A Change of Clothes: The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets - Samuel Johnson, 1781
Brattle Book Shop, Boston. Anyone who's been know it's simply impossible to visit and leave empty-handed. From my perusal of the $5 carts in the parking lot outside the shop yesterday comes this luscious volume from Samuel Johnson's The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets with Critical Observations on their Works, printed and published in London in 1781.
I can't explain how wonderful this book is to have in hand. The 239-year-old paper feels soft, supple, even cool to the touch. The leather is smooth, speckled and worn to nothingness on the edges and corners but... powdery and even a little flexible yet on the spine. It's not hard to see that the title is set on a different piece of leather than what covers the boards, but why would a full leather book be bound with two separate pieces? Closer inspection reveals the rub: a later rebinding, still antiquarian to the present day, slapped right over the top of the original.
As good as the repair was in matching the color of the original leather, a few things distinguish it from the original 18th-century textblock and leather boards. First, we've got the powdery leather. Red rot, as it's referred to by bibliophiles, is the result of toxic atmospheric chemicals present during the tanning process and is a tell-tale marker of post-Industrial era production, at least mid-19th century. The addition, too, of the original publication date stamped on the tail of the spine is of a distinctly 19th and early 20th century design. Harder to see in the photo of the title page is the more modern wove paper flyleaves and pastedowns tipped directly onto the laid paper textblock - another sign of a later reattachment of the original boards.
The boards survive with traces of their age: 18th-century leather bindings almost always feature edge decoration and gilding of some kind, and these elements can still be spied nearly two and a half centuries after this book was first made. The regular cross-hatch marks in the photo above were impressed with a heated brass roll tool (picture a hefty brass pizza-cutter with designs carved on the 'blade'), and a thin gold line can be barely seen tracing the outline of the boards on all three edges.
So what's next? As irreverent as it might sound, I'm looking forward to using this book for our 18th-century historical rebinding coursework this fall at North Bennet Street and to giving it a fresh set of clothes in the same style as it would've worn when it first left the shop 239 years ago. The 19th/20th century repair is itself starting to fall apart; soon the boards will be again at risk of being separated from the textblock for good. The 'modern' endpapers have been adhered directly to the old title page and threaten to tear into the original text as the boards loosen. A full period-conscious rebinding will restore the artifact to its former glory on the outside, more effectively preserve the centuries old print on the inside, and present an all-around truer impression of the journey this book has made. The old bits will be kept alongside the new binding in a custom enclosure to let future holders of the volume know where it has been, and the new outfit the text wears will ensure that those eyes and fingers are many, many generations out from me.
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