are worth about $1,500 each.)

Also in the 1930s, the first Book Clubs were organized. Initially, book clubs bought publisher overruns and sold them to their members at discount. Then they began ordering copies before publication to allow larger print runs. Then they began printing copies themselves on cheaper paper with cheaper bindings. The bias against book club editions among collectors stems from the fact that the copies are either overruns or poorly printed. But, as any book collector or seller can attest, the clubs were enormously successful and brought thousands of important titles into millions of American homes.

Today, the pervasiveness of television, the decline of literacy, the explosion in production costs, and the ongoing computer revolution, have all put severe strain on the publishing industry. As we close the 20th Century, we have to wonder if there will be a book industry in the next Millennium.

The New Millennium

Perhaps the phenomena most driving the shift toward electronic publishing is the exploding prices for books. With new novels costing $32.95, with a majority of that cost tied up in production and sale of the copy, and with only a couple dollars actually getting back to the author, it's obvious that there is an opportunity for alternative publishing. Authors have always sought to cut out the publisher and sell directly to the public. Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs both tried self-publishing (with only limited success - it's not as simple as it seems.) The internet allows them a whole new approach. Authors can post the text of their next blockbuster on a web site - or For only $6.95 you can download the text of "A Connecticut Yankee Surfs the Web" or "Tarzan vs. the Microsoft Monster" onto your computer. You save $20.00; the author makes three times what the publisher would have paid; and the publisher is left out in the cold.

But wait. There are problems with this scenario. I'm not sure I want to sit in front of my computer for a hundred hours or so to read "The Stand" or "The Hunt for Red October." And I certainly don't want to have to carry my laptop into the bathroom with me. So maybe there is a future for the book after all. But one thing is certain; technology marches on. Stay tuned.

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